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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?