Fairy Tales Make For Dead Mothers

Gustave Dore Mother Goose

For years, I edited as I read aloud to my daughters: “Cinderella’s father went away and she was left with a cruel stepmother.” But now that she can read, Maia corrects me: “it says died, Momma, her father died.” Snow White/Beauty and the Beast/Pocahontas are easier, as the heroines’ (dead) mothers often aren’t mentioned. The mother – my role – has  been edited out for me. It’s strange to read so many stories that suggest I do not exist.

Because my daughters love magical fairy tales and heroic mythologies, I’d love to introduce them to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. But both heroes grieve for mothers who die early in their stories, in great anguish and at the hands of evil forces. The one who lived loses his father, too, to he who must not be named. More than not mentioned, here parents die unmentionably.

So I remembered titles from my own childhood. Were those more innocent times? Evidently not. For evidence, see James and the Giant Peach. Or Charlotte’s Web.

When I asked my students for recommendations they noted Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Dead parents. A colleague tells me to give my daughters canonical works so I turned to The Secret Garden and Ann of Green Gables. Dead parents, dead parents. I looked for something more lighthearted. Like Pippi Longstockings. But dead parents.

I want shrug this popular mother and father offing off to happenstance. But mathematicians say that while two is coincidence, three is a pattern. There’s definitely a pattern here.

I could shrug it off to formulaic writing but I’m not cynical enough to call all children’s lit for the last few hundred years a series of pat remakes.

I suppose this could be a concerted effort on the part of storytellers everywhere to emotionally train young people for leaving mother, leaving home, leaving motherland. But I live in a twenty-first century so called first-world country. My almost three- and five-year-old daughters aren’t marching off to war or marriage anytime soon. So enough with the literal or metaphoric dead parents.

Maybe these stories just play out a little bit of catharsis for the little ones who listen to them. But how much catharsis does a little girl need? Catharsis, at least at the level of Greek tragedy, seems out of place in bedtime stories.

Stories train us to feel and reason. Could this consistent threat of dead parents, then, be the cause of our angst? From fairy tales to canonical childrens’ literature to fiction and film franchises, the moral to the story is, “Your parents will drown/burn/be eaten or crushed or magiced to death.” Aesop would not, I think, approve.

If we’re told over and over again that we’ll be left alone, I suppose that might make us confident. You know, because Cinderella and Harry Potter did ok for themselves. But I suspect it more likely makes us anxious, fearful, and lonely. I like Rilke but I don’t think children need to be told again and again that we’re all “unutterably alone.”

Still, loneliness seems to be a recurrent theme in childrens’ literature. Cinderella may find comfort in a fairy godmother and Harry Potter has his Hogwarts cohort. But both suffer an intense loneliness that begins with (and in Potter’s case long meditates on) their parents’ deaths. And in Potter’s case, notably the mother’s death.

Dear stories, I really want to like you like my daughters do. Maia and Eve love to sing dreamily of being “Part Of Your World” (along with Ariel, whose conspicuously absent mother is dead by the way). I’d love to drift into the fantasy for a bit, too. Because who doesn’t love a good story?

But you’re killing me. And when I was the one who believed in you. Long before my daughters looked to you, I did. But when I rode off into the happily ever after of motherhood, you killed me. The mother, I’ve been edited out or slayed at the start. Having created for you a new audience, you’ve done with me.

Beware, my daughters. It’s the fairy tales, not the villains in them, we should fear.

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7 thoughts on “Fairy Tales Make For Dead Mothers

  1. Hi – interesting commentary. Children’s stories tend to remove parents early because all kids know they get in the way of adventure: they do so insist on keeping children safe at all times. Child protagonists get to show courage and resilience beyond the norm, they can make their own decisions and take initiative. I suppose it might be setting the scene for later life, encouraging children to imagine autonomy, thought I’m not sure. Jack Zipes, who writes a lot about fairy tales said this very intriguing thing: he said that the horrors of fairy tales were there to make parents feel better about the mistakes they make with their children. All these awful things happen, and the children still come out of it okay, undamaged. So perhaps the absence of parents is a covert message to the grown-ups reading bedtime stories – even if we’re not there to protect children, they’ll manage just fine.

    • Hello litlove and thanks for your comment!

      I suppose I would be a bit of a drag on my daughters’ story lines. You know, interrupting their epic battles to make sure they’d recently reapplied sunscreen. Checking a romantic moment to insist on their independence.

      I wonder, too, if my role of mother is killed off at the beginning of these tales because I’m needed to play another role: the hag/crone/witch.

      By the time my girls are off slaying a jabberwock or kissing a hero/ine, I’ll probably be a bit bent with age. Here, I imagine myself as perhaps not unlike the evil queen in the Disney Snow White film, when she’s disguised as a hag hawking apples. In that scene, not coincidentally, the queen offers Snow White unsolicited advice on love and homemaking along with those apples. See? She looks kind of like me.

      And thanks for noting Zipes on parents in your response here. Fairy tale and fantasy analyses so often focus on their intended readership that their lingering readers – adults – get left out. Thanks for including me!

  2. I used to wonder why it is always about orphans, and then I realized I do the same in some of my stories too. It’s not that I want the parents gone, it’s just that I wanted to give the character freedom. Hence, I agree with the previous comment.

    • Thanks for you comment, Jeyna Grace!

      Here, you remind me that one day I’ll have to make hard choices to be the mother I’d like to be. Of course you’re talking fiction and I’m talking motherhood but still I think it works:

      When I was 17, my mom encouraged me to attend a Beat Generation lit conference at NYU. How she must have worried for me as I pretended to be Jack Kerouac. But I wound up on a roof in the village reading poetry with Allen Ginsberg. How’s that for a defining moment?

      My mother gave my character freedom.

      And she always likes my blog posts.

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