The Contemporary Relevance of Folkloric Traditions
I’d like to write about child abandonment stories. It’s something that’s been on my mind recently. Partly for personal reasons I won’t go into here, and partly reflecting on the fate of thousands of solitary refugee children who find themselves separated from their families; alone and abandoned in lands to them as foreign, alien and threatening as any dark forest in a fairy tale.
In contemporary folkloric literature and analyses of fairy tales a great deal is often written about images of abuse, incest, mutilation and other darker aspects which we find as common themes in such contexts. Not so much is written about the theme of child abandonment.
However, I do think it’s one worth examining. It has a rather stark and contemporary relevance. It’s certainly a theme which touches all our of lives at some point. In childhood, in intimate relationships, in bereavement, a sense of being abandoned, however temporarily, is something we all know. Little wonder, then, that it plays such a large part in many fairy tales, mythologies, and folkloric traditions.
Child Abandonment Stories Around the World
Child abandonment stories appear in many different forms in folklore, legends, and tales all over the globe. Perhaps the most commonly known manifestation of this motif, at least in the European West, is that of the abandonment of children by their parents.
One may think of Hansel and Gretel, whose parents abandon them in the dark forest because they can no longer afford to clothe and feed them. It would be possible to make any number of symbolic interpretations, of course, but there’s little doubt in my mind the root of such tales is embedded deeply in historical facts.
In other stories there are darker suggestions yet. Children are abandoned because they are born as a consequence of an incestuous union, or they have themselves been used in such fashion.
In some tales we find the child is cursed, marked, or in some other way ill-omened. In the Celtic fairy traditions children who are considered to have been parented by supernatural beings, the devil; or to be changelings swapped by the fairy folk; or prophesied to destroy one or other of the parents, are frequently abandoned even as newborn babies.
Again, this practice most likely finds its origin in history rather than fantasy. Many contemporary and near-contemporary anthropological studies show how religious or folk beliefs, and more often economic and social pressures, lead to situations in which children may either not be supported, or for other reasons cannot be accepted by their social group, are abandoned or even slain.
In many primary, patriarchal societies where males are highly valued, a female child may risk being “exposed” in the wild and left to die. This is commonly the case in cultures with a dowry system in which the parents simply cannot afford to “marry off” a daughter.
The Fairy Tale Perspective
In these historical and contemporary social contexts the likelihood of survival for these children is, of course, very low. It’s intended they should die. In folklore, as in fairy tale, things turn out very differently.
Most fairy tale children will survive. Most will overcome their abandonment, achieving personal transformation and success or, ultimately, reunion and reintegration with parents and society as powerful and independent adults.
In this respect it may not be wholly fantastical to speculate that aspects of abandonment stories may incorporate elements of ritual initiation into adulthood; whereby the child is ritually abandoned or slain, in order to return or be reborn as an adult.
Adoption by Animal Guardians
Frequently in the folkloric child abandonment stories, the abandoned child or children is or are adopted by animal guardians. They may also fall into the hands of friendly or wicked witches, childless peasants or other guides and carers. In some circumstances they find themselves adopted into royal households. One need only think of Moses, abandoned in his wicker basket and adopted by the pharaoh himself. Or, in Greek legend, Oedipus (whose name, interestingly, refers to the binding of his feet when he was abandoned in the mountains). Turning to the North European tradition, the tales of Havelock the Dane who was unjustly displaced from his royal heritage as a child. Of course, such children live and grow not only to survive but typically, against all striving of the antagonists, to overcome their fate, or fulfill prophecy, or achieve the endowment of supernatural powers.
The Inuit tales are particularly interesting in this regard. Frequently, children abandoned in their story lines not only become great hunters or warriors, but return triumphantly from their exile and use their new skills to feed or protect those who rejected them. There’s also a minor tradition in some Native American folklore in which abandoned children return and use their power to avenge themselves, often by the murder of their parents or elders.
It is not, however, only the young who are at risk of abandonment.
Abandonment of the Elders
Exposure of the elderly and infirm has also proved common among nomadic peoples. When a person is no longer seen as viable (think of our own term invalid, meaning no longer valid); no longer able to make a supportive contribution to the group as a whole, and merely a drain on the resources of others, she is frequently abandoned in the wild to meet her last days, usually dying of cold or starvation.
It would be a mistake to associate this custom exclusively with nomadic tribal peoples of ancient times. It was common enough among the white European invaders of Turtle Island (now more popularly known as North America). The settlers driving West in their pioneer wagons left thousands of old people to die on the plains, in the mountains, and in the deserts along the way.
In a certain sense, and it’s a very real one, we continue this practice today in modern Britain. I’m not thinking only of the increasing numbers of elderly homeless persons we see begging on the streets. I’m also thinking of the literally millions of our Elders effectively abandoned in impersonal institutions whose primary motive is the profit margin, and whose appalling standards of care have been the subject of recent government inquiry. This is in stark contrast to my experience in my adopted home land of Italy, where it is fully expected that the family will rally together to care for the Elders, who play a full part in the family home until they breathe their last.
Abandonment of the Spouse
Another aspect of this motif, perhaps best exemplified in the Eurasian folktales of the “handless maiden”, is the abandonment of the wife. The cutting off of the hands by the husband before expulsion from the home is no mere invention of the dark folkloric imagination. Actual mutilation of this type was a common punishment in times gone by, intended to disabled the rejected person from feeding and fending for themselves. There are still countries today, Saudi Arabia springs to mind, in which various forms of mutilation, including cutting off hands, remain as punishments enshrined in law for female adulterers and the victims of rape.
Not all instances of abandonment in folklore and fairy tales are directly linked to such dark origins. Sometimes it’s simply a storytelling device which enables the heroine or hero to be liberated from the constraints of domesticity, and to participate fully in the adventure which will transform their lives.
Child Abandonment in Contemporary Children’s Literature
This more positive use of child abandonment stories is commonly reflected in adventure and fantasy stories of our own time written for children and teenagers. The protagonists in such tales are frequently abandoned, either through mischance, bereavement, or just for the holidays, so they can be the prime movers in their own stories without the guidance and restriction of parental authority.
While written in the steampunk genre, my own recently published novel, Beyond the Starline, uses this time-honored technique to pitch the protagonist forward into adventure. It also relies heavily on imagery drawn from folklore – the maiden in the tower, the animal guide, the girl disguised as a boy, and so on. It also deals with the attempt to reconcile the desire for belonging with the desire for freedom, and explores the childhood experience of abandonment by parents and society. In that sense I consider it a fairy tale, even though its setting and technologies are “retrofuturistic.”
In any case, whether in terms of giving us an insight into the past, a lens through which to examine and critique our own society, or as inspiration for new forms of storytelling, the ancient motifs of folklore and fairy story continue to exercise their power in profoundly relevant and contemporary ways. If we abandon them, then we abandon ourselves.
If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to read your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments below. Please share this post on your social media. That would be a lovely thing to do.
Image credits, in order of appearance: WorldVision, Alexander Zick (1845 – 1907), Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898), Help the Aged, Terri Windling. Images used in compliance with Fair Use Terms of International Copyright Law.