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Old Wives Tales: Women’s Fairy Tale Art and Literature

By Terri Windling

“There exists a European convention of an archetypal female storyteller, ‘Mother Goose’ in English, ‘Ma Mere l’Oie’ in French, an old woman sitting by thefireside . . . . Obviously, it was Mother Goose who invented all the ‘old wives’ tales,’ even if old wives of any sex can participate in this endless recycling process, when anyone can pick up a tale and make it over. Old wives’ tales — that is, worthless stories, untruths, trivial gossip, a derisive label that allots the art of storytelling to women at the exact same time that it takes all value from it.”-— Angela Carter

Many scholars over the last century have attempted to define why fairy tales and magical stories can be found in virtually every culture around the globe. Some scholars view magical tales as pre–scientific attempts to explain the workings of the universe; others see in them remnants of pagan religions or tribal initiation rites; still others dissect them for symbolic portrayals of feminist or class history. The most fascinating thing about fairy tales is that there is some truth in all these different views. There are many ways to interpret the old tales, whether as allegory or metaphor, as art or simple entertainment. No single deconstruction of a fairy tale is “correct,” no single version of a tale is the “true” one. The old tales exist in many different forms, changing and adapting from culture to culture, from generation to generation. The tales themselves are shape–shifters: elusive, mysterious, mutable, capable of wearing many different forms. This fact is at the core of their power, and is the source of their longevity. It is also what makes them such useful tools for women artists, writers, and storytellers.

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