23 December 2021, The Tablet

Bad mothers: women in children’s literature

by Mary Boyle

Bad mothers: women in children’s literature

Kriemhild at Siegfried's body declares Hagen as his murderer and swears revenge
Photo: Alamy/Heritage image Partnership. Galerie Belvedere, Vienna


The Victorians loved to tell their children fairy tales drawn from medieval German legends – but they had a problem. At the centre of the story there is often a murderous mother

Dragons. Treasure. Heroes. Kings and queens. Dwarfs. Battles. Destiny. The stuff of fairy tales. These ingredients of an enduringly successful brand of fantasy literature, from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to Eva Ibbotson and J.K.Rowling, are essentially medieval tropes. The roots of this genre lie in a Victorian trend for cutting new fairy tales from old cloth. The English Middle Ages provided plenty of material, as did classical antiquity, but another port of call was the land of fairy tales itself: Germany, home to Grimms’ Fairy Tales, originally known as the Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Haus­märchen).

But Germany was more than just an enchanted forest. A growing nineteenth-­century interest in all things German, partly prompted by the marriage of Victoria and Albert, was accompanied by a drive to locate the beginnings of English culture and democracy in an “Anglo-Saxon” past, shared with other “Germanic” nations and opposed to pres­ent corruptions supposedly introduced by the Normans.

This in turn justified an English claim to a share in the creative outputs of medieval Germany, and so it is no surprise that late-Victorian and Edwardian writers identified the perfect raw material for a children’s book in a thirteenth-century German epic, the Nibelungenlied (“The Song of the Nibelungs”).

Get Instant Access

Continue Reading

Register for free to read this article in full

Subscribe for unlimited access

From just £30 quarterly

  Complete access to all Tablet website content including all premium content.
  The full weekly edition in print and digital including our 179 years archive.
  PDF version to view on iPad, iPhone or computer.

Already a subscriber? Login