Mother’s Day, celebrated on different days around the world, is nonetheless a concept common to nearly all world cultures. But what of mothers in fairy tales? What do fairy tales have to teach us about mothers and motherhood? Let’s take a look.
Mothers don’t have a great life expectancy in fairy tales. In Snow White, she dies almost as soon as the titular child is born. In Beauty and the Beast, she dies before the story properly starts. In Cinderella, she doesn’t even make it to the opening credits. Mothers seem to only serve the purpose of giving birth to little heroes or heroines and then shuffling both off stage, preferably by dying.
However, even before the birth, mothers can have a big influence on their child. In the story of Rapunzel, her pregnant mother is overcome with food cravings and sends her husband into the garden of the witch next door to fetch the cooling salad leaves of the Rapunzel plant (sometimes translated as lettuce in some English versions). He is then captured and forced to give his baby to the witch and thus the whole story begins.
This is only one example of mothers demanding gifts from their loved ones. Mothers are used to receiving pleasant gifts on Mother’s Day; chocolate and alcohol are, I understand, much appreciated. However, they often find themselves in receipt of some unusual and downright disturbing gifts (bath salts, hideous bouquets, unflattering cardigans, Zumba lessons, etc). Why is this? It might owe something to the tale of Little Plumwise, an Eastern European tale about gift giving and a band of fairies who have turned their hand to highway robbery. In the story, Plumwise works in the town but takes a basket to her mother’s forest home every Sunday. However, she is attacked by thieving fairies who take her wares and scoff all the tasty treats she has made. But Plumwise is a clever fairy tale heroine and solves the problem by only taking her mum the most horrible of gifts, including but not limited to a scarf knitted from nettles, pies filled with horse dung and teapot with a hole in the bottom. Soon enough, the fairies abandon the idea of robbing Plumwise, knowing her goods to be worse than useless. Now, Plumwise can once again take delightful gifts and sweet pastries to her dear old mother (slipping in the occasional dung pie, in case the fairies think of robbing her again).
Cod Goes A-Mothering
Not many people realise that Mother’s Day in the UK, also known as Mothering Sunday, originally had little to do with one’s own mother. The day was an opportunity for people to return to their ‘mother’ church, the one where they had been baptised, and renew their connection to their home parish. In the UK, young people in ‘service’ (working as household staff for their social betters) were given the day off to go ‘a-mothering’. This tradition, in England at least, perhaps has its origins or has some connection with the little-told tale of Cod Goes A-Mothering.
The story deals with an ungrateful young man called Cod who leaves home to seek his fortune away from the fields and hills of his home (the exact location of that home is always specifically given in the tale and is always somewhere local to the place where it is being told). He finds his way to the city and does indeed find work, sometimes as a smith, sometimes as a costermonger. And, although he amasses a small fortune for himself, he never sends any of it back to his dear old mother. This scandalous behaviour is only tolerated for so long and eventually one of the devil’s own imps seeks out the thoughtless young man and poisons him. Realising he has been poisoned, Cod seeks help, first from an apothecary and then from a priest. It is the priest who tells him that the poison can only be washed from his system by drinking holy water. Cod goes to a church and drinks but to no effect; he feels worse than ever. He goes to the next church and the next but without success. Cod runs across England ever searching for the holy water that will give him relief. Anyone familiar with fairy tales will be able to guess what happens in the end: close to death, Cod comes to his home village and his much-neglected mother and drinks from the font of his mother church. The young man is at once cured. And, now that he’s home, what can he do but spend some time with his mother and spend some of his wealth on her. Soon enough though, he’s off again. But, it turns out, the imp’s poison has not been entirely eradicated from his system and Cod becomes progressively more poorly again. A trip to his mother church causes the symptoms to abate but not cure them entirely and, thus, Cod must make an annual trip to his home town and his dear old mum.
So, what can we learn from all this? First of all, mums demand yearly tribute and all good fairy tale children must shower them with gifts (however rubbishy or bizarre) or face the consequences of disobedience. Secondly, we should love our mums while we still have them because fairy tale logic dictates that they have a lower life expectancy than hedgehogs on a motorway. And remember, that in fairy tales at least, if you don’t keep hold of your mum, you’re going to end up with a wicked ol’ stepmother and then you’re really in trouble!
You’ll find no such shoddy treatment of mothers or stepmothers (well, not much) in our latest comedy novel, Disenchanted, which you can order from Amazon here…