February 4, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Dreadful Dads in Fairy Tales by Kate Wolford

What makes a fairy tale dad "dreadful?"
Enchanted Conversation's
Kate Wolford
delves into this topic.

Editor’s note: I wrote this three years ago, when I wasn’t active with EC. I still stand by it!

Off the top of your head, who’s the worst father in fairy tales? The foolish miller from “Rumpelstiltskin” whose boast to the king forces his daughter into undoable jobs that could cause her death? How about the father in “Snow White,” who is missing in action while the Evil Queen wreaks havoc on his daughter? (Note: In the 1812 version of the Grimms’ tale, linked to in this paragraph, the Evil Queen is the birth mother, not the stepmother.)

Snow White, Jenny Harbour

Then there are the weakling dads. My personal favorite “henpecked,” “victim” dad is in “Hansel and Gretel.” The version linked to here is the Grimms’ from 1857. Notice that the father’s reason for agreeing to abandon his children in the forest to die is to stop his wife’s nagging. (Oh, and in earlier versions of the tale, the stepmother is the natural mother.) Worse, to fool his children while he abandons them, he creates chopping sounds with a branch and a dead tree whomping in the wind, making Hansel and Gretel think he is nearby. Yet, at the end of the story, the children run home to him, and all three live together happily ever after. Talk about reinforcing patriarchal mores!

Hansel and Gretel, Arthur Rackham

Pretty bad, right? But what about Cinderella’s father? Also henpecked. To be fair, though, not all fairy tale fathers are henpecked or gone. In the outrageously, luridly awful (but, to be honest, kind of fun) “The Juniper Tree,” the father just has no idea of the house of horror of which he is head. Yet, he is punished, by, *spoiler alert,* unknowingly consuming his own son.

The Juniper Tree, Kay Nielsen

Yep, bad dads abound in fairy tales, but the king bad daddy of all time is the perverted, beastly fellow who stars in “Donkey Skin.” To begin, he is fabulously rich because he has a donkey that poops gold. Charles Perrault, who wrote the tale in the late 17th Century, was wise in the ways of politics and wealth, so when he made the kingdom’s source of wealth dung, albeit golden dung, he knew exactly what he was saying: The King in “Donkeyskin” was, as he might be called today, “King Turd of Sh*t Mountain.”

Donkeyskin, HJ Ford

No matter how fancy the court and kingdom that the king enjoys, he has his power not from industry or farming or weaving or brewing or any other typical source. Only one being in the kingdom toils for the big money—that poor old donkey.

When the king is about to lose his beloved wife, she makes him promise to marry someone smarter and prettier than she. How smart is this queen? There’s always someone wiser and prettier on down the road. She seems to have extracted the promise so she could die thinking her husband would never marry again—perhaps she saw reasons why his remarriage would be a disaster, but she wouldn’t have guessed just how terrible his choice would be.

To move along, since I’ve linked to the story above, the king decides he’s going to marry his daughter. His actual biological birth daughter. Thus, this father becomes the worst fairy tale father of all time. You can read the text for yourself.

The big question about horrible fairy tale dads is this: Why does society largely give them a pass, but fairy-tale mother figures are excoriated, analyzed and damned? There are countless theories that try to answer this question, and certainly, the most frequent and obvious answer is that patriarchy is, and always has been, alive and well. I mean: Harvey Weinstein. And in “Hansel and Gretel” the children return to the man who helped abandon them. That’s patriarchy for you. No one needs to expound at length on a topic that almost no one disagrees on.

So, here’s another theory: Men in fairy tales often don’t matter nearly as much as the women do, so making them terrible doesn’t have the same impact as making mothers so dreadful. They remain less examined. Just make them bad, then push them aside for the women to let loose. The female protagonists might be cast out, abused, cursed, left for dead, forced into slavery, and worked to death, but they matter. They, and often their (step?) mothers are the true stars of the fairy tales we can’t get enough of. “Jack and the Beanstalk” and its brother tales might enjoy some popularity, but Cinderella and her sister heroines are safe at the top of the cultural heap.

My theory: Women tend to read more fairy tales than men, and women often want to read about other women. (To be fair, my experience as an editor, writer, and teacher in the fairy-tale world demonstrates that men love fairy tales, including ones with women protagonists, but I’m not sure they represent male readers as a whole.) Life is hard, and women often end up being the Cinderellas of the workplace, the home, the family. We like to read about our lady heroes overcoming obstacles and getting to wear fabulous clothes. Sure, they may be rewarded with a prince, but he usually doesn’t do much rescuing of our girl protagonists. Princes are sort of like a really great handbag the heroine gets at the end of the story: Not bad to have, but superfluous.

The princes and plucky poor girls in fairy tales let women see the fantasy of a woman surviving and winning, no matter how genuinely awful her father is. If they have to go up against a monster mom, so much the better. We’ve all been mad at our mamas, even when we have terrific ones. Fairy tales are full-service fantasy fulfillment vehicles, but the heroines are often much more powerful and wily than pop culture gives them credit for. Their fathers just can’t keep them down forever. Usually, no one else can, either. 

That's my theory. It's a small one, and I'm willing to cheerfully agree that I may be wrong. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below

Kate Wolford is the founder of EC and a contributing editor to the magazine. She's also a freelance editor whose books, Beyond the Glass Slipper, Krampusnacht, Tales of Krampus, and Frozen Fairy Tales can all be found at her Amazon Author Page HERE.
Follow her on Twitter @EnchantedConvo
and on Pinterest HERE.


Guy S. Ricketts said...

I agree entirely with your theory, Kate. It makes perfect sense that with fairy tales being aimed at the female reader, men would be incidental characters in the story. And with that, it didn’t matter if the father was a jerk. The stories really were fantasies fulfilled for young, impressionable girls, letting strong females overcome all obstacles - even with a jerky mom thrown in at times.

AMOffenwanger said...

I agree that the girl tales top the heap as far as today's favourites go, but I think on balance it's probably about 50/50 between girls' and boys' tales (I haven't counted it; it's just a guess). Campbell delineated his Hero's Journey off boy stories - for him it's always the male hero; he couldn't have done that if boy hero stories weren't prevalent in the canon.
Here's another theory: in girl stories it's often the (step)mother who is the antagonist; in boy stories, the father or an external monster/quest (while mothers might not even exist). Again, this is just off the top of my head - I haven't studied it.
But I agree about the absolute worst father being the "Donkeyskin" one. Shudder!

Kate W. said...

Men and boys are, indeed, about equally represented in fairy tales as women and girls. And “conquering” the same sex parent in a story can be seen as wish fulfillment.

Melissa "Yi" Yuan-Innes said...

Interesting! Sharing!

Katew said...

Yay! 😊

Lynden Wade said...

Yes, the girl stories have more airspace these days, and there's a lot of logic, I think, in pitting the girl against an older woman - young versus old, powerless against powerful, what she is versus what she could turn into, and as you say, we've all been mad at our mammas, who can wind us up more than our papas.

I can think of one story with a dreadful dad who gets a punishment that the Grimm brothers would aprove of. The story is "Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou," a story from the Middle East. It ends in quite a bloodbath!

Comparing the prince to a handbag - that made me laugh!

Katew said...

I haven’t read that story in years! Thanks for reminding me.