Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Fairy Tales and Maternal Ambivalence 

I had a recent discussion on Hansel and Gretel.

I understand that the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel depicts the ambivalence of the mother. The mother archetype is represented in both the children's mother and in the witch who owns the candy house. The children's mother originally resents her children and wants to return to a childless state. She asks her husband to abandon them. It takes two attempts (Hansel figures out how to get home), but finally the children are lost, only to be found by the witch. Whereas the mother wished to abandon her children, leaving their fate open to being adopted or to dying in the woods, the witch clearly has more sadistic plans. She intends to use the children for her own purposes, which means Gretel cooks and cleans for her, and Hansel is fattened up to become supper. The witch's actions reflect the occasional hatred that all mothers feel for their children. But the children's mother relents finally and wants her children back. She sends her husband to find them. He does, they kill the witch (the sadistic mother), and the family is reunited. Hopefully the children's mother has dealt with her ambivalence and accepted her duty to her children.

I need to read more fairy tales about mothers, if there is as much to them as that. I could only find one book in my library that seemed relevant. I'm looking for more, but here's what I've found.

In Psyche's Stories, vol. 2, (ed. by Murray Stein and Lionel Corbett) Genevieve Geer studies the role of the women and the mother in the fairy tale "The White Snake." The mother is close to the earth, lives in the "rhythms of birth, sacrifice, and death," and lives by a set of values that seem rather alien, illogical, and wrong when compared to the dominant patriarchal value system. To a young servant not her son, the mother appears as a "messenger between her [feminine] domain and that of the patriarchal world." In this fairy tale, she inspires the servant's quest after intuitively realizing he had committed a crime against her or her husband but guessing wrong as to the crime.

The Celtic myth of "Oisin's Mother" looks at the feminine cycle of maiden-mother-crone and what can happen when the cycle is disrupted, mostly at how a girl or woman can be trapped in the child maiden phase, according to Claire Douglas' examination in the same book. The character Saeve, much like Kore (Persephone) from Greek mythology, is an innocent maiden who is raped by a much more powerful being (a druid family member in Saeve's case, and Hades, god of the underworld, in Kore's), and their psychic development stops. But while Kore is able to transform herself, largely because of her own mother's devotion to her, the mother-less Saeve is trapped and flees her situation in the form of a fawn. Like Ariadne of Greek mythology, must find and integrate the animus, the male equivalent of herself. Both betray the powerful men in their lives, and are thus cut off from society, including the traditional matriarchy. But again, where Ariadne matures and finds a way to integrate the animus (in the form of Dionysis), Saeve attempts to find and cling to a strong lover but loses him. Ariadne matures and transforms. Saeve does not. She alone remains the maiden, defenseless and subject to the whims of the powerful men in her life. Douglas goes on to compare these three figures to sexual abuse victims (a very enlightening examination), but I want to focus just on the transition between maiden and mother, or maiden and adult. Of these three, only Saeve has a child, but she loses him when she can't fight to remain in the state of mother.

I don't know if I should read these things as commentary or look for advice somewhere in them.

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