Earlier I was humming 'Mother Knows Best' from the Disney animated film Tangled (er, as you do) when it occurred to me that Rapunzel is pretty unique among Disney characters for having not one but two mothers. OK, so one of them is actually a passive-aggressive manipulator who stole Rapunzel to keep herself young, but it can't be said that Rapunzel lacks a mother figure in her life. Yet in general, being the mother of a Disney hero/heroine reduces your chances of actually being alive at the start of the movie to almost zero. Stepmother? You're safe, particularly if you can summon up an evil laugh. But mother? You'd be better off living in Midsomer.*
This got me thinking about my own characters - and yes, once again, they're a fairly motherless lot. Dawn Rising? The mothers of all five protagonists are either dead or unwillingly separated from their offspring. Darkhaven? Two dead mothers, one who abandoned her children, and the rest ... absent. Even in my YA project Arcana, the narrator's mother is dead and she has a stepmother (affectionately known as E.S., short for ... I'm sure you can figure it out). Yet fathers are much more prominent. True, some of them are dead, too, but many are present in their children's lives, influencing them for better or for worse.
And, of course, it's not just me. Look at some of the most popular books of the past decade or so. Harry Potter? The death of Harry's parents, but particularly his mother (who died for his sake), shapes the entire narrative. Twilight? The story starts with Bella leaving her mother to live with her father. The Hunger Games? Katniss has had to take on the role of mother to Prim because their own mother can no longer cope. The Da Vinci Code? Arguably the entire book is about a mother who has supposedly been excised from history ... yeah, I'm probably taking it a step too far with that one. Be that as it may, in the rest of the novels I've just mentioned, the mother's main influence comes from not being there any more.
So where have all the mothers gone? Why is the missing mother such an engrained fantasy trope?
Well, let me say straight away that there are exceptions. Pixar's film Brave was interesting because, at heart, it was the story of a mother and daughter mending their relationship. And A Song of Ice and Fire is notable for featuring several alive** and actively participating mothers; the maternal instinct is shown to be a strong and potentially dangerous force that has wide-reaching consequences. But the point is, these are exceptions. People comment on them, which means they're unusual. They only throw into sharper relief that gaping void where all the other mothers should be.
My feeling is that the trope is so pervasive because, on a fundamental psychological level, we can't conceive of anything more frightening than losing our mothers. Bad and abusive mothers notwithstanding, some key equation is built into our DNA that tells us Mother = Safety. And as we all know, a safe character is a boring character. Remove someone's mother, and you're removing an emotional comfort blanket. A missing mother - whether dead or simply not there - is fictional shorthand for all kinds of things, from forced self-reliance to a search for identity, but probably the core one is vulnerability. Whether it's as external as not having someone there to advise the character when they're making a stupid decision, or as internal as emotional self-sabotage, No Mother = Danger. Which is why, although I'd love to see some really strong mother-child relationships in fantasy fiction, I suspect there are plenty more motherless characters to come. After all, if you have that strong a relationship with your living, present, available-for-tea-and-sympathy mother then you can cope with anything life throws at you. And where's the fun in that?
Of course, for those of you (like me) who are mothers yourselves, this comes with an additional layer of scary - for two reasons. One, you are someone's safety. You are what stands as protector between your children and the world; you are what has to step aside, in the end, to let them grow up, whilst remaining the ever-present fallback. That's probably the biggest responsibility anyone can have. And two ... two, if you find yourself between the pages of a fantasy novel, chances are the author is going to kill you off to give your children a background of rich emotional trauma. Sorry. Don't say I didn't warn you.
* For those unfamiliar with Midsomer Murders, it's a UK detective series set in a quiet rural county in which every week, almost without fail, someone is murdered. Basically, if you live in Midsomer then, sooner or later, you're going to die a horrible and blackly comical death.
** At least to start with.
9/9/2013 12:47:21 am
You are so right, afe. I too am devoid of mothers in my writing, although I put that down to having lost mine when I was still teenage, and failing to acquire a replacement.
9/9/2013 02:08:59 pm
Great post AFE and you're spot on, mothers have been completely ousted from so much of fiction going way back to the lonely evacuee children in The Chronicles of Narnia and even little lost Alice in Wonderland who goes through her adventures on her lonesome. I must confess to not having living mothers in my fiction either. One thing that makes me chuckle though about Midsomer Murders, is how, despite the fact that vast majority of violent crime and murders in particular are committed by guys, the number of female and mother serial killers in Midsomer is simply astonishing. My mum even complained once and was told that the writer had a very domineering wife and that's why he wrote so many women murderers! So in those murky murderous villages, mother = killer! :D
I have to say, for all you say mothers are safety and that's why they're not present, I think you also need to consider that in most of these fantasy settings with poor medical knowledge, maternal mortality is HUGE. Even in developing countries today maternal mortality is much much higher than in the developed world, and I think we take for granted now how much safer childbirth has become, so there's a slight biological reason too :).
29/5/2014 04:51:11 pm
Very true re maternal mortality, though I suspect (possibly unfairly) that writers tend to kill off their protagonists' mothers for thematic rather than logical reasons. While it does make sense that in a society with limited medical knowledge, death in childbirth would be common, I do wonder how many writers are applying that logic rather than simply seeking ways to make their characters vulnerable!
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