Mothers are some of the most resourceful people I know. I know this because I’m a mom—I’ve entertained my daughter for hours with nothing more than stuff I find in my purse and no electronics. We hold positions of authority. We shape new generations. We work inside the home and outside it. It’s been proven time and again that we can do it all. Then why don’t we go on quests?
I’ve read (and written) a lot of speculative fiction and not once do I remember a woman tucking up her children into bed before sharpening her sword by the fire. Have you ever read an urban fantasy that began, “She waved the children goodbye at the drop-off, hoping she hadn’t missed the window for the trans-dimensional portal,” or a space opera with, “Rey knew she was meant to find the last Jedi, if only Ella would get the hang of potty training?” I’m willing to bet a whole stack it’s never been written. Motherhood is when you hang up your spurs and tell the tales of your youth because maturity and experience are a hinderance on quests, right?
But why? As I mentioned before, whose more resourceful than a mother? I’ve gone weeks without sleep, confronted countless unknowns and dangers—anticipated, searched and deduced the indecipherable. Aren’t those key elements to a good chosen one? In Greek mythology Demeter brought the world to a standstill and descended into the underworld just to find her daughter. That’s a Mother Hero.
As writers of fantasy we love to imperil the young and immature, still uncertain of their responsibilities. We delve into the realm of firsts and watch as they grow with each misstep or triumph. Harry Potter grew from a neglected eleven-year-old boy to a seventeen-year old chosen one, but still a boy. Could Molly Weasley have taken on the Dark Lord instead? Imagine the story of a woman with seven children and little money taking on the greatest evil.
Heroic loners have nothing to lose other than a chance to be remembered. A mother can save the world but lose her family. How powerful would Spock’s speech in The Wrath of Khan about “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one” have been if he was a mother? Is there really so little inner conflict with a character who has to weigh the fate of the world against the safety of her child that writers ignore the possibility?
The likely culprit of this oversight is worldbuilding. A fantasy writer can commit thousands of words making the world in their mind come to life for the reader. It can read like a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, spending an entire chapter describing a wild rose bush. The modern reader finds this tedious (at least I do). To get to the story, we create a shorthand for the accoutrements. Or we prefer to visualize magic working at a time when science was scarce. Therefore, many fantasy stories take place in a medievalist recreation—men in hose with swords, women in gowns and corsets—including all the prerequisite baggage. We can believe a young woman, still untouched by the demands of her society (or normally just on the cusp of being pushed into it) will steal her brother’s chain mail and seek out the “item of destiny” or inherit the “power from prophesy”. Meanwhile her mother hounds her to sit up straight and fix her hair or she’ll never catch the prince’s eye (who invariably marries her because he likes her moxie). What about her mother? Doesn’t Wilhelmina Baggins taking on a mission with a wizard and some dwarves and getting more than she bargained for sound plausible if she needed a little “me time”? Wouldn’t portraying a mother going on a quest be a perfect parallel to the mother who must decide whether to continue chasing her outside career or staying home?
I’m guilty of it, too. I rarely considered mothers in stories to be more than queens, who hold power, but do none of the heavy lifting. They spar with words, wit, guile and rule worlds. The young and untried risk life and limb for a chance to save the world. What if a queen chose both roles? I don’t have an easy answer for this. I’ve been a mother for ten years now and all my protagonists have been unencumbered females searching for a place in their worlds. I submit that mothers should join the search as well. Katniss Everdeen was young and maternal, but she could have easily been mature and maternal. I’d read that.
Mothers can be fierce and brave as well as nurturing and kind. They know all about sacrifice and patience. Giving birth demands Herculean strength and taking on a child you didn’t bear takes epic bravery—traits of a hero. Let’s celebrate that in the real world and in literary ones, too.
I.L. Cruz wants to live in a world where words are chosen with care, shoes are as comfy as socks, and reading time is sacred. As someone who’s taken the plunge into writing, she’s been working on a fantasy series, posting on her blog and searching valiantly for her perfect writing tribe.
When she’s not distracted by the voices of characters in her head you can find her wrangling her daughter and a super-mutt named Dipper, indulging in her guilty pleasure of costume dramas and fanboy flicks, and planning European escapes with her husband (where we always end up in a park). Her book, A Smuggler’s Path, will be available this summer. You can learn more at booksbyilcruz.com or her blog, Fairytale Feminista.