There are people who are largely unknown but whose work we know.
And then there is Charles Perrault.
You see, Charles is probably the most famous author you’ve never heard of. But you absolutely know his work and the dozens of modern films based on his stories. This Frenchman who was famous for other reasons during his lifetime, died in 1703. He had been a member of the French Academy, the foremost authority on French language usage. Born into money and into a large family, Charles enjoyed the privileges of his upbringing. He studied law, but he used his family’s influence to obtain a high-paying and prestigious governmental position. He then used that position to practice patronage and appointed family members to high places in government as well.
Charles also curried favor with the French Royal Family. Tradition says it was Charles who convinced The Sun King, Louis XIV, to include the ornate fountains at Versailles, each one representing characters/creatures from Aesop’s Fables, who “speak” to each other by spewing water in long jets from one mouth to another. Some say that Charles’s support of Louis was so cloying that he became one of the leading public proponents that the King’s rule was truly a Golden Age of France, greater than any previous kingdom or empire. He argued that modern French literature surpassed any other age of literature in history.
Forced into retirement by political opponents in his mid-50s, Charles decided to turn to writing, to join the generation of French writers of that so-called Golden Age. He wrote some religious biographies, but eventually, Charles turned to French folk tales. His goal was to bring the traditional French stories into the modern vernacular of that day. He also sought to leave a legacy for his children and grandchildren by passing down stories that he had heard when he was a lad in France.
Charles entitled the work Tales and Stories of the Past, but we don’t know it by that name. The subtitle of this book about French folk stories is how we best remember the work: Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye. Among the many tales were stories from the countryside, stories like one about a poor girl who found her prince after losing her slipper, or the one where a sleepy, beautiful girl lived with some little men, or a swashbuckling cat who wore cavalier boots, or the girl who wore a red cape with a hood to visit her grandmother.
We usually translate that subtitle today as Tales of Mother Goose.