The Role of the Mother in Children’s Fantasy Fiction

The Mother figure is of enduring importance to the children’s fantasy genre, from ancient mythology to contemporary novels. Looking at the stories Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Poison by Chris Wooding and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter) by J. K. Rowling it will be shown that this trope remains ever present through recurrent themes of duality and reconciliation. These themes will be explored in the contemporary texts indicated and compared to earlier versions of the genre as well as fairy-tales and mythology. This exploration will be supported by theoretical readings including Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment and Sarah Gilead’s ‘Magic Abjured: Closure in Children’s Fantasy Fiction’. Coraline, Poison and Harry Potter each feature the Mother figure in ways that both challenge and embody what has come before, in terms of the nature of the Mother, and reconciliation with the Mother. 

The Mother figure in children’s fantasy fiction takes on many roles that find their origins in myth and fairy-tale. Often multiple characters are utilized to examine the multiple facets of the Mother figure as in Cinderella with the benevolent deceased mother and the evil stepmother. This has carried through to early children’s fiction such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz) with Aunt Em, The Good Witches of the North and South and the Wicked Witch of the West. In this instance the good and bad witches represent the two extremes of motherhood while Aunt Em is the actual mother to Dorothy. Both Poison, Harry Potter and Coraline engage a similar splitting, however more in line with the fairy-tale duality. Poison, operating as a self-aware novel designed to comment upon the fantasy genre to which it belongs, invokes the fairy-tale dichotomy overtly. Poison’s mother, Faraway has died only a few years ago and her father promptly remarried another woman called Snapdragon. Despite their names Poison neither idealizes Faraway nor vilifies Snapdragon. The concept of domestic enslaver seen in the stepmothers of Cinderella, Snow White and other fairy-tales as well as Oz  is present in Poison but is really just an echo. Snapdragon asks Poison to collect mushrooms for dinner and berates her when she gets the wrong type  but nothing more. This dichotomy is not central to Poison’s narrative and serves more as a device to further isolate Poison from her environment. Her unhappiness and isolation is as much a prompt for her journey as the recovery of her sister, Azalea, after she has been swapped for a changeling by the Phaeries. Poison is told, “You would still have gone eventually… if it had not been that, it would have been something else.”  The true mother figure in Poison is Poison herself. She nurtures and cares for her little sister at the outset of the novel and then becomes the fierce protector and rescuer much like Demeter in Greek myth . Harry Potter also invokes the dual Mothers of fairy-tale and Harry takes on the position of domestic slave to his aunt, uncle and cousin.
Harry Potter fully embodies the dichotomy of good and evil found in fairy-tales, both in the contrast between Harry’s mother, Lilly Potter, and his aunt, Petunia, and the opposition between Lily and the villain, Voldemort. Lily is the all-good mother figure, inviolate in death, while Aunt Petunia, in fact the whole Dursley family, characterizes the cruel and dominating stepmother. Harry Potter works as a Cinderella retelling. Harry is a Cinderella figure, slaving away for the horrid Dursleys, wearing hand me downs instead of rags, and sleeping under the stairs instead of in front of the fireplace. Lily maintains her roles as archetypal good and protective mother in opposition to Voldemort’s absolute evil as well. Bettelheim writes that the child cannot comprehend contradictory emotions, “one either loves or hates, never anything in between.”  And this is what is played out at the climax of the novel when Harry, who has his mother’s love within in him, is attacked by Professor Quirrel, who has Voldemort’s hate within him. Lily is the mystical tree to which Cinderella prays, or the fairy godmother in later versions  but she also embodies the Good Witch of the North who bestows a protective kiss on Dorothy at the outset of her journey. Lily Potter’s perfect goodness is pitted against total evil of Voldemort and her love conquers all. Coraline, while not a Cinderella story, does utilize the double in representing the mother.

Coraline’s mother is not absent as in Poison and Harry Potter and therefore unable to be preserved as perfect. Coraline feels neglected and ignored by both her parents and wanders around the house and yards, like Alice before she enters Wonderland, “bored and restless.”  Her parents are neither good nor evil but ambivalent figures in the text. The importance of each parent seems balanced until Coraline enters the other world where she finds exact doubles for both her parents but her other mother, as she is called, is clearly in charge and becomes the villain of the piece. Bettelheim says “such a splitting up of one person into two to keep the good image uncontaminated occurs to many children as a solution to a relationship too difficult to manage or comprehend.”  While this may remain true in Harry Potter it does not hold true of Poison or even earlier stories such as Oz and it especially does not hold true for Coraline. Coraline’s real mother is not uncontaminated, she is imperfect. Once Coraline defeats the other mother her own mother seems changed, warmer and more welcoming, but it is Coraline who has changed. Like Dorothy who “returns home to a Kansas transformed by her new perceptions.”  Upon her return home Coraline thinks “Nothing…had ever been so interesting.”  As children grow up they begin to notice the flaws in their own parents, who until that time seem infallible. Coraline has reached this point and it is through destroying the worst aspects of the Mother represented by her other mother, a grotesque distortion of what Coraline wants from her real mother, that she is able to accept her mother for her, “wonderful, maddening, infuriating, glorious” self.  The monster is killed to make way for the human being. Through engagement with various aspects of the Mother Caroline, Poison and Harry are able to achieve a reconciliation with the Mother image.

Reconciliation with the Mother is a dominant feature of children’s fantasy fiction which precipitates closure. Alice of Alice in Wonderland and Wendy of Peter Pan both result in a reconciliation with the Mother by becoming the Mother. Alice’s journey is symbolic of the maturation process culminating in an imagined future in which Alice has become a mother, “we glimpse a future Alice grown up enough to tell stories to her own children.” Wendy plays at being mother to the lost boys and through this role play recognizes her need accept the role of motherhood, symbolically the need to grow up. As we see in the final chapter of the prose version, Peter and Wendy, she does grow up, becoming mother to Jane and the cycle is continued. Poison’s journey towards reconciliation reflects both Alice’s and Wendy’s however there is a duality of maiden and mother in all three characters the harkens back to the tale of Demeter and Persephone. The actual narrative of Poison echoes the journey of Demeter to reclaim her daughter Persephone from the underworld. As discussed earlier, Poison quickly adopts the role of protective mother to rescue Azalea from the Phaerie realm. While the aspects of the maiden are more obscure in Poison than in Alice or Wendy they are present. Her reconciliation is precipitated by and adoption of Persephone’s role in the myth. Unlike the typical return-to-reality closure found in most children’s fantasy fiction  Poison and Persephone do not return home, rather they show their maturation through accepting a new position, role and place in the world. Persephone becomes Queen of the underworld and Poison becomes the Hierophant, and creator and deity like being. In this moment Poison is both Demeter and Persephone, she has become a ruler of her own realm and at the same time a mother goddess with the power to guide and alter the world around her. Poison’s reconciliation is a symbolic one, with the concept of the Mother, rather than with her own mother as is the case with both Coraline and Harry.

Coraline reconciles with both her parents, however, as indicated earlier, the emphasis is on her mother. Similarly to Poison, Coraline takes on the protective role of the mother, returning to the dangerous world of the other mother to rescue her parents and, later, the souls of the children who came before her. Reconciliation occurs after she has achieved these goals and is escaping the other world, when Coraline hears a voice, “her own mother… just said ‘Well done, Coraline,’ and that was enough.” However, unlike Poison, reconciliation and Coraline’s maturation is not defined by becoming the mother. She has both matured, showing her changed perceptions by eating her dinner “even though it was home-made by her father” , and regressed to childhood, her father “picked Coraline up, which he had not done for such a long time, not since he had started pointing out to her she was much too old to be carried,” . Gilead writes “The return to childhood through fantasy narrative inevitably traces back to childhood’s end”. Coraline has achieved this to some extent by going through the fantasy world and reconciling with the mother however the fantasy, in the form of the other mother’s right hand has followed her out. Coraline is only able to defeat this element by enacting a symbol of childhood imagination, the tea party. She lays a tablecloth over the opening of a well and traps her other mother’s hand therein. After this Coraline is able to complete the maturation process, seen in her newfound ability to correct the old man upstairs when he mistakes her name and actually be heard, a symbol of her belonging to the real and adult world. This is further affirmed with the closing paragraph of the story in which Coraline’s excitedly anticipates attending school.  Like Coraline, Harry’s reconciliation does not require him to become the Mother, but to internalize her image.

Harry’s reconciliation parallels the story of Cinderella as he internalizes the mother figure in order to face the dangers of the world. Like Cinderella, Harry’s loss and mourning is represented in his miserable situation at the outset of the novel. Once he learns the truth about his parent’s death and magical nature he must begin the process of internalization. The struggle with this process is seen when his desires to be reunited with his parents are externalized in the Mirror of Erised. The mirror operates as the tree or magical helper in Cinderella. Dumbledore points out the futility of looking into the mirror. “Men have wasted away before it.” This has the same effect as the stepmother’s destruction of the physical symbol of Cinderella’s mother, allowing Cinderella to fully internalize the image of the good mother and use that strength to face the dangers of the world.  At the end of the novel Dumbledore reveals it was Lily’s love that saved Harry from Voldemort, “to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”  Harry has internalized the mother in order to survive. Harry’s reconciliation with the mother does not return him to the Dursley’s with a changed perception of them, but rather the fortitude to face them. Like Poison and Cinderella the ultimate conclusion, which Harry achieves in the final book of the series, is to remain in the new world to which he and his mother properly belong.

While the Mother figure in contemporary stories both diverges from and embodies the conventions of their predecessors, the image of the Mother remains central across all narratives. Coraline, Poison, and Harry Potter each evoke multiple images of the Mother that can be found in mythology, fairy-tales and earlier versions of the children’s fantasy genre in order to reconcile their protagonists with either their own mother or the Mother archetype. All three contemporary texts reference the dichotomy of the benevolent mother and evil stepmother of Cinderella and Snow White to varying degree and effect. Poison dismisses this in favour of an alignment with the maiden and mother goddess of Greek myth, which Poison ultimately embodies. Harry Potter fully utilizes it in a retelling of Cinderella which allows him to internalize his own mother and become stronger for it. Coraline rejects the benevolent mother in favour of a more ambivalent mother which Coraline learns to accept for who she is by grappling with her evil counterpart. The Mother figure varies in nature and roles within children’s fantasy fiction but never loses its critical importance to the narratives.


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