If you have a fairy tale relationship with your mother, there’s a good chance she’s actively plotting your death. If you’re lucky, it may just mean that she’s horribly neglectful!
Everyone knows about the wicked stepmother, especially in the Brothers Grimm tales. What many people don’t know is that some of those famous stepmothers were originally mothers. But whether they’re blood-relations or not, they’re pretty scary and manipulative villains. In honor of Mother’s day, let’s take a look at some of the best-known wicked stepmothers and mothers. For those of you playing at home, I’m using Jack Zipes’ new translation, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.
“Little Red Cap”
Now there are older versions of this story in which there is no mother mentioned at all. In the version the Grimms published, however, the mother warns Red not to stray from the path because she could fall and break the bottle of wine meant for her grandmother who lives in the woods. This seems like a pretty routine and reasonable errand for a child. There are only two problems:
- At least one wolf also lives in the woods.
- No one has ever bothered to explain to Little Red Cap what a wolf is.
That’s right. According to the text, Red encounters the Wolf and “didn’t know what a wicked sort of animal he was and was not afraid of him” (85). That is a pretty key piece of information to leave out, mom. And grandma. And frankly, anyone else living in a village on the edge of a forest inhabited by large predators.
Wickedness Factor: 3/10
I am giving the mother the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t deliberately try and get her kid eaten. But if parents don’t talk to their kids about wolves, who will?
The answer is wolves. Wolves will.
Cinderella’s antagonist is still a stepmother. Cinderella’s mom dies and becomes a magic tree that gives her the gowns for the ball (taking the place of the fairy godmother found in the Perrault version). The wicked stepmother and stepdaughters treat Cinderella like a servant, are very mean, etc., none of that’s new. But the stepmother’s treatment of her own daughters isn’t great. In an attempt to gain the prince for one of her daughters, she convinces each in turn to mutilate her foot to fit in the famous slipper.
Wickedness Factor: 6/10
There’s no question that her treatment of Cinderella is cruel and abusive, but when it comes down to the wire, her treatment of her own children isn’t much better. Who needs a toe if you get to be queen? Except neither gets to be queen and now your children are maimed. Well done, you.
“Hansel & Gretel”
Here’s one where the stepmother was originally the mother. Hansel and Gretel’s own mother is the one who conspires to leave them in the woods to die in order to preserve her own life. You can see why it was later changed to a wicked stepmother. The idea that a mother would do that to her own children is profoundly disturbing. However, that change causes something to be lost. It is a common theme in the Grimms’ tales for a stepmother not to love her stepchildren. While a stepmother leaving her husband’s children to starve or be eaten is still cruel, it’s nowhere near as horrific and unnatural to us as a mother doing that to her own flesh and blood. And Hansel and Gretel’s mother definitely lobbies hard for this to happen. Twice.
Wickedness Factor: 6/10
Desperate and selfish and, ultimately, futile. She dies anyway. At least in a screwed up way Cinderella’s stepmother wanted what was best for her children, not just herself.
“Little Snow White”
Again, this wicked stepmother was originally the child’s mother. She wishes for a child, bears the child, loves the child until the child is prettier than the she is, then tries to kill the child. She tries to kill her child four times. She even originally asks for Snow White’s lungs and liver so she can eat them because if you’re going to do something, you should never do it by halves.
Wickedness Factor: 10/10
She’s the quintessential fairy tale villain.
“The Juniper Tree”
If you’ve never read this story, you can do so here. Go ahead and read it now; I’ll wait.
Just to recap, this woman
- Murders her stepson by decapitation
- Tricks her daughter into believing the girl killed her stepbrother
- Feeds her stepson to his father as a stew
Wickedness Factor: Mommie Dearest
Suffice to say, she is probably not getting flowers today.
Happy Mother’s Day from the Brothers Grimm and W&P!
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Trans. Jack Zipes. Ed. Jack Zipes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014. Print.