Where Are All of the Mothers in Fantasy Fiction?

From Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, debut author Gabriela Houston discusses the missing or maligned mother in some of our most popular speculative fiction.

Mother character Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones
Photo: HBO

This is a guest post from Gabriela Houston, the London-based Polish author of The Second Bell, a Slavic fantasy debut described as a cross between His Dark Materials and The Bear and the Nightingale. You can find out more about the book here.

Historically speaking, the fantasy genre has a thorny relationship with motherhood. Technically, it’s acknowledged that the protagonists must have sprung from somewhere. But it is often solely their paternity that is seen as important—while the mothers, if mentioned at all, are usually either dead of irrelevant: unmentioned or languishing in a convent somewhere.  If the mothers (or stepmothers: a different type of a mother-figure) persist in being alive into their children’s adulthood they are most often presented as an obstacle to their child’s self-actualisation/quest, or, as is most common with the stepmother archetype, present an actual threat to the protagonist. 

Since mainstream fantasy as a genre was Eurocentric, this is a trend that is very much connected to the patriarchal structures persisting throughout Europe for most of recorded history.  King Arthur, whose legend was first written down in the 12th Century by Geoffrey of Monmouth, had a mother, of course, but her only real importance was in how her beauty drew the eye of Uther Pendragon, who raped her, conceiving Arthur. Since Uther ended up marrying Arthur’s mother, Igraine, story-wise all was considered to be well, and, her role in birthing the future king done, Igraine became an irrelevance, just as any feelings and thoughts she might have had on her second husband. All we know is she was beautiful, chaste and gave birth to the real protagonist of the story. 

The courtly love conventions forming the basis of many medieval European legends have seeped into the genre of fantasy, especially high fantasy, and have shaped the way in which female protagonists are related to. In most “traditional” fantasy, motherhood was seen as nearly opposite to personhood. A female character’s value centred squarely on her attractiveness to the male protagonist, meaning that the moment she aged/became a mother, she ceased to hold that particular form of attention that comes from extreme youth and innocence. Motherhood is seen as the end of a female character’s journey. The experiences, shifting relationships and emotions linked to motherhood are not seen as interesting enough to garner any space at all. 

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Author Gabriela Houston and the cover of her book The Second Bell

In The Lord of The Rings, we are faced with a whole cast of missing mothers. Moreover their absence is not noted as particularly important or carrying any emotional load. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, clearly had a mother, but when his father died he was shipped off to live with the elves. We neither know, nor are expected to care about what his mother thought on the subject. Then, of course, he falls for the elven maiden Arwen, whose mother, we’re told (as an aside) had the good sense to disappear from the scene by sailing beyond the sea before the plot of LOTR begins. Frodo Baggins’ mother helpfully died before he was born and Bilbo Baggins has the rare privilege of having a named mother, Belladonna Took, who, however, is quite dead by the time The Hobbit begins, and is referenced only as a link between Bilbo and the adventurous Took clan. She was a Took and she birthed him. Thus her role ended.

The halls of speculative fiction are carpeted with the corpses of the mothers who died of  broken hearts and colds in order to not complicate their progeny’s journey. In fantasy TV and Film the trend, quite naturally, continued. In the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia and Luke’s mother, Padme Amidala lived a full life of adventure but then died of a broken heart shortly after her children were born, as of course she should have done. Can you imagine, had she survived, the plot-spoiling link to their past she would have become? In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Joyce Summer’s death, whilst arguably the critical highpoint of the series, was seen as necessary.  She had to die, or else Buffy might have never become who she was always meant to be. As a mother she was an obstacle, one the scriptwriters helpfully removed.

Occasionally, the death of the character’s mother brings about the advent of the perennial archetype of the evil step-mother. A twisted parody of what a mother should be, just as the dead mother was convenient to the character’s journey, the insertion of the stepmother exists solely to scupper all of the character’s efforts. The examples of the conniving stepmother trope abound in traditional folktales (like in Cinderella, or its Slavic equivalent, Vasilisa, where the young protagonist is sent off by her stepmother to ask a favour of the infamous witch, Baba Yaga), mythologies (think the ultimate evil stepmother, Hera, who habitually persecuted the innocent results of her husband Zeus’ many indiscretions), and, not surprisingly, in fantasy genre as well. 

In A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin (which actually does portray an unusual range of mothers with agency), Catelyn Stark, an otherwise fiercely loyal mother, is a cold and distant stepmother to Jon Snow. In the first novel in Katherine Arden’s fantastic Winternight trilogy,  the main protagonist grows up in the shadow of her vapid, fearful and cruel stepmother. Part of the reason, I’d argue, why older women are so often portrayed as annoying and conniving, is because, as far as the traditional narratives are concerned, the whole of their role and purpose is fulfilled the moment their physical (youthful) attractiveness wanes. Those without the wisdom to exit the stage by dying become at worst a cumbersome plot bunny and at best an obstacle.

The issue of a lack of older women in fantasy is such an expansive subject that it demands the respect of a separate thought piece, really. And, as regards the stepmothers, I’m not saying, of course, that they should always be portrayed as kind and loving. But precisely because their archetype is rooted so strongly in our collective consciousness, it’s particularly important to acknowledge their humanity. And as far as the humanity of the older female (in the traditional fantasy fiction this seems to describe any woman over twenty) character goes, the good news is the tide is turning.

Part of the reason for that is that more women than ever are given the platform to write their stories. Perhaps somewhere along the way the publishing industry as a whole realised that as women account for the majority of fiction readers (according to one cross-Atlantic research they make up to 80% of fiction market), then perhaps portraying women as actual people, whose agency doesn’t evaporate once they get pregnant, might simply be good marketing.

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In the recent years I’ve been ecstatic to see nuance brought into the motherhood trope within the genre. Where the mother of the character is dead, she is so for a damn good reason, with the echoes of her absence reverberating through the story in the most compelling ways, like in Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn. Mothers fight beside their children, and grandchildren (Like the pink-haired protagonist of The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier), and battle hardship and heartache, like in Madeline Miller’s Circe.

As a mother it was important to me to focus on the humanity of motherhood in my debut, The Second Bell. The mothers I wrote are not perfect, and they are not always right. And even when they are, they might not know it for certain. And that is the point. Mothers deserve their place in fiction not because they’re perfect, but because they are human. Their decisions are just as complex as their younger counterparts and are complicated further by their new and life-changing bond with their child.

Writing mothers is writing humans. No more, no less. They matter and they are worthy of notice.

The Second Bell will be released on Tuesday, March 9th. You can find out more about Gabriela Houston here.