Fairy Tale Fathers and Their Failings

Through the years, fairy tales have provided commentary on marriage, family life, social mores, and more. Often deceptively simple, these stories illustrate patterns observed in life, few more distressing than that of the fractured family. A review of well-known stories reveals that the deficient father is a fairy-tale staple–often counterpart to the evil mother/stepmother, though usually not as severely condemned.

In general, fairy tale fathers fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Absent or dead. In Snow White, Rose Red, the mother is a widow and beyond that there are no allusions to the father or his fate. In the Grimm’s version of Snow White, presumably the father lives, but there’s no mention of him–he simply fails to play a role in the story or in the life of his daughter, not uncommon for fairy tales.
  2. Subservient to an evil mother/stepmother. This is a common circumstance, found in Hansel and Gretel, Father Frost, many versions of Rapunzel, and numerous other tales. In these stories, the fathers simply go along with terrible plans concocted by the mother or stepmother and willingly abandoning their children to death, imprisonment, and the like.
  3. Self-serving and malicious toward their children. Grievous stories like Donkey Skin illustrate this, and to a lesser degree tales that account fathers pitting their sons against one another, all the while hoping to hold onto their own power, or offering their daughters in arrangements that benefit none but themselves.

Only in the rare fairy tale, do fathers take a strong, caring role in the live of their children. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of any such tales, aside from some versions of Beauty and the Beast–and even then, the father is often willing to sacrifice his daughter in his stead. These stories address an unfortunately common reality, and modern-day fantasy carries on in much the same vein.

I would like to see positive family dynamics portrayed more often, but it’s worth noting that while these tales often present the failing of fathers and the suffering of children, they conclude in a fashion far from bleak. The characters may come from troubled families, may have the worst of fathers (or mothers), may indeed suffer long…but their family circumstances don’t ultimately determine their fate. And that, I think, is a Biblical perspective. We’re not bound by our past or by our origins, but can overcome even the worst of situations by the grace of God.

Therefore, stories that depict failing fathers, cruel mothers, and fractured families have significance and can offer hope. Yet so can tales with strong, healthy families, albeit hope of a different nature. So I’m curious. As a reader, which is more meaningful to you? A character with a healthy family life or one who overcomes a difficult family background?

And if you’re a writer also, which do you find more often in your stories?

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7 Responses to Fairy Tale Fathers and Their Failings

  1. Mary says:

    Both are meaningful to me, but as you said, in very different ways. Part of the issue could be that the bigger and more difficult the obstacles are that a hero/heroine must overcome, the greater a hero they actually are. While they can still overcome and be heroes with an intact, loving, supportive family, coming from a broken or even evil family makes a character’s journey so much harder, and therefore makes them ‘more of a hero’ as far as the story is concerned.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I think that’s one of the primary reasons that protagonists often come from broken families. When they must venture out into the world without support–or worse–with active opposition from their families, their adventure becomes more difficult and often more engaging, as we root for them to gain victory. Not to mention that difficult family situations frequently serve to engage immediate reader sympathy.

  2. C.J. says:

    As a reader, I actually much prefer stories with strong families that are battling external issues together. I believe this is the model God has for families. However, I understand that many (probably most) families aren’t walking in this level of unity, so there is definitely a place for stories that show negative circumstances and how God moves in the midst of it, but I would love to see more with strong families walking in the way God designed.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Yes, I would definitely agree that God’s desire is for strong, healthy families! And there’s something lovely about seeing those depicted in a real way in the pages of a novel. I think I may do a follow-up post about the stories that DO depict positive family dynamics. 🙂

  3. Mirriam says:

    I know what you mean!
    Also, mothers are generally looked upon badly –
    either dead or absent, or the evil, witch-like stepmothers we all know and hate. Even the siblings are generally not worth much; either selfish and petulant (Beauty and the Beast) or malicious and scheming (Cinderella). Strong families are not something fairy tales tend to encourage, and I’d like to see a change in that. However, I think many times these tales are encouraging – no matter your situation, even if you believe yourself to be completely alone even in the midst of your own family – there is always hope. This is one of the reasons I love fairy tales so much 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      As a whole, fairy tale families are the opposite of what our culture would expect, based on the term. They’re not happy, healthy relationships, but frequently difficult, oppressive, or downright abusive. Yet the stories are rarely without hope in the end, which is one of the things that makes them endure through the generations, I think.

      You bring up a good point about how siblings often mistreat the hero/heroine of the tale, though there are some touching tales of sibling devotion, like The Wild Swans. I love that one!

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