Motherhood in Fairy Tales

There’s no greater antithesis to celebrating the role of Mother than fairy tales. In most, the biological mother is usually dead and in her place is a step-mother of dubious nurturing abilities. Fairy tales have a way of reinforcing the main female archetypes, virginal innocent or power-hungry witch. But what if the virgin was a bitch and the witch used her power for good? I’ve never had a step mother nor have I ever been one, but I feel that this much maligned position could use a modern fairy tale revamp.

The Witch (written in fairy tale style)

Once there was a woman of great power and simple needs. She lived in the woods learning the ways of the flora and fauna that surrounded her from her own senses and her wise mother. She grew past a marriageable age, but thought little of it happy in her home.

One day, a man happened upon their cottage with a heavy heart. Taking pity on the man, the woman brought him into her sanctuary. He told both women of his heartbreak brought on by the death of his wife and his motherless daughter. The woman was moved by his story and offered what comfort she could, but felt powerless to bring him any relief. He thanked them both and continued on his way.

Days passed and the woman could not stop thinking about the man and his daughter. Her mother, who had taught her compassion, cautioned her taking on other people’s problems was often a thankless task. The woman agreed, but still she mused and moped feeling helpless in the face of such bald sadness.

It came to pass that on a particularly beautiful day the woman made an important decision. Leaving a note for her mother, she searched for the home of the man and his child. What she found was a grand home far different from her own, lacking plants and wild animals. It made her uneasy, but she reminded herself that she was not here for herself. She was greeted at the door by a girl on the verge of womanhood with a face that revealed her disdain for the visitor. Looking down at her clothing, she noticed the patches and stains for the first time. In contrast, the girl at the door looked elegant and beautiful. Soon thereafter her father appeared and the look of contentment on his face told the woman she had made the right decision.

As always happens in these stories, the two had a short courtship followed by marriage and soon a child of their own. In the meantime, the man’s daughter grew more beautiful by the day, but also more vain and unpleasant. She spurned the love offered her by her step-mother and refused to learn the lessons her step-mother tried in vain to impart. The girl took to calling her step-mother a witch and word of it spread throughout the town. Because her step-mother was plain and a stranger, the townspeople believed the beautiful girl. Her father became withdrawn and was reluctant to defend his new wife, especially to his vain daughter.

There was business to be conducted in a neighboring town, and so the man left his new wife, his baby, and his elder daughter at home. The woman took this time to go into the woods and visit her mother with her new baby. It also afforded her the opportunity to collect herbs for her garden. Left to her own devices, the elder daughter spent her time weaving a web of lies and fear in the townspeople against her step-mother. Calling her a witch and claiming to have been mistreated at her hands, the townspeople vowed to drive the evil woman away. The duke’s son, beguiled by her beauty, offered to be her protector and slay her step-mother.

Upon returning to her home, the step-mother found an angry mob restlessly patrolling the manor. One caught sight of her and alerted the others, who came running at her. For her part, she clutched her baby tighter and ran back into the forest never to be seen again. The townspeople congratulated themselves on ridding the town of such an evil influence. The girl soon married the duke’s son, leaving her grieving father alone.

The woman returned to her quiet home in the forest and raised her son teaching him all she had learned from her mother and for good measure warned him against the temptation of a pretty face. “Better a witch than a bitch.”

Happy Mother’s Day!

3 thoughts on “Motherhood in Fairy Tales

  1. What a heartbreaking story. I was so caught up in it that I forgot the main point for a moment.Yes ,step-mothers do get a bad rep in fairy tales. I hope to see a step-mom shown as a nice person, for a change. 🙂

    • I’ve been thinking about it and I wonder if the evil step-mom persona is the personification of our fear of the unknown. Something about a medieval village mindset. She’s new, so she must be up to no good!

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