From: kippa on

Wicked parents in fairytales
by Hilary Mantel
The Guardian, Saturday 10 October 2009

In Europe in the days when maternal mortality was high – that is,
every age till very recently – a bereaved husband acted just like the
father in The Tale of the Juniper Tree; he wept greatly, then he wept
a bit less, then he rose and took a new wife. At some point, the child
of the lost wife is sure to ask: "What did my mother die of?" In the
Juniper Tree, the mother died of "joy". It's a more acceptable answer
than "She died of you". But not many children, in real life or in
fairytales, can have been fooled in this way. Generations have been
born into blood-guilt and reared by wraiths, the dead mother hovering
over the cradle, blighting the new marriage: souring the milk and
cracking the bowls, starting fires in the thatch and unravelling the
products of the loom. If the houses in fairytales are ever orderly,
neat and safe, it is a momentary illusion; you may be sure there is a
nasty surprise lurking. Do you wonder what are those savoury aromas,
wafting from the hearth? That is a human head boiling.

When we read fairytales now, the tools of psychoanalysis jump to hand,
like the animated dish and spoon in the nursery rhyme. But we mustn't
forget the historical reality behind the stories. Step-parenting, with
its grudges and feuds over right and inheritance, was a fact of life
through the ages, and now, because of frequent divorce, has become a
fact of life again. Modern families may not be quarrelling over
inheritance, but they are still at loggerheads over who gets what
share in the parent or child. We don't dismember the child for the
cauldron, like the boy in the Juniper Tree, but we shred him by
apportioning his time and love: weekdays with mum, weekend with dad.
And in step-families, sexual tension is the great unspeakable. In the
Brothers Grimm tale, Snow White is a child of seven. Her story makes
more sense, of an unpalatable kind, in the versions where she is on
the cusp of womanhood, a blossoming rival to her stepmother.

In life, as in the fairy stories, children will cling to even the most
abusive parent. Hansel and Gretel make their way back to the couple
who have tried to abandon them, and hope this time it will be
different. We do not want to believe this happens in real life, but
the news reports tell us it does. A casual boyfriend tortures and
murders a baby while its mother stands by with, at best, glazed
indifference. Normal parents cannot understand child-killers, but
fairytales hold up a distorting mirror that enhances our petty guilts.
There can be few mothers who, trapped with a fractious, wailing,
ungrateful baby, have not wished it momentarily removed, and then
become afraid of the dark powers the wish might attract.

In the Juniper Tree a father devours his own son with relish. Juniper
berries, of which this small boy is partly made, are a stimulant to
the appetite, yet in excess they are poisonous. But then, the whole
circumstances of this boy's existence are equivocal. A dream of
juniper berries foretells a male child, but to eat too many can bring
on uterine contractions. After the muddled father mistakes his son for
his dinner, a saviour sibling comes to the rescue. As Marina Warner
has pointed out, the little girl acts like a priestess in the ritual
arrangement of her brother's bones. The boy comes back to life in
smoke and flame; juniper berries produce a good deal of oily smoke and
are favoured in rituals where an illusion must be produced, a
forgotten face and form reconfigured. This story about ancient magic
and folk medicine has somehow combined itself with a story about
revenge on a wicked stepmother. But it is not surprising that a tree,
with its resins, mists, perfumes and exhalations, is the central

The journey into the wood is part of the journey of the psyche from
birth through death to rebirth. Hansel and Gretel, the woodcutter's
children, are familiar with the wood's verges but not its heart. Snow
White is abandoned in the forest. What happens to us in the depths of
the wood? Civilisation and its discontents give way to the irrational
and half-seen. Back in the village, with our soured relationships, we
are neurotic, but the wood releases our full-blown madness. Birds and
animals talk to us, departed souls speak. The tiny rush-light of the
cottages is only a fading memory. Lost in the extinguishing darkness,
we cannot see our hand before our face. We lose all sense of our
body's boundaries. We melt into the trees, into the bark and the sap.
From this green blood we draw new life, and are healed.