Every week, Fantasy Review Barn runs a feature where they seek out examples of fantasy tropes. Other bloggers are welcome to join in, finding their own books to match the given topic.
This week’s topic is Mothers:
Everyone has a mother. Including people in fantasyland. Just in time to be slightly early for Mother’s Day.
Mothers are everywhere in fantasy fiction. Frequently, they’re also dead, because it is difficult for a child to set out on a hero’s quest if their mother is around to stop them. I could list dead mothers of protagonists – in every genre, not just fantasy – for hours, but that might get rather dull.
Luckily, fantasy also contains many examples of still-living mothers, taking on roles right the way from hero to villain. I’ve gone for a mixture of examples here – some who live, some who die. The only common thread is that they are all mothers, and all from fantasy books. Even with those two links, it turns out that there are a lot of different roles for mothers in fantasy.
1. Cersei Lannister – George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
I’m a couple of books behind with A Song of Ice and Fire at the moment, so my conception of the character may be lagging behind the plot at the moment. Forgive me if I say anything that later books reveal to be nonsense. For now though, Cersei is my favourite character.
She gets a bad press, being seen as one of Martin’s unrepentantly evil characters, and I’ve always held that that is unfair. Cersei is no more evil than any other character. What Cersei is is utterly devoted to her children. With that devotion comes ruthlessness and a fierce protective instinct.
So from an outside perspective, she can look a little malevolent. But she lives in a harsh world for a woman, and a harsh world for a child; she has to make a lot of tough decisions and cross several lines in order to ensure that she survives and her children thrive.
That love and loyalty defines and justifies an awful lot of her actions. You don’t have to agree with all her decisions, but it must be noted that most of what Cersei does is done out of love.
2. Nanny Ogg – Terry Pratchett, various
“Matriarch” is perhaps a better word than just “mother” to describe Mrs. Ogg. She is a force of nature, a powerful witch with a more powerful singing voice. As the head of the Ogg clan, she rules over a legion of cowed daughters-in-law with an iron fist, and dotes on countless grandchildren and other small descendants.
Nanny Ogg has been everywhere and done everything, generally accompanied by men who are both enthralled and repulsed in equal measure. She has been painted by great artists, wooed by the Disc’s second-greatest lover, and (most commonly) watched with horrified fascination.
Nanny Ogg is not just a mother to her vast brood, but to everyone – after only a little while, everyone feels totally comfortable with her, coming to the matriarch for support and advice. Whoever you are, Nanny Ogg will mother you. And embarrass you. And horrify you.
3. Captain Jane Roland – Naomi Novik, Temeraire and sequels
Captain Roland is the captain of Excidium, an acid-spitting dragon. As such, she is rather unlike most women in alternate-history Napoleonic British society. She is not shy, or retiring, or given to fits of the vapours. Instead, she commands a loyal crew through various bloody combats.
She’s also a mother. While her relationship to her daugher, Emily, is not the focus of the series, there are snatches of scenes and details that show a strong and loving relationship; she and her daughter may spend their time on dragonback, far from each other and the ground, but Captain Roland is still devoted to her child.
4. Ungoliant – J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Ungoliant is the mother of all of Middle Earth’s monstrous spiders, weaving shadows around her vast bulk and lurking vilely in the forgotten depths of the world. Before there was light in the world, Ungoliant was there, spinning webs and waiting.
Tolkien’s spiders are always his most terrifying creation – Sauron is evil, but he doesn’t make your flesh crawl. The crushing weight of Shelob, the constricting webs of the Mirkwood spiders – Ungoliant is mother to them all, and worse than them all. More powerful, more malevolent, more foul.
She is not particularly maternal, but I feel that being the originator of all of the most horrifying monsters fits her very definitely into the “mother” category.
5. Unnamed woman – Sara Douglass, Battleaxe
Women do not get a good deal in the “Axis Trilogy”. Pretty much all of them get betrayed and brutalised at some point. The character who first gets this treatment is the mother of Gorgrael.
She doesn’t have a name, and she only has one scene. She gets torn apart from the inside by an abomination – Gorgrael, the one prophesied to destroy and ruin everything. While her insides are being wrecked, she’s also freezing to death and being hunted by ice-ghost monsters with silver eyes. It’s not a great start.
But that’s the entirety of her role – she dies alone and in horrendous pain, but she dies with a newborn baby. A hideous, twisted, evil baby. She fits on this list because she’s a mother, and because that’s all she gets to be. It’s monstrously unfair, and it’s a scene that’s always stuck with me, particularly as the later books reveal the back story and the reasons why she has to die. To be brief, I find those reasons insufficient.
Women get a raw deal in Battleaxe. One woman, the mother, gets an even worse one. I’ve always felt she deserved more recognition for her awful situation and cavalier disposal.
I think that covers a lot of the obvious ones – I’ve got an evil one, a dead one, a monster one and so on. I could go on – “mothers” is a rather wide trope, because the vast majority of characters have one. They pop up in fiction rather regularly.
The post on Fantasy Review Barn is here, and in addition to that list, there are links there to many other bloggers with their own take on the idea. Next week’s topic is Weasels.