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Moms in Fantasy: Beyond the Stereotypes

To balance my father issue article from last week, I present to you the flip side: mothers in fantasy. I have to say I’m a bit disappointed in some of the portrayals of mothers in fantasy. It seems like mothers are the ones usually killed off first, or the mothers are put on a pedestal and idolized as the perfect symbols of womanhood.

Excuse me while I slip some whiskey into my coffee and snicker…

I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with some good examples of realistic mothers in fantasy, and the candidates are few and far between. Now, I do think it must be said that once you give a woman a child, her potential for kicking bad guy ass is greatly reduced. I mean, someone has to breastfeed and make sure the baby is clothed. Most heroes aren’t exactly prepared to handle that stuff.

So my take on mothers in fantasy is a little different than some others might be, and it’s a little different from the father issue article.

momma bearThe overprotective Mama Bear. I love Mama Bear characters, to be honest. I can relate to them. There is something primal about protecting your young. I think Catelyn Stark and CerseiLannister are two fantastic examples of the Mama Bear character. But what I love about Catelyn and Cersei is that even though both are Mama Bears, they aren’t stereotypes. Catelyn is loving and tolerant of her children’s differences, but she’s not perfect. Her treatment of Jon Snow, her husband’s illegitimate son (or is he?), is deplorable. Cersei is a scheming crazy woman, and she overindulges her children, but it’s clear that she does what she does out of a misguided protectiveness for them.

Why they work: Mama Bears work because they’re true to life. Most mothers get a little tense when their kids are picked on, and it tends to be fairly easy to trigger the Mama Bear thing.

What I’d like to see: More disinterested moms—more fantasy mothers who are present in the lives of their children, but tend to be flighty, reserved, or too busy with fantasy “careers” to pay much attention to what happens with their kids.

The Dutiful Mother. The first one who popped to mind here was Morgase Trakand of The Wheel of Time. Her relationship with her children, Gawyn and Elayne and stepson GaladDamodred, is one marked largely by obligation and duty. She loves them, but she’s so devoted to her country and her throne that her primary concern is making sure Elayne is ready to be a queen. She also put her throne so high on her list of priorities that she abdicated to Elayne when she realized she could no longer be a good queen. (Disclaimer: It’s been years since I read these books, and I think I stopped after book six. I got some of this from my 12-year-old son. Yes, it’s totally awesome to do literary criticism on fantasy novels with him. I’m a lucky mom.)

Why it works: It highlights the kind of tug of war most working moms experience—kids or career—and then levels it up. Royals don’t have the luxury of taking the day off to deal with a sick baby when there’s a horde of demon-spawn at the gates.

What I’d like to see: Actually, more of this. I think putting more women with minor-age children in fantasy novels would make them more relatable for the rest of us who are struggling with balance.

The Grieving Mother.There seems to be a trend in fantasy to give heroines a pregnancy and the promptly make them miscarry. Kahlan Amnell very nearly aborted her baby before changing her mind and then being beaten so badly that she miscarried. Daenerys Targaryen makes a deal with the devil, basically, before losing her baby and being told she’ll never have another. I get why authors do this—as a character-building exercise, it’s fantastic, and it doesn’t leave a heroine stuck with a baby when she’s trying to destroy evil.

Why it works: We automatically sympathize with a mother who loses a child. Yes, even CerseiLannister, to a point. Even an evil, scheming mother is sympathetic when she’s grieving.

What I’d like to see: Let her have the baby, for heaven’s sake! If anyone could’ve kicked butt with a Baby Björn strapped over her shoulders, it would be Dany. I can’t imagine anything more interesting than a woman who has to figure out how to defend herself and smash evil’s big warty head while worrying about naptimes and introducing solid food.

Here’s my beef with mothers (and, more generally, women) in fantasy: we don’t see enough of the real struggles mothers face day to day. I’m not saying we can’t let a queen have nursemaids to take care of her kids while she runs a country. By all means—give her those! But then show us her internal struggle about that. Does she wish she didn’t have the duties of a royal so she could spend more time with her children? Or does the warrior woman wish evil would just go away so she could go home to her babies? Maybe her own mother has been caring for them while she’s been off slaying dragons—how does she feel about that? What conflict does that cause with her mother?

My challenge to fantasy writers of today and tomorrow is to give us more moms to relate to. I maintain that most fantasy settings tend to highlight many of today’s real-world struggles, so why not put more real-world people in those settings? Show us real working-mom issues against a backdrop we aren’t used to. Give us more food for thought.

Next time, one last relationship article: the joy and pain of siblings in fantasy.

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13 Comments

  1. xiagan says:

    I agree, mothers are underrepresented in fantasy or get treated stepmotherly (no pun intended).
    Have you ever read Tamora Pierce’s YA novels? They’re full of heroines and I think there are quite some ass-kicking mothers among them. Alanna the Lioness (in the immortal books) and Queen Thayet Conté for example.
    A really great Mama Bear is Molly Weasley, especially in the last book when fighting Bellatrix Lestrange (you know, the “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!”-moment).
    Another atypical mother that comes to my mind is Nanny Ogg. I’m not sure if she counts, though, because all her children are grown when the stories take place. 🙂

    • Oh, Molly Weasley! I should’ve mentioned her. She’s fantastic. I just don’t typically read YA, so my brain doesn’t go there… But yeah, Molly is the best!

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Thank you very much for creating these articles, Amy! They’re well thought-out and helpful.

    I’d like to touch on one other point: YA fantasy. One (often the mother, as you pointed out) or both parents are usually dead or are otherwise absent from the story. This seems to be done to “allow” the main characters to continue their growth “unperturbed” without meddlesome parents to get in the way of their coming of age. I think a lot of opportunities are missed with the custom of putting either parent – but especially the mom – out of the story just because it is about the teen. I might be veering into a mother-daughter relationship relationship discussion, but I wanted to point out the special type of mother who is watching their children as teens become adults. Try thinking about ways to use this character instead of tossing her out of the story. 🙂

    • Kathrine, I agree with you–I think authors who kill off one or both parents are missing a golden opportunity to ramp up the conflict in the hero/heroine’s life. I would point to Morgase Trakand here and the well-written relationship between her and her daughter, Elayne. I think there’s a lot of conflict there just by virtue of the fact that Elayne is heir to the throne and her mother has to die or step down for her to take the throne, but then Jordan threw a whole big bunch more conflict in by sending Elayne to the White Tower and letting her travel around with Rand and his cronies. Here you have a teenaged girl making decisions that would make most adults wet themselves, and Morgase had to pick and choose when to interfere and when to be quiet. That’s a lot of conflict, and I think it’s a fantastic well for the daring author.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Anne Lyle says:

    For me, I think motherhood comes under the category of “busman’s holiday” when it comes to my leisure reading – I likewise have little interest in reading about the adventures of computer programmers 🙂

    An interesting (if not exactly positive) mother figure is Ariana from “The Bone Doll’s Twin”, who is literally driven mad by the choices she has had to make in the name of saving the kingdom. In fact Flewelling does a nice line in deranged royalty – Queen Idrilain in the Nightrunner series plays favourites with her daughters and nearly brings the kingdom to its knees in the process!

    • Anne, I haven’t read those, but they sound like something I’d enjoy.

      I guess for me, the mother aspect is just one other piece of character, and it seems to be one people avoid because it does present complications, especially when you introduce small children. It’s not so much that I want to read about moms–I just want moms to be represented.

      And I’d totally read about the adventures of computer programmers if the programmers were compelling enough… 😉

      • Anne Lyle says:

        I highly recommend Lynn Flewelling’s books for anyone who likes good character-centred fantasy. She has a lot of strong female characters, even in the books that revolve around male protagonists.

  4. Madigan says:

    Have you read Pegasus by Robin McKinley? The mom in that one is a military general… she marries for political reasons, and while she loves her daughter, she’s frequently busy attending the troops. It’s an interesting relationship, and I think it works.

  5. Khaldun says:

    “Show us real working-mom issues…” I’d love to see more of this too, but frankly I’m a male without a kid and so it’s tough to know/understand what real working-mom issues actually are. Any ideas/tips on how to understand the mindset of mothers and/or females in general. I realize this sounds absolutely ridiculous, and I could be wrong, but I think it is a lot easier for a female writer to write a male character than a male writer to write a realistic female character. Thoughts?

    • Khaldun, I’ll just give a few thoughts based on my own experience for a start… I’m a work-from-home mom with four kids and a husband who also works from home, so one of the biggest challenges I have is trying to control the physical clutter of work, life, and school that threatens to bury us alive. Then there’s the constant emotional tug of war–do I work or watch a movie with the kids? Get take out so I can meet a deadline, or cook so the kids eat healthier food? Hang out with the kids after school and put off working till they’re in bed, or work now and ignore the kids so that I can spend time with my husband when he’s free? It’s a constant struggle of feeling responsible for cleaning, cooking, teaching, taxiing, working, guiding, talking, doctoring, socializing, and on and on. Most moms I know, whether they work outside the home or are full-time stay-at-home moms, feel like they need about six more hours in the day. And then add on top of all that the societal pressures of raising your child the “right” way, and the million opinions about what the “right” way is. Plus, whether it’s right or wrong or a matter of experience, most of the working moms I know still feel like they have something to prove to the men they work with–like the performance bar is set much higher for them simply because of their gender. I’m not saying that’s necessarily true, but it is a feeling a lot of moms have. And then, by golly, we’d all better be back at work twelve weeks after that baby’s born, and you want to pump breast milk? Ewwww!! (And I say this as a woman who worked in an office where we actually had a mother’s room for that specific purpose! It still creeped people out–not me, but some.)

      It’s enough to drive a woman to drink! 🙂

      You can see how you can adapt that to a relatively male-dominated fantasy setting. Okay, you can take some of that pressure off by giving a woman servants for the cooking and cleaning and a nursemaid for raising and feeding the babies, but then what struggles might those things present? Would she feel guilty for not caring for her own baby? The tension would still be there, perhaps.

      As for writing the opposite gender… I have to give all of my male POV scenes to my husband to read to check for authenticity. He’s not afraid to say, “a guy would never say/do that.” Invaluable advice. 🙂

      Does that help?

  6. Kate Elliott says:

    Amy,

    I’m so glad to see this subject come up. Thanks for raising it because, like you, I think it’s important to have more solid depictions of mothers in fantasy.

    I do think there are a fair number of them in fantasy novels written by women (all the examples you list in your article are from novels written by men).

    A couple off the top of my head:

    The character Lovyan, in Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series (in the first 4 books), is a noblewoman who has two adult sons. She is smart, competent, capable, and crucial to the plot, part of which revolves around the elder son (and heir) hating his younger brother. Lovyan is portrayed in a believable way within an early-medieval style society, but she is not passive or stereotypical at all.

    In the first volume of Juliet McKenna’s Aldebreshin compass series, in a society in which a lord has several co-wives, the wives of one man are shown deciding to throw him out in favor of his (almost adult) son not because they don’t like him but because he’s done something which will affect their ability to make good marriages for the other children. (it’s more complex than that, but the women are shown as having political power within the way the society is set up.) McKenna is also careful to make sure the reader sees the work that goes into day to day life in the society she depicts, although it’s not the focus of the plot but rather what is going on in the background.

    Those are just two examples off the top of my head.

    Because I absolutely agree with you that this is a place where fantasy can do a better job. I just don’t want to see women who are already writing these roles forgotten.

    • Kate, thanks for those examples. I have to confess–I have missed a lot of really good fantasy in recent years, partly because I’ve been busy… well, being a mom. Consequently, I think I’ve missed a lot of fantasy written by women. While fantasy and science fiction are probably still dominated by men (let’s exclude paranormal or UF, where it would seem the numbers are more even or perhaps tipped in favor of female authors), female authors are certainly catching up with the boys in volume and popularity.

      In any case, I haven’t read the books you mentioned, so I’m glad you brought them up. Thanks!

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