Notes on Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales

I recently read through a few of the popular French fairy tales compiled, written, and re-told by Charles Perrault.

Little Red Riding Hood
Perrault’s tale is about pretty country girl whom everyone calls “little red riding hood” because of her red hood. One day, her mother bakes some girdle cakes to bring to her grandmother who lives on the other side of the forest. While en route, Little Red Riding Hood is stopped by a Gaffer Wolf who has a mind to eat her. He stops himself because of some nearby woodworkers. The Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood agree to visit her grandmother together, both taking separate paths to see who arrives sooner. The Wolf makes it to grandmother’s house first and claims from outside to be Little Red Riding Hood. When she tells him how to get in, the Wolf eats her in her bed. When Little Red Riding Hood arrives, she gets into bed with her grandmother (who is actually the Wolf), and she compliments her grandmother’s arms (the better to hug thee with), legs (the better to run), ears (the better to hear), eyes (the better to see), teeth (the better eat thee up, my dear!). After saying this, the Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood.

It is a cautionary tale for young women to be wary of predatory men.

The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods
Perrault offers a re-telling of the ‘sleeping beauty’ story first published in Italy several hundred years prior. It also appears in the Brothers Grimm collections. It tells the story of a king and queen who finally have a daughter. A group of fairies bring her gifts, but one brings a curse -that if she pricks her finger on a spindle she will die. The king and queen order all the spindles removed, but one is accidentally kept and instead of dying when she pricks her finger, the princess falls into a deep sleep. She is stored in a hidden castle. A hundred years pass and a prince on a hunting campaign discovers the castle and he finds his way inside among the bramble and sleeping castle staff. He kneels before the princess and kisses her, breaking the spell. The two are married, they have two children, and then face an odd conflict with the prince’s ogre-mother in a kind of epilogue.

Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre” (“Cinderella or the little slipper made of glass”) can apparently trace its origins to early Chinese, French, and Italian folklore. It is the familiar and sentimental story of a gentleman who marries a haughty woman, while a widower has a young daughter that she mistreats by forcing her to perform all the household chores. However, when the prince of the region throws a ball for all of the young women, Cinderella is decorated as a princess by her fairy godmother with the promise that she return home by midnight. She attends and captivates the prince, and then attends a second ball the next night before scrambling home just in time but she leaves behind a glass slipper. The prince seeks her out. Cinderella’s two stepsisters try in vain to win over the prince when he arrives at their house, but the slipper only fits Cinderella.

Who is Charles Perrault?
Charles Perrault (1628-1703) is the great French writer of fairy tales. He was born into a wealthy Parisian family. He was appointed as secretary of the newly formed humanities organization Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

In the debate between Ancients and Moderns, Charles Perrault was decidedly a defender of Louix XIV and the Moderns. First, he wrote an essay defending a modern French re-telling of Alceste, against Euripides’s classical tragedy. Then, he wrote a book attempting to showcase the fallibility of the ancients, while raising up the superior, enlightenment perspective of modern France.

In 1695, at the age of 67, Perrault devoted his retirement to his children and he began perfecting the craft of fairy tale writing. Some of them were based on medieval tales, and others were reformulations of Germanic folktales. In one of his collections, Perrault was the first writer of Mother Goose fairy tales. Perrault died in 1703 in France.

Perrault, Charles. The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. June 1, 2009, Project Gutenberg.

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