Finally, a fairy tale for girls. And their mothers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales, partly because of the Snow White panel at ApolloCon and partly because fairy tales are such an archetypal form of storytelling that I’m always thinking about them just because. Some of the concepts we batted around on the panel come up over and over in literature and in literary criticism. After all, what is Snow White but the fairy tale concept of “fridging” told from the girl in the refrigerator’s point of view? (Not that fairy tale princesses really have a point of view.)
I’ve also been thinking a lot about mothers and daughters. The more I consider fairy stories, especially the princess stories,the more I see they are profoundly and deeply about mothers and daughters and passing the torch. In fairy tales, that passing is ugly and bitter. I believe it is Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment that points out that the mother in fairytales is the same as the stepmother. The loving mother disappears and the witch, the enchantress, the crone, takes her place. The evil woman jealous of her daughter’s youth and beauty and vibrancy seeks to take it away, eat her heart, kill her rival.
But in Brave, the story doesn’t go there. The mother-daughter bond must be broken so Merida can grow up, but her mother, Elinor, is not jealous of Merida’s pending independence. She is trying to foster it. She knows her daughter is on the cusp of growing up and taking her place in the world, and she wants to guide her on that journey. Now, like many mothers (cough cough) she thinks Merida’s path is the same as hers, and it is only through the events in the movie that she comes to realize that Merida needs her own path. The scene where Elinor is signing to her daughter what she needs to say to the lairds is so sweet and heartfelt — she figuratively hands over to Merida her power.
And note what Elinor wants for Merida. She doesn’t want her to be a princess. She wants her to be a queen. She wants Merida to have her power. If we see this as controlling and imprisoning, we aren’t really seeing what her mother has accomplished. Elinor is powerful (and no wonder her name is Elinor; a nod to that greatest of Eleanors, of Aquitaine). In Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, this theme comes up too — the protagonist Marye is swept away by Koschei, the Tsar of the land of the ever-living, but she is always a princess, never a queen. Queens have power; princesses don’t.
Brave is such a hopeful, nurturing fairy tale and it’s a fairy tale for our time, for the women we are and the women we want our daughters to become. When the time is right, we want to do what mothers do now and forever — make our children ready for their lives as adults, even if it means they have to follow their own path and not ours.