Anyone who’s visited Google’s page today will have seen that they have dedicated their Doodle to Charles Perrault, the oft-cited father of the modern fairy tale. Had he been a character in his own fairy tale, he might be celebrating his 388th birthday. However, he was a real person and subject to nature’s laws so we have to make do with remembering his life instead.
While many people may have heard of Charles Perrault, his name is not necessarily the first that springs to mind when you talk about fairy tales. Instead, that honour goes to the Brothers Grimm, who came around 200 years later and who used Perrault’s texts, including popular tales as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Blue Beard and Sleeping Beauty as a basis for their own. Perrault wasn’t the author of those tales – they were circulating orally before his time – but he did set them down on paper for readers to enjoy.
Be warned, though: his version of these classic tales are not the sanitised stories we read today. Fairy tales came into existence to entertain and also to instruct – the gruesome fates that often befell the main protagonists were warnings for the unwary. Alongside their parents, children would have listened to tales that probably would be rated 18+ at the cinema nowadays. The wolf in Red Riding Hood, for example, is a man who targets little girls wandering alone in the woods against their mothers’ permission, while unknowing Sleeping Beauty shares her bed with a series of men who take advantage of her sleeping sickness.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the sordid nature of the tales, they were fantastically popular and were translated into English for our ancestors’ enjoyment. Still, I can’t imagine reading his versions to any of the young children I work with now without being fired from my job!
If you can track down the originals, it’s well worth it to see how a fairy tale can change with the passage of time, particularly when critics say that nowadays children are becoming desensitised to violence. The fact that Perrault’s brutal retellings of popular tales can shock us in 2016 shows that perhaps we’re made of more sensitive stuff than our ancestors.