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The enduring power of fairytales

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May 1st is Mother Goose Day, the folklore figure that is synonymous with folk tales and nursery rhymes. But who was she? Though her origins are shrouded in mystery—one popular legend holds that she was a grandmother living in 18th century Boston, but references to a “mere l’oye” were recorded a century earlier in France—her popularity has never waned.

Most historians now agree that Mother Goose was not a real person, but despite this Elizabeth Goose’s gravestone is a popular Boston attraction. However, the best known version of Mother Goose is from Charles Perrault’s 1679 book of stories entitled Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oie (“Tales of My Mother Goose”), which included such familiar tales as “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” and “Puss in Boots.” Our favorite at the Grammarly offices is “Toads and Diamonds,” a tale about an enchantress who enchants two sisters, one cruel and one kind, so that when they speak creepy-crawlies and gemstones, respectively, fall from their lips.

Unlike the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, Perrault’s stories were original literary tales. According to Joan Acocella, writing for The New Yorker, “To align the tale with the hearthside tradition, the author may also employ a certain naïveté of style,” hence Perrault’s choice to use Mother Goose as a narrator.

Since then, countless versions of these classic tales have been told, retold, deconstructed, reconstructed, and reimagined. As Hannah Gomez, a young adult librarian, points out on the YALSA blog, “creators take the skeletons and re-dress them, placing them in exotic locales or modern settings, gender swapping them, satirizing them… But what’s really great about looking at a fairy tale adaptation isn’t seeing Cinderella in a kimono instead of a ball gown. It’s seeing what tiny piece of the fairy tale the adapter wanted to point out, what thing they saw as relevant to their life and time, what they saw as fascinating or troubling.”

From Disney’s sanitized animated films—in the original version of “Cinderella,” for example, the stepsisters slice off parts of their feet to fit into to the slipper—to the TV series Once Upon a Time and Grimm, something about these stories sticks with us and makes us constantly revisit their familiar tropes.

Is it the beautiful princesses? The horrific violence? (Seriously, the original versions of fairytales were dark.) Young adult author Deva Fagan posits that fantasy actually has a profound and lasting message:I believe that the fantastical can teach us just as much about life and the world as gritty realism. That it can help us learn to be better people, allow us to explore injustice and cruelty and beauty and hope. That fantasy can teach us about the real world.

“Cinderella” teaches us that goodness, patience, and hard work will be rewarded, while jealousy and laziness will be punished. “Little Red Riding Hood” teaches us not to stray from the path, and “Bluebeard” teaches us…not to look behind certain doors? Like the modern-day police procedural, the original fairytales warned children about the threat of violent death lurking around every corner. As the darker elements were stripped away over the centuries, the elements that remained are universal: love, loyalty, and the triumph of good over evil.

Neil Gaiman, whose modern fairytales such as Coraline and Stardust, wrote: "Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

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