Who is Mother Goose?

Some books I enjoyed as a small child involved no magic or magical creatures, and are set in a world identifiable as our own. But one of my earliest childhood literary memories, Mother Goose, takes us right to the heart of fairy tale territory.

Cover of The Complete Collection of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes (Applesauce Press, 2018).

On reflection, I had conflicting memories of the cover and content of what I imagined as Mother Goose, so I was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, if not the garden. Was my memory unreliable, or was there more than one Mother Goose? What exactly is a literary “fairy tale”? And who was Mother Goose?

The fine gossamer-winged creatures we often associate with fairies are a product of nineteenth-century writers and twentieth-century films. Earlier tales of fairies, or “changelings,” are often quite malevolent. They take human lovers, steal children (often substituting changelings, as depicted in the television series Outlander, season one, episode ten), lead humans astray, steal, invisibly perform tasks, transform food, reward assistance, and play pranks.

Their actions often begin in our world but seem to proceed in a world detached from ours in time and space. They subvert belief, and readers are not expected to consider the story to be true – in contrast to much myth and fantasy. 

Origins of the fairy tale

In the 1600s there was arguably no prose writing we would clearly recognise as children’s literature. The term “fairy tale” first appeared in 1697, in a book published by French writer and poet Charles Perrault (1628-1703). Most of the tales in his Histoires on contes du temps passé (Stories and Tales of Past Times) are immediately recognisable to twenty-first century readers by their titles alone: Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Cinderella, Little Tom Thumb, Riquet with the Tuft, Puss-in-Boots, and The Fairies. The latter is a modern version of a tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE).

The frontispiece of Perrault’s Histoires depicts three children listening to a nurse telling tales by firelight. She holds a distaff – a stick on which wool or flax is wound for spinning –  and may be said to represent all motherly, working-class storytellers, ‘old wives,’ and gossips who spin fairy tales. 

When released in 1697, Perrault’s tales were seen as innovative. Many were simple stories with limited character development, and lacked the romantic plot typical of more traditional tales. Some of his stories transformed existing folk motifs and literary themes, and sought to address the new moral and social challenges of the so-called Age of Reason. 

Within a year another book was published by French noblewoman Henriette Murat (1670-1716), titled Contes de Fées (Fairy Tales), followed by another, Les Nouveaux Contes de Fées (also 1698), and a third volume, Histoires Sublimes et Allegoriques(Sublime and Allegorical Stories, 1699). Each contained several stories retelling traditional French folklore combined with elements of Greek and Roman mythology. These found their way into English translation as “fairy tales” by 1724. 

Enter Mother Goose

But what has all this to do with Mother Goose? An adaptation of Perrault’s tales allegedly appeared in Boston in 1719, by Thomas Fleet, titled Songs for the Nursery or, Mother Goose Melodies for Children. These were said to have come from verses known by Fleet’s mother-in-law, Mrs Elizabeth Goose, but no copy of the collection has ever been found.

The official English translation of Perrault’s Histoires, by Robert Samber, was titled Histories or Tales of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose (1729). A later publisher, John Newbery, extracted nursery rhymes from Samber’s edition and released them as Mother Goose’s Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle (c.1765). By 1768, Newbury’s son Francis and stepson Thomas Carnan were publishing a version of Perrault’s stories under the title Mother Goose’s Tales.

In the nineteenth century, the phrase “Mother Goose” became synonymous with nursery rhymes generally, including “Peter Pumpkin Eater,” and “Old King Cole.” Another popular nineteenth-century rhyme was “Old Mother Goose and the Golden Egg.” Various “Mother Goose” anthologies were published.

Around 1825, Boston’s Munroe and Francis published Mother Goose’s Quarto, and followed this in 1833 with Mother Goose’s Melodies. These appear to have cemented the term “Mother Goose rhyme” as equivalent to “nursery rhyme in the American psyche. Frank L. Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first came to attention as a children’s writer with a collection of original rhymes titled, Father Goose, His Book (1899). 

Thus the imaginary Mother Goose became identified as the author, source or leading character of many nursery rhymes circulating in English. She is often depicted on the cover of nursery rhyme books as an old woman in a shawl, wearing a hat, and seated on a flying goose, reins in one hand and a stick, perhaps a distaff, in the other. The term has a counterpart in the German Fru Gosen. There may also be a link with the satire published in 1590 by poet Edmund Spencer, titled Mother Hubbard’s Tale.

For me, as a small child, it turns out that “Mother Goose” referred to two quite different books. The first is a substantial tome edited by British illustrator Walter Crane (1845-1915), titled Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, with no less than 297 illustrations, first published in 1877 by Sahara Books. The second is a Little Golden Book titled Mother Goose and Other Nursery Rhymes – one of the twelve original Little Golden Books published in 1942, although I had a later edition.

On the cover of the first is an old woman perched on the back of a flying goose; the cover of my edition of the second shows a goose in a pink bonnet watching over a golden egg, admired by two small children in traditional European dress. 

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, bush walking, and reading a good bookThis is an extract from a larger writing project he is working on, just for fun, during this year’s pandemic lockdown.

Image credit: Simon & Schuster

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