Some years back, when my kids were just learning to read, I also started reading the fairytales again. It was a real discovery, while journeying across the halcyon years of childhood! You simply discover that, after so many years of surviving in a grown-up world, the child within you, with all its pristine curiosity, has not gone anywhere! It just plays hide and seek with those mindful responsibilities, and then reappears with its innocent best!
While taking a rearward journey into my childhood curiosity, it suddenly came into my thought, after all, who are they, who wrote all these fairytales?
The available storybooks were silent on the fact.
As if, fairytales are just fairytales, appeared out of nowhere, and no one has ever wrote them!
But, how it is possible!
After all, we know some of the names, already.
Don’t we know about Aesop, the 600 BC ancient Greek fabulist credited with a large number of fables collectively known now as Aesop’s Fables?
India has its own, Panchatantra, attributed to Vishnu Sharma, who lived sometime in 3rd century BC!
Then there are the Hitopadesha tales, narrated by an author Narayana, in the patronage of ancient Indian king Dhavalachandra.
In modern, or before -modern times, we have Grimm Brothers. Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (born January 4, 1785), and Wilhelm Carl Grimm (born February 24, 1786), in Hanau, Germany. Who will forget stories by them, ‘Little Snow White’, ‘Hänsel and Grethel’, ‘The Frog King’,’ Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Rapunzel’, or ‘Tom Thumb’!
Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th century Danish story teller, whose ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Thumbelina’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘Tin Soldier’ have inspired our foreparents as well as my kids, and myself alike.
The Russian folklore compiler and writer Alexander Afanasyev (1826-1871), who gave us some of the immortal stories like, ‘The Wolf and the Goat’, ‘The Swan-Geese’ and ‘The Three Kingdoms’
The Florentine writer and fabulist Carlo Lorenzini (1826 –1890), better known as Carlo Collodi, who has gifted us, the all time favourite fairytale, ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’.
The folklorists will also tell about Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, the 17th century, (1651–1705) French author of fairy tales. When she termed her works ‘contes de fées’ (fairy tales), she originated the term ‘contes’ that is now generally used for these kind of stories.
Her most popular works were her fairy tales as told in Les Contes des Fees (Tales of fairies) and Contes Nouveaux, and Les Fées à la Mode. Unlike the folk tales of the Grimm Brothers, who were born some 135 years later than d’Aulnoy, she told her stories in a more conversational style, as they might be told for generations.
Joseph Jacobs, the 19th century’s Australia born English writer and folklorist published several collections of English fairy tales. His versions of famous English fairy tales :The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Bean Stalk, The Sea-Maiden, Goldilocks and the Three Bears are some of the well-known and most loved fairytales today.
In fact, Jacobs was a known theologist and religious writer, but he searched, researched, compiled and rewritten the long forgotten English and Celtic folklores, because he wished that the English children should have access to real English fairy tales. They were so far reading French and German tales in translation.
But the fascinating story of the fairytales will not be completed, if we do not mention the name of Charles Perrault, on whose 388th birthday, 12 January last, Google’s doodle paid a fitting tribute and remembered the 17 century French author and collector of all time favourite fairytales such as Cinderella, Mother Goose and Sleeping Beauty!
Charles Perrault: The Pied Piper Of Modern Fairytales
Charles Perrault (1628-1703) was the seventeenth century French poet and writer. He is best known today for his collection of fairytales published in 1697 under the title ‘Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé’(Tales and Stories of the Past).
We know about his life mainly through his memoirs, which he wrote for his grandchildren, but which were not published till sixty-six years after his death. Though he wrote at length about his public life, Perrault was reticent about his personal life, and we know very little about his family, life and his children.
Perrault was born in Paris in the year 1628, the fifth son of Pierre Perrault, a wealthy lawyer. At the age of nine, he was sent to a day school, the Collège de Beauvais. Though always topped his class, Perrault’s school career came to a premature end when he disagreed with his teacher, questioning him on a certain point of philosophy. The young Perrault bid his teacher a formal farewell and walked out of school, never to return again!
However, In 1651, he took a degree from the University of Orléans. He followed many random careers, including medicine, theology and law, but in his usual fashion, each of which he had left. He then started working in the office of his brother Pierre, who was then the Chief Commissioner of Taxes in Paris.
Here, Perrault had little to do except to use his brother’s vast library. In order to do something useful, he started to write poetry, an activity he had been very fond of as a boy. His poems however became popular.
Perrault now turned his attention to architecture. In the year 1657 he designed a house for his brother. The Minister, Colbert, who was also France’s Superintendent of Buildings, was so impressed by Perrault’s work that he employed him to supervise the royal buildings, and put him in charge of ‘Versailles’, which was then in the process of construction.
Perrault engaged himself enthusiastically in his work, but also kept up his interests: He wrote odes in honour of the King, designed artifacts and made decorative paintings, and you won’t believe, he even found time to support musicians and supported the famous composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. He also worked with his brother Claude to found the Academy of Sciences!
Perrault was then fifty-five years of age.
Perrault’s interest from active public service was by then diminished and it marked the beginning of his period of greatest literary activity. He wrote and published several poems and other literary works, most of which are now forgotten. Between 1691 and 1697 he compiled his immortal Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Stories or Tales from Time Past) and the Contes en Vers (Tales in Verse), the fairytales for which he is known for ever.
The pithily written tales became an instant hit and big success and established Perrault’s literary credential. Tales such as “Cinderella”, “Puss ‘n Boots,” “Tom Thumb,” and “Bluebeard” which had been narrated in the oral folk tradition for centuries, they now became written texts to be put into circulation and enjoyed among the bourgeoisie and nobility, both old and young alike.
Fairy tales were a genre that had been popular in women’s salons since the mid-1680s too, practiced by such writers as Mme Catherine d’Aulnoy (1650–1705), Mlle Catherine Bernard (1662–1712), and Perrault’s niece, Mlle Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier (1664–1734). Perrault used the tales’ popularity to present stories that expressed his own literary premise and savour.
By their origin the tales are not part of the Greco-Roman tradition, and their subject matter of fairies, ogres, and magical objects removes them from the mythology of classical antiquity.
Although he refused the canon of acceptable textual models, Perrault’s approach followed many of the tenets of French classicism in that he did not invent his material (with the exception of “Little Red Riding Hood”), and he expressed himself with an economy of language and stylistic devices. The role of magic in the tales is often minimal, and greater emphasis is attributed on human nature and social conduct, both good and bad.
The book ‘Les Contes du Temps Passé’ contained eight tales: a Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods), Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding-Hood) La Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard), Le Maistre Chat, ou le Chat Botté (The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots), Les Fées (The Fairy), Cendrillon, ou la Petite Pantoufle de Verre (Cinderilla, or The Little Glass Slipper), Riquet à la Houppe (Riquet with the Tuft), and Le Petit Poucet (Little Thumb, or Tom Thumb).
‘Les Contes du Temps Passé’ was an instant hit, spawning a dozens of imitators, so that writing fairy tales became quite the rage in France.
The stories soon crossed the Channel to England, and a translation by Robert Samber was advertised in the year 1729.
Apart from his versatile nature and deep observance of life around, Perrault was a pioneer of storytelling because he put the age old anecdotes and folklores in the modern written form, something that was not easy or a common thing at that time.
His tales appear as a nice amalgamation of both the oral and the literary traditions, of classical as well as anticlassical dynamism. These contending tendencies added verve and curiosity to the Perrault versions of retelling the age old stories.
No doubt, Perrault inherited basic plots and the familiar opening of the stories with: “once upon a time” (il était une fois) from traditional way of telling stories, but modernised them with both stylish trappings and putting them into lucid writing.
And even though the events are set “once upon a time” in a fictive land where animals talk and fairy godmothers wave magic wands, the tales are filled with references to seventeenth-century life and satiric commentaries on contemporary society. Perrault retained enough elements of archaic language, repetition, dialogue and dramatic tension to convey a sense of the oral tradition in his sparse, simplified narration.
Ultimately, the publication of the tales ushered in the modern novel writing technique: they obviously followed Don Quixote or La Princesse de Clèves, but came before Robinson Crusoe and Tom Jones.
Unlike German Grimm Brothers, though Charles Perrault’s name remains generally unrecognizable in outside world, though the fairy tales narrated by him remains extremely popular, till today. His stories first published in 1697 as the Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of The Past) are anything but incomparable.
Characters Perrault immortalised stories such as Cinderella with the glass slippers, the beauty who sleeps one hundred years, and the puss in boots, were destined for centuries of translation and revival. These stories were there in different semblance in older folklore traditions, but he did create many of the particularities of the stories as we know them today.
Now, we know these titles of his stories in English, not in French particularly and, in that sense, we are familiar not with Perrault’s stories as original French , but as English…a tradition of English translation, that has began in 1729.
Google has regenerated an interest in Charles Perrault, in his name, in the stories that were never forgotten.
In important Libraries such as the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Princeton University’s Cotsen Chidren’s Library, the Pierpont Morgan Library, Toronto Library, and the British Library , there are myriad eighteenth-century editions of such tales: large, small, significant and insignificant.
Pirated French editions of Perrault’s tales in Amsterdam and rapid-fire translations from London rolled off the presses every few years. And the trend has never ended.
Woodcutters traditionally carved variations of earlier images for their publishers, leaving posterity with dozens of illustrations of stories credited to Perrault. If France had somehow abandoned her native son in the early years of the century, French-speaking publishers in Amsterdam and their keen British counterparts paid the master story teller a glorious tribute always.
Times have changed. Perspectives, milieu, choices and social context, everything…but even after three and half centuries and more ….the master fabulist and his tales remain popular as ever. Every new generation would be eager to be familiar with the characters and the narrations, Perrault had once created.
By Deep Basu
Images are author’s self-contribution.