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Mothers’ Stories

In both fairy tales, ‘Little Fawn Brother’ and ‘Black Brother and White Brother’, young children flee from the murderous intentions of their parents. They find shelter in a forest, undergo maltreatment and metamorphosis into animals, and finally return to society in a new family. In both tales the actual mother is dead or spectral and the stories feature several types of dysfunctional mother-substitutes: from an immature sister-mother, through a cannibalistic stepmother, a weak stepmother, an evil nurse refusing to nurture and help the young queen, a hostile mother-in-law, a weak and unsupportive stepmother, to a spectral mother who can turn into a black dove to help her Romani son to avoid death. Both texts are very complex literary and cultural artefacts as well as evidence of lived reality: poverty, racial and ethnic tensions, and the conflicts that arise in families.

I read both fairy tales from the perspective of identity formation and repression of the mother figure, both the absent, dead mother and the present stepmother. Both stories are usually read as children’s stories. It is the child who stands at the center of the story and whose perspective gives it shape; the narrative follows the children, not their (step)mothers. This perspective is congruent with developmental narratives of the eighteenth- century, as discussed in Monstrous Motherhood: The Ideology of Domesticity by Marilyn Francus:

If society determined that maternal worth was based on attending to a child’s needs (physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or vocational), then dramatic attention moved from the mother toward the child, who was the source of need and consequently narrative (2012, 14).

In this study, I aim to read the folk tales as the stories of identity construction and separation from the mother figure, but the process is undergone not only by children but also by mothers, who age and become dependent on their family members.

The Slovak fairy tale, ‘Little Fawn Brother’ is taken from the linguistically re-edited three-volume collection of Pavol Dobsinsky’s Prostondrodne slovenske povesti [Slovak National Fairy Tales and Legends], published in 1973. The story begins in the very poor family of a hunter. The mother dies and a little sister and her little brother are cruelly mistreated by their wicked stepmother. She is harsh to them, overworks them and beats them. As they are very poor and the father fails to provide for them, the stepmother cuts off her breast and feeds it to them. When the family asks her why she would not eat, she replies she is too weak to eat. Later, however, she tells her husband what she has cooked and suggests cooking their children the next day. Of course, the girl overhears her and plans to trick her: when the stepmother is combing the girl’s hair, the little brother (acting on his sister’s instructions) steals her ribbon. The little sister pretends to chase him and they run away. However, the stepmother, who is also a powerful witch, realizes what they have done and curses the water sources in the forest: whoever drinks from any spring will become an animal. The girl grieves for her mother, especially when she is combing her own hair as there is no mother figure to do this act of care for her. The little sister tries to protect her brother, acting as a substitute mother figure. The brother drinks from the cursed spring and turns into a fawn. Later, they are discovered by the king, who marries the girl. He swears to protect her and the little fawn; however, analogically to their own father, who is absent all the time, he leaves them in the care of a wicked midwife (possibly his own mother). When the young queen gives birth to a beautiful baby, she cries for some water but the midwife refuses to take care of her and tells her to drink from the River Danube. The stepmother’s curse is still in force and the young queen is turned into a duck. Her brother brings the baby to her, and while she breastfeeds it, combs its hair and sings to it, performing everything a good mother is supposed to, she briefly becomes human again before the curse turns her once again into a duck. When the king returns, he learns the fawn’s secret and breaks the curse by expressing his love for the duck. Brother and sister become human again, the family is reunited and the wicked midwife is cruelly punished.

In outline form, the tale can be seen as the story of a daughter’s painful transition into motherhood. We can see several mother figures who fall short in one way or another. In the opening scene, the stepmother fails to meet the criteria of a good mother: she cannot feed them, although she sacrifices her body parts for them, she cannot take care of them, because whenever she combs her stepdaughter’s hair, the girl complains, and, finally, she threatens to eat them and when they trick her, she curses them. The stepmother represents the dark side of motherhood; she is destructive, greedy, domineering. The Slovak fairy tale gives us a dark mother who masquerades as a stepmother to destroy the hunter’s family. She reoccurs not only at home where she subjects the children to daily abuse and plans on cooking them; in the forest, her spell continues to terrorize them by enchanting the sources of drinking water, thus sentencing them to death or animal life. Finally, in the castle, she is represented by the midwife who threatens the life of the young queen, the fawn brother and the newborn baby too. The midwife refuses to give water to the young queen in labor and she also fails to protect her from the stepmother’s spell that turns her into a duck. What seems to be an unlucky combination of malevolent stepmother, witch and midwife, is actually the representation of a failed and false ideal of motherhood.

Another example of a failing mother is the immature mother. The little sister tries to become a surrogate mother for her little brother. She warns him against drinking the cursed water, prepares a shelter for them, feeds him green apples (immature like her) to quench his thirst, but she ultimately fails to protect him from their stepmother’s curse.

However, the story can also be read as a representation of the impossibility of meeting the criteria of ideal motherhood. The story represents the opposition of the good mother, who is almost always absent (dead as the biological mother of the siblings, or enchanted as a duck), to the bad mother, who is only too present. Nevertheless, I suggest that there is a third mother figure that would symbolically include both extremes: hurting/protecting; destroying/creating; feed- ing/starving. It is Mother Nature, represented by the forest and the river. Only after struggling in the woods, where they find shelter and food but also starvation and metamorphosis into animals, can the siblings become mature human beings, and, especially, in the case of the little sister, become a mother.

As the story depicts the painful cycle of motherhood, starting with the dead mother, struggling (step)mother, immature surrogate mother, absent but caring mother, insecure mother-in-law, it ends with a mature mother together with her child. Although the fairy tale excludes the (step) mother’s experience, and everything that she does is filtered through the eyes ofyoung children, I believe it is possible to reverse the focus and look at the mothers and motherhood. In her analysis of ‘Snow White’, Shuli Barzilai discusses the famous fairy tale from the perspective of ‘transformation or rebirth into motherhood’ (1990, 526). Barzilai argues that Snow White reflects a ‘communality of human experience that is not contingent upon the time and place of the telling’ (1990, 516). To discuss the mother’s perspective in the fairy tale, Barzilai analyses the concept of separation anxiety. I elaborate on this model to discuss the Slovak and Romani fairy tales, which feature not only the relationship of a girl and her mother but also of boys. For children, overcoming separation anxiety means gaining control, increasing autonomy, and a sense of identity. However, for the mother, the process of separation means losing control, authority, and independence. As the child matures, it becomes ‘increasingly conscious of conflicting needs for both infantile nurturing and independence and suffers as a result severe ambivalences toward the mother’ (1990, 242). Clearly, the process of separation mirrors aging: lack of bodily as well as mental control and self-sufficiency. Although it seems that fairy tales displace hostility onto a stepmother as a proxy, she partially embodies the fears and anxieties of a menopausal mother.

According to Hock, McBride and Gnezda, maternal separation anxiety is ‘a complex, multidimensional, multidetermined construct. [...] Maternal separation anxiety is defined as an unpleasant emotional state tied to the separation experience: it may be evidenced by expressions of worry, sadness, or guilt’ (1989, 794). In the ‘Little Fawn Brother’, the stepmother’s lack of control and fear of losing the children might be represented by her intense care of them: she literally breastfeeds them when she cuts her breast off and cooks it for them. As she is not their biological mother, eating them might be seen as a metaphorical wish to become pregnant with them, integrate them into her body, so they would be inseparable. She attempts to recreate the mother’s power over the infant. But combing the children’s hair and even sacrificing her own body parts are not enough. The children must still leave.

Even though it is their own decision to run away, the children also manifest symptoms of separation anxiety: Little Sister grieves over her mother’s care when she combs her hair. While she might be grieving over her biological dead mother, it could also be over her stepmother who used to comb her hair. Her brother also yearns for the mother figure and her nurturing: he is thirsty and demands the mother figure’s attention and care. Paradoxically, it is the stepmother’s cursing of the forest springs that leads to the eventual breaking of the separation anxiety. It is only after being transformed into animals that the children learn true independence. In this way, the absent mother can be seen as an enabler: only when the mother is not present in the child’s life can the child grow up.

It may be psychologically significant that the brother is the first to drink the enchanted water and be transformed. The story of separation and gaining one’s identity and control involves an entirely different process for a boy. Nancy Chodorow, drawing on clinical evidence, implies that the process of separation between mothers and boys is less problematic: ‘Because they are the same gender as their daughters and have been girls, mothers of daughters tend not to experience [. ] infant daughters as separate from them in the same way as do mothers of infant sons’ (1999,109). It takes much longer for the girl to separate from the mother figure, and, importantly, it is more complex and complicated for the mother to separate herself from her daughter.

The metamorphosis of the brother into fawn and his sister’s transformation into a duck by the waters of the Danube are temporary spells from which they later regain their human nature. This enchanted-animal phase is a metaphor for adolescence. The story appears to be telling us that the children’s route to separation from their mother figure and her spell must pass through a regression to an animal phase, closer to Mother Nature. The transformation takes place at a moment of absolute vulnerability and helplessness, dramatized through the need for water. For the boy, it comes when he is disappointed by his sister as a mother-substitute, who can only give him green apples in the forest. He then acts for himself, drinks from the stream and becomes the fawn. As noted, for the daughter, the moment comes later. Even after she has tried to care for her brother and she has given birth to her own child, she still finds herself dependent on a cruel midwife. At this desperate moment, she goes to drink from the river, from a natural source, and becomes a duck.

As animals, it is through caring that brother and sister become human again and achieve adulthood. When his sister becomes a duck, and is an absent mother, little brother fawn takes on the role of a parent figure: he brings the baby to her to be fed, he lulls the baby on his antlers, and protects the baby from the midwife. When the sister nurses the baby, she becomes human for a short time, and she regains human form permanently after the midwife is defeated. It is now her turn to be a present mother.

In the Romani fairy tale, the separation process goes differently for the son and his (step)mother because he is not only of a different gender but also of a different ethnicity. In the fairy tale we learn that a count sets his dogs on a pregnant Romani woman at the same time as the count’s wife is giving birth to their son. Possibly as a result of magic, she gives birth to two boys. The first son has black hair and swarthy skin and the second is white. The count cannot bond with his black son. When his first-born son comes of age, the count feels that his own position is threatened, and wants to kill the boy. A black dove, which is in fact the black boy’s biological Romani mother, brings him a warning. As a black dove, the Romani mother represents the spectral mother ‘watching over her children secretly’ as defined by Marilyn Francus (2012, 11). Although the biological mother is dead, as a spectral mother she protects her child in the form of a black dove. As in many versions of fairy tales, the supernatural helper is not a random animal, but the natural mother reborn into an animal. In the Romani fairy tale, the black dove not only helps the child to accept adult challenges and independence, but, more importantly, to embrace his Romani heritage.

The fairy tale can be seen as a mirror tale to ‘Little Fawn Brother’, as it concerns the father’s fear of losing power and control not only over his sons, but also over his land and property. Traditionally, many fairy tales only vaguely suggest the father’s roles: the fathers of young girls, if not incestuous, are portrayed as weak, oblivious, and ignorant of their children’s suffering. The typical father-son conflict is represented in the Romani fairy tale: the father sees his son as a rival, he is attacked by his father and almost killed. Once on his own, the black son discovers his roots and his true identity and he earns the kingdom.

In the Romani fairy tale, the black brother faces the life-threatening conflict with his white father and leaves his castle. In the forest, he meets the ghost of his biological Romani mother, who has always protected him. She talks to him about his Romani roots. The motif of a mother narrating the story of her son’s life and identity mirrors the oral storytelling traditions of Roma communities: ‘The oral production, especially the fairy tales, was a sort of Roma moral codex’ (Slavickova 2012, 165). After he acknowledges his Romani identity, he returns to his stepmother, reunites with his family and becomes a true and honest ruler of the country. Maria Tatar states that a ‘fairy tale ends by enthroning the humble and enriching the impoverished. The male heroes of fairy tales are humble in at least one, and often in both, senses of the term’ (1987, 92). The Romani tale presents a Romani boy earning the throne, not because he miraculously becomes the eldest son, but because he is proven a true and humble hero.

The tale can be categorized as the hero story, vitejzika paramisa, which reinforces ethical values (good heart, obedience, submission to God’s will, and the ability to forgive). Forgiveness is very strongly present in Romani fairy tales, I argue that it is one of the most significant motifs: the hero forgives his brother who wanted to kill him and his father who hates him. In discussing the Grimm brothers’ male heroic fairy tales, Maria Tatar claims that

Although male fairy-tale figures have customarily been celebrated for their heroic feats, their greatest achievement actually rests on the passing of a character test. By elevating compassion and humility, which—unlike intelligence and brute strength—are acquired characteristics rather than innate traits [...] the Grimms’ tales make it clear [...] that even the least talented youth can rise to the top (Tatar 1987, 90).

The Romani fairy tale emphasizes the hero’s ethical behavior, love, and respect for his family, both biological and adopted. Black Brother takes care of his wounded White Brother, brings him water, washes him, and acts like a parent. He also takes care of his stepfather and saves his life. The father gives half of his kingdom to the Black Brother and he takes care of the Roma people. The absent biological mother enables the son to experience a different (white) family with different values and lifestyle; however, as a spectral mother, she also helps him to find his way back to his tribe and Romani values of family and forgiveness.

Although Marianne Hirsch concentrates on Victorian fiction, her discussion of motherless protagonists is also relevant for the study of folk tales. In The Mother/Daughter Plot, Hirsch suggests that ‘Dead mothers do elicit a certain nostalgia, nevertheless, their absence invariably furthers the heroines’ development’ (1989, 48). I would add that the stories of maternal absence, in which the mother is dead or absent, in some way empower the child protagonists to find their own path because only by negating the mother’s story can they avoid their mother’s fates: being powerless and poor. This perspective includes the figure of a present stepmother whose presence and control must be eliminated so the children can further their own development: marry a king (Little Sister), or become rich (Black Brother). Moreover, because of the help of their absent dead mothers, they have strong ethical values and can still be in touch with their biological families (Little Brother) and live in harmony with them (Romani tribe).

Romani fairy tales express a very deep desire for harmony: cruelty, treachery and murder are redressed by forgiveness; naturalism and brutal reality are beautified by poetic metaphor. The fairy tales end in all-embracing harmony: over the dead body of the father. Ironically, it is really time that triumphs in both stories, delivering the young children to inescapable adulthood and the stepparents to the harmless death.

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