It’s tough to be a fairy tale character. Not only do our heroes and heroines have to contend with witches, trolls, dragons, and sometimes even the devil himself, but there’s another menace—parents. Fairy tales are riddled with examples of abysmal parenting. Obviously there’s the jealous, even murderous, (step) mother, but there are plenty of others. There’s the self-important braggart. (“My daughter can spin straw into gold.” He knew she couldn’t—what was he thinking?) There’s the thoughtless gambler, who, when promising to give his rescuer the first thing to meet him on his return home, thinks it will be his faithful dog, not his faithful daughter. And the less said about Allerleirauh’s lecherous father, who wanted to marry her after her mother died, the better.
Fairy tales are full of parenting mistakes to avoid. For example, take poor Rapunzel. She has three unfit parents to contend with. Her father is of the typical meek variety, ruled by his unreasonable wife, who wants him to steal from the neighbor’s garden to satisfy her cravings. Like Cinderella’s and Hansel and Gretel’s fathers, he bows to the wishes of his wife, to the detriment of his child. Rapunzel’s mothers (biological and adoptive) have problems letting go. Letting a child go to make their own way in the world is a difficult matter for any parent, and Rapunzel’s mothers go to opposite extremes. Rapunzel’s birth mother lets her go too early and too easily, trading her to the witch next door for all the greens she can eat. The witch, on the other hand, refuses to let her go at all, locking her in a tower and shutting her away from the world.
|"The Royal Nursery," by Marcus Stone|
Sadly, it seems that the only fairy tale parents who are loving and nurturing die prematurely, leaving our grieving hero or heroine to face the world alone. While it is not their fault, the dead parent can’t do their child much good. Or can they? It turns out the dead parent can benefit their child, and they frequently do. In some versions of the Cinderella story, Cinderella plants a tree on her mother’s grave, and it is the tree, not a fairy godmother, which grants her wishes. In the Russian tale "Vasalisa the Fair," Vasalisa’s dying mother gives her a doll. Vasalisa keeps the doll in her pocket and feeds her, and receives the doll’s help and advice in return.
Despite their early deaths, good fairy tale parents manage to accomplish what all good parents strive to do. They give their children the tools they need to face the world. They may provide magical tools, like Vasalisa’s doll, or they may perform the more everyday magic of passing on their values, wisdom, and of course, their love. Most importantly, in dying, the good parents step aside, beginning the child’s journey of self-discovery which lies at the heart of most fairy tales. In fact, setting their child on the road to their adventure is something even a wicked stepmother or thoughtless father can do. Which is why, despite her neglectful birth parents, and possessive witch mother, Rapunzel--and Cinderella, and Snow White, and all the others--will be just fine.
Lissa has contributed stories, poems and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at lissasloan.com.