May 6, 2011

Fantasy Mothers

        With Mother's Day coming up it seems a good time to think about the role of mothers in fantasy… except that the most notable feature of mothers in fantasy is their absence.  Orphans and motherless children abound in fantasy, and there are some very good reasons why.  Missing parents simultaneously give a hero trouble to overcome and the freedom to have adventures, both of which are necessary ingredients for a good fantasy tale.  But while absent mothers are often dreams of lost perfection, the mothers that manage to stick around in a story are all too often problematic.
        We can start with Cinderella by way of illustration.  Cinderella's mother is a paragon of love and virtue, and (in some versions) leaves her daughter with certain protections even after she dies.  Then there's the stepmother.  Let's talk about wicked stepmothers.  I read somewhere a theory that all those wicked witches were originally birth mothers, but were changed to stepmothers to make the stories one step less horrifying.  Whether or not that's true, the death of mothers of young children has certainly been all too common throughout most of history, and when marriage was primarily an economic arrangement it doesn't seem too hard to believe that there would have been plenty of stepmothers with no particular affection for their stepchildren.  Of course, the same would have been true of stepfathers, so why the stepmothers always get the bad rap is a rant I won't go into right now.  Suffice it to say that wicked stepmothers - and wicked aunts and uncles and other wicked legal guardians - are a staple of fantasy from Grimm's fairy tales to James and the Giant Peach to Harry Potter.
        In my mind I'm going down my list of fantasy I've read and noticing how few active mothers there are of any sort, and still fewer who are sympathetic.…

• The boy's mother in The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame
• Moominmamma in the Moominland books by Tove Jansson
• Tommy Stubbin's mother in the Doctor Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting
(All three of these are very stereotypically mothers, existing merely to care for others.  But at least they love and are loved by their children, so I'm not complaining!)
• Cimorene in Talking with Dragons by Patricia Wrede (although Cimorene's own mother is portrayed as unsympathetic, boring, and repressive in the first book of the series.)
• Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (although of course Harry's mother is one of those lost paragons.)
        …errrrr…  Really, I'm stumped already…  Can anyone think of any other good mothers?  Any at all?

        I admitted that absent and unkind mothers make an easy set-up for a fantasy adventure, but even so, the more I notice the genre's motherlessness, the more I begin to wonder why all writers seem to hate their mothers - or assume that all readers hate theirs!  I've made a point of putting some smart, interesting, sympathetic mothers into my books.  Kate and Sam's parents, although they are carried off by a dragon, do not disappear from the story to passively await rescue by their heroic children.  No; they both display courage, creativity and knowledge along with their concern for and confidence in their children.  I knew that my own children, for whom Kate and Sam to the Rescue was originally written, would relate at least as much to active, loving parents as they would to cruel or absent parents.  And I remain convinced that my kids aren't the only ones who do!
        Naturally I like to think that I'm a pretty good mother myself - according to the criterion of one advice columnist, I've never hit P or T over the head with a frying pan, so I'm doing fine.  And I certainly know that my mother was and continues to be perfectly Splendid.  So I'd like to see some more fantastic fantasy mothers: more smart, loving, interesting, active, sympathetic mothers, raising smart, loving, interesting, active, sympathetic heroes…  And perhaps a little more recognition that being a good mother can be a pretty heroic adventure in itself.

[Picture: Bed Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2005.]


Pax said...

I wonder if the absence of mothers has less to do with the authors' personal memories of their own mothers, and more to do with the requirements of a story written for children? If a mother is present who is "smart, interesting, sympathetic", then she becomes a major character and is in danger of over-shadowing the children. There is a subtle shift, I suspect, so that the book becomes more interesting to adults who relate to the mother, than to children who want to relate to their peers? For children's adventures to get under way, parents have to be out of the picture one way or another--unless the adventure ends at supper time.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I don't see smart, interesting, sympathetic characters as a zero sum game. Surely there's no intrinsic reason why good parents can't be secondary characters. I'm also not convinced that all young readers relate more to abused orphans than they do to characters with intact, supportive families. But I agree that it's certainly easier for a writer to make a mother wicked or kill her off than to find a place for her among the heroes.

Pax said...

I don't think mothers have to be wicked or dead, just marginalized to the point that the children take center stage. The children have to be able to make their own choices and decisions, something that may not be easy with an engaged, active, supportive mother hovering too near?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Ahh, but now we get into questions of actual child-rearing, not just in writing. Are the only options absence or helicopter-hovering? I feel sure there's some middle ground that can be depicted in fiction as well as put into practice in real life. Of course, in lots of ways fantasy isn't supposed to be like real life, but I hate to see it perpetuating stereotypes. It's undoubtedly an interesting puzzle: how to put our young heroes into the sort of trouble that no good parents would willingly leave their children in!