A sting in the tale

Cinderella

An illustration from 'Cinderella' by Charles Perrault

Long before the fantastic tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson there lived a French author who many consider to be the founder of the fairy tale genre.

In 1697, at the tender age of 67, Charles Perrault published a small work entitled Stories or Tales of Past Times, with Morals (Tales of Mother Goose). Drawing on many of the popular European folk tales of the time, it featured eight stories, including Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Cinderella and Tom Thumb.

Having been previously mocked by his literary peers for his religious poetry, Perrault officially published the collection of tales under the name of his teenage son, Pierre, for fear of further embarrassment. But Perrault needn’t have worried – his book was an instant hit, becoming the foundation work of the fairy tale genre.

His stories have been adapted into operas, ballets, plays, musicals and films, and they were a huge influence on Walt Disney and the development of his animated fairy tales.

Little Red Riding Hood

An illustration for Perrault's 'Little Red Riding Hood' from 'Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals' (1697), by Gustave Doré

But you may not recognise Perrault’s stories in the versions you see today. In his Sleeping Beauty, for instance, after the princess awakens, the mother of the Prince becomes an ogre who attempts to eat her grandchildren and our heroine! And at the end of Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, Red and her grandmother are both eaten “right up”.

The later adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood by the Brothers Grimm shies away from the gruesome ending by introducing a woodsman who conveniently happens by and cuts our young heroine and her grandmother – still whole and unbitten! – from the belly of the wolf.

But Perrault wasn’t being unnecessarily misanthropic – he was merely capturing the tales of his time, which were often shared among older audiences. With today’s focus on fairy tales as children’s entertainment, is it any wonder that the version with a happy ending is the one that prevails?

You can see where the fairy tale genre began, with two film adaptations of Perrault’s original stories, Tom Thumb and The Sleeping Beauty, screening at ACMI on Sundays until April 24. Note: these films, like Perrault’s original tales, are definitely suited to slightly older audiences!

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