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09 May 2011 @ 10:33 am
Mothers in Fairy Tales  

To celebrate Mother's day, I decided to write a post about the mother/child relationship in children fantasy books.

It seemed a good idea until, after looking for examples in my favorite ones, I came to realize mothers are a rare commodity in them, and the loving, nurturing type even more so.

It does make sense, for it's the golden rule of writing a book for children that children must get into and out of trouble on their own, and nothing would spoil their independence faster than a good, caring mother. So what is a writer to do with mothers if she wants the children to, realistically, become the protagonists of their own stories? Eliminate them of course.

The easiest, most drastic way to do so is to kill them. This is what Disney's writers did in Bambi, traumatizing in the process, generations of kids.

But, if doing the killing half way into the story was a new concept, the theme of the dead mother seems to be, not the exception, but the rule in the oldest of the children's stories, the Fairy Tales.

Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty in Beauty and the Beast, they all have lost their mother and in two of these cases they have also gained an evil step mother in the process. A great move from a story telling perspective, for, this way, the story gains a worthy antagonist, creating conflict even before the protagonist leaves her home.

In another group of tales the mother is not dead, but absent from the story. This is best accomplished if the protagonist(s) is, either forced to leave home (Hansel and Gretel), or decides to leave in want of adventures. East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and The Snow Queen belong to this last group.

A satisfying ending, in these cases, includes a return home and the reunion of a wiser protagonist with the Mother figure (sometimes a grandmother).

Fairy tales where the mother is the protagonist are rare. Among them, Rumplestiltskin comes to mind. And also, in modern fiction, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, a dark retelling of Snow-White and Rose-Red, in which the protagonist is a teenage mother and the story centers in her unconditional love for her two daughters.

Although how they deal with the mother may not be a conscious decision, all writers must do so in order to ensure that their protagonists start their journey into adulthood.

For instance, while writing this, I realized that my YA novel, Two Moon Princess, belongs to the 'absent mother/return home' category. Andrea, the protagonist of the story, runs away from home. Twice. But only after solving her conflicted relationship with her mother, she's really able to leave.

Which category better fits your own book or your favorite one?

Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 9th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
Fascinating post. I think a lot of the fairy tale archetypes developed at a time when death in childbirth was very common, so children without mothers were not rare, and the fate of children without protectors could be harsh. But it does translate well to the modern need to have an independent protagonist figuring out how to protect himself/herself.

One interesting difference, I think, is that in fairy tales the father is often around but just assumed to be either clueless or uninterested; modern tales need to explain the absence of the father as well!

And yes, both my novels so far feature characters with dead mothers and dead or evil(ish) fathers. :)
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 11:10 pm (UTC)


Good point about mothers dying in childbirth in old times and for fathers being clueless.
An involved father is a very modern figure and even now only in Western countries.
ex_marissam on May 9th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
I'm working on a blog post about mothers in YA lit in general and running into a similar problem - where are all the moms??

My series is based on fairy tales, so unsurprisingly the books all fall into these categories. I have two "evil" stepmothers, two dead mothers, two absent mothers, and one absent (but benevolent) grandmother. Not a single wholesome mother-daughter relationship in sight! It does make it easier I think for writers to get their characters out and into the world, being independent and fending for themselves, but I do sometimes wonder if the absence of mothers and parents in general has become a too-easy contrivance for us.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 11:12 pm (UTC)

I think an absent mother is a teen's dream come true.
And for the writer an easy contrivance as you say.
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on May 9th, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)
I love this post Carmen! Thanks for bringing up this fascinating topic. As a writer, I do see the need to eliminate the helpful adult intervention of a parent so the protagonist can overcome the obstacles on their own. As a reader (and now a parent), I'm still traumatized by the death of parents in books.

I think another thing the loss of a parent does is makes us sympathize with the MC and *want* them to win. Though I just read Sarwat Chadda's DARK GODDESS, a retelling of Baba Yaga, and the MC's father is present and part of the action and that worked.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 11:15 pm (UTC)

Thank you Kiki,

I agree as a mother I want the children to be safe. But nobody cares for a protagonist that doesn't 'suffer'.

I'll check Dark Goddess. Sounds interesting. Thanks for the suggestion.
Jemma DavidsonJemmaDavidson on May 9th, 2011 05:51 pm (UTC)
Great post, very insightful. In my latest WIP I've done away with the Mother (and Father) without even thinking about it!

Thanks for the examples.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 11:07 pm (UTC)
Thank you Jemma.
Renee Carter Hall: poetigress - oCepoetigress on May 9th, 2011 05:53 pm (UTC)
This is what Disney's writers did in Bambi, traumatizing in the process, generations of kids.

Actually, Bambi's mother dies in the original novel as well, so it wasn't purely Disney's decision. In the book, he's then looked after for a while by an older doe, Nettla.

(Doesn't change your overall point, of course, but just wanted to point that out.) :)

carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 9th, 2011 10:46 pm (UTC)

I didn't read the book. So thank you for letting me know.
wendydelsol on May 9th, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
Great thought-provoking post, Carmen. Indeed, it's important that the protagonist find her/his own way in a story. Parental guidance would feel like a cheat. In Stork, I had my main character's magical ability skip a generation; moreover, she's sworn to secrecy. Thus, while the mother is among the cast of characters, she isn't someone the protagonist can turn to for advice. Happy belated Mother's Day to all.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 11:06 pm (UTC)

Thank you Wendy!
katecoombs on May 10th, 2011 12:29 am (UTC)
In my Runaway books, the princess's mom is present and accounted for and is pretty nice. While she mostly lets the kinda clueless king do his thing and is fairly traditional, at one point she really does back her daughter up.

But in my WIP, I have dead parents right and left, with all manner of beleaguered orphans! :)
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 11:05 pm (UTC)
Hi Kate,

Way to go. Who needs parents anyway?
Mirth & Matter: The Journal of Elizabeth Bunceelizabethcbunce on May 10th, 2011 07:05 am (UTC)
Great post! We talk about the Absent Parents a lot, but seldom focus on the mothers' roles specifically. One recent fairy tale retelling that does a wonderful job of featuring an active, involved step/mother is Heather Tomlinson's TOADS & DIAMONDS.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 10:57 pm (UTC)

I read Tomlinson's The Swan Maiden but not Toads and Diamonds, so I cannot comment. But thanks for the information, I have added it to my reading list.
Phillipa (Pippa) Baylisspippa_bayliss on May 12th, 2011 05:22 pm (UTC)
I know Peter Pan isn't exactly a fairy tale but I find Barrie's use of a child's fear that their mother will forget them is powerful. Spooky, but powerful. Of course, Mr & Mrs Darling are there but not present.

Interesting post, thanks Carmen!
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 10:51 pm (UTC)

Great example.
What I also find interesting in Peter Pan is that Peter Pan is not interested in Wendy as a girlfriend but as a surrogate mother.
Anica Lewis: La!Percyanicalewis on May 14th, 2011 03:54 am (UTC)
A class on myths and legends I had talked about this tendency in fairy tales. One theory we discussed was that older women, who (in early Russia, the setting we were studying) lived with their sons and their sons' wives and had little status and power, and told these stories to their grandchildren. Thus the appearance of kindly/powerful older women (fairy godmothers and the like) and absent/evil mothers and mother figures (e.g. stepmothers) - the grandmothers wanted to create bonds between themselves and the children that excluded the children's mothers, who were sort of foreign and threatening to the grandmothers. Interesting idea, anyway.

I always thought it cool and fun that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH features a character who's a mother.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 18th, 2011 10:48 pm (UTC)

What is such an interesting theory! And it does make sense in a twisted kind of way.