Love, loss, and seeking: maternal deprivation and the quest
[Published in Children’s literature in education, 15, 2; Whole number 53. Summer 1984]
“One day, when little Koala climbs on its mother’s back, she pushes it away. Little Koala is shocked. Its feelings are hurt. It tries again. Again she pushes it away. Little Koala begins to cry. The forest fills with the sound of sobbing.”
For many of the higher mammals, and notably for humankind, the experience of separation from maternal care is characteristically much less abrupt and painful than that described above. But for some human children there is just this shock of sudden loss, sudden deprivation, at a stage in the child’s own development when he or she is not equipped either psychologically or emotionally to cope with such loss. There are many deep and long-lasting effects of this on the individual’s growth and development.
In three notable cases one of these effects would appear to have been a taste, and a gift, for writing the kinds of stories which may be called either “Fantasy” or “Modern fairy tales”; especially those which involve the theme of quest or exile. George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien all lost their mothers during childhood or adolescence. This article seeks to explore some of the results of this common experience of suffering upon their imaginative writings. While it is possible to trace direct parallels between incidents in the lives of these men and incidents in their stories, it may prove more fruitful to consider the overall tone of their books, the attitudes and assumptions reflected in them, which themselves can be seen to result from the experience of deprivation.
Loss, insecurity, nostalgia, an elegiac mood of “Where is it now?” as expressed, for example, in Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” – all these elements are present in works these authors wrote for adults as well as those intended for children. There is more binding these three together than the simple surface facts of their lives: Tolkien and Lewis were close friends, and Lewis passionately admired MacDonald both as an author and as a spiritual guide. The affinity between them as writers and people grows partly out of this shared pattern of early childhood sorrow.
Not that sorrow and loss in themselves are to be regarded as entirely negative elements in human life:
“In a positive sense, rejection is a basic function of the elementary maternal that releases the grown young . . . and drives them away. Rejection permits living creatures to arrive at their natural development.”
In other words it is an essential part of good maternal care to separate the growing individual from the mother, more or less gradually according to the species of creature involved, in order to encourage the young being to achieve independence and self-reliance-in a word, maturity.
Unfortunately, among highly evolved and psychologically complex creatures, even normally nurtured and adjusted individuals cannot avoid experiencing this natural process of separation as a loss and a deprivation:
“…the ego and the individual that emerge from a phase of containment … experience the situation as rejection. We find a subjective experience of distress, suffering and helplessness in every crucial transition to a new sphere of existence . . . the ego experiences this revolution, in which an old shell of existence is burst, as rejection by the mother.”
So throughout our lives any new situation is likely to make us feel insecure and threatened, however minimally, because it repeats for us the sense of anxiety and doubt that we knew during the process of being encouraged by our parents to stand on our own two feet. How much deeper and harder to bear must the loss and pain be for the child whose mother is suddenly and arbitrarily snatched away, and who may therefore never pass through the normal stages of this gradual, contained, controlled separation.
- S. Lewis was in many senses the most “deprived” of the three authors under consideration. A haunting sense of emptiness and loss fills the opening pages of his spiritual autobiography, “Surprised by Joy”.
“There came a night when I was ill and crying both with head- ache and toothache, and distressed because my mother did not come to me.”
Lewis dates his loss from this first moment of awareness that his mother was ill; it is not her actual death that is the moment of separation:
“For us boys the real bereavement had happened before my mother died. We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations.”
Although Lewis and his brother developed at this period the close loving bond that was to survive throughout their lives, there was so much loss that the picture is a bleak one indeed for a child of only seven or eight; for the boys’ father also became remote from them, bound up in his own grief, and the easy relationship between them was never restored:
“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now, the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”
“Sea and islands.” Readers of Lewis will think immediately of the quest of Caspian (a motherless king) in “Dawn Treader”, wandering from island to island, on one of which he meets the daughter of a star, who becomes his wife. (A useful substitute for a mother!) Or of Ransom on Perelandra, a planet of islands, meeting and reverencing the Lady, the archetypal Mother who is Eve in that world. But the most direct reference to the death of his mother in Lewis’s fiction must be in the story of Diggory, who calls his mother back to life when she is very close to death, by means of the Apple of Life, the gift of Aslan of Narnia.
The moving scene towards the close of the story when Diggory cures his mother is heightened in its poignancy when seen as deep wish fulfilment by Lewis. Earlier, Diggory has overheard one of those “whispered conversations” that Lewis remembered so bleakly:
“What lovely grapes!” came Aunt Letty’s voice. “I’m sure if anything could do her good, these would. But poor, dear little Mabel! I’m afraid it would need fruit from the land of youth to help her now. Nothing in this world will do much good.’ Then they both lowered their voices and said a lot more that he could not hear. “
And Diggory does actually bring for his mother the fruit from a newborn world that will really save her:
“And no sooner had she finished it than she smiled and her head sank back on the pillow and she was asleep, and he was sure now that her face looked a little different.”
And then comes the conversation that Lewis never overheard but may well have fantasised hearing even as a small boy in the midst of his loss:
“Miss Ketterley, this is the most extraordinary case I have known in my whole medical career. It is – it is like a miracle. I wouldn’t tell the little boy anything at present; we don’t want to raise any false hopes. But in my opinion . . .”
Again the whispers: “then his voice became too low to hear.’ But this time it does not matter, because the little boy is not excluded at all, he is in the centre of it, he has made it happen. This is exciting and moving reading, even taken at its face value as an invented incident in a work of fiction. One hopes that for Lewis himself its cathartic action healed or assuaged at least some of the deep-rooted grief. As a footnote, it is interesting to remember that when Lewis eventually married, he chose a woman suffering, as his mother had, from cancer. A case of life mirroring art, for like Diggory he was involved in and had an effect on Joy Davidman’s suffering. There was no staving off of death, but an adult sharing of grief and pain – and perhaps a final expiation and self-forgiveness for the bewildered small boy who had lost his mother and had had no power to save her or to ease her pain.
Neither MacDonald nor Tolkien suffered as deeply as the young Lewis, and neither man offers in his stories such a directly escapist, self-consoling incident as Diggory’s experience. Yet the effects of the trauma are still visible, in the questing structure, the themes of exile and vulnerability and loss, the incidents and motifs that echo the deprivation of the past:
“Thus hunger and thirst may take the place of food, cold of warmth, defencelessness of protection, nakedness of shelter and clothing, and distress of contentment. But stronger than these is often loneliness. . . . “
Like Lewis, MacDonald was about eight when “She died … of the tuberculous disease which had invalided her for as long as he could remember.”
It is perhaps this parallel in their experience that helped to mould MacDonald and Lewis in such a way that the mind of the earlier writer spoke so directly to the young Lewis, as he records in “Surprised by Joy”. Yet superficially it would seem that MacDonald was spared much of the loneliness and defencelessness that the Lewis children experienced. He remained close to his father, and their family was large and supportive. His son Greville MacDonald writes;
“… their aunt, Miss Christina MacKay, came to live with them, her love and devotion being always remembered by her nephews.”
Later, when MacDonald was in his early teens, his father remarried, and
“The new wife took the place of mother in the hearts of both father and boys: indeed my father owed to her everything that the most devoted of mothers can give.”
Still, MacDonald’s writings of the “fantastic” or fairy-tale kind, in particular, “Phantastes” and “The Princess and the Goblin,” suggest that a good deal of grief, pain, even guilt, were buried in childhood to emerge unconsciously in fictional form. Quest and exile, vulnerability and isolation figure largely in these two stories. Irene, unlike Caspian, Diggory, and Tolkien’s hobbits, undertakes no quest, yet is very much an exile figure. Her mother is dead, her father far away, her nurse Lootie far from competent, she herself too young to have any hope of escaping the goblins without help or guidance. Even Curdie is not a totally dependable protector, doubting Irene’s stories of her Grandmother and needing as much help as Irene. The really strong, reliable, and wise figures in the book are Grandmother and Curdie’s mother. The same spirit, the same calm, beauty, certainty, and dependability characterise the peasant woman and the Fairy Lady. Security, warmth, and comfort are the keynotes of Irene’s experience of both:
“The little princess nestled up close to the old lady, who took her in both her arms and held her close to her bosom.”Oh, dear! This is so nice,’ said the princess. “I didn’t know anything in the world could be so comfortable. I should like to lie here for ever.’”
“Oh, Curdle! Your mother has been so kind to me-just like my own grandmother.’ Here Curdie’s mother gave the princess a hug, and the princess turned and gave her a sweet smile, and held up her mouth to kiss her. “
Magical and domestic are combined in the portraits of both women; feeding, bathing, putting to bed are as expressive of their care for Irene as the Grandmother’s supernatural powers or Mrs. Peterson’s commonsense and intuitive wisdom. Irene has had Lootie’s care throughout her childhood, including kisses and cuddles and tuckings into bed, yet she still seems to find something in these mother figures that is more “real” and valuable. Between the two of them, Grandmother in her very old and very youthful manifestations and Mrs. Peterson in her matronly qualities, the women present all three aspects of the Triple Goddess, the Great Mother: Maiden, Lady, and Hag. The picture MacDonald paints is a purely positive one, all negative female traits being attributed to the unfortunate Lootie and the hideous Goblin Queen. The eternal motherly aspect of the female is idealised and reverenced, and Grandmother’s spinning, together with the lamp that is like the moon, set her up as a great and dignified goddess figure, powerful and protective and utterly to be trusted. Is it not likely that just such a figure might evolve out of the longings and idealised memories of a young child whose mother has been taken from him?
“Phantastes” reveals the same need for an idealised mother figure, but is much more disturbing than the fairy tale. Irene is always safe enough from real harm to satisfy the fears of a child reader. Anodos, by contrast, is a wanderer in a strange land where literally anything might happen at any time and where there are false and beguiling impostors who set themselves up as the long-desired Mother, only to betray or leave him. Moreover, Anodos is constantly offending against women, and damaging them, so that one may begin to suspect in MacDonald, as in Lewis, the existence of that buried guilt which is a common feature of the reaction of the young child to the death of a parent.
In his relationships with the good women in fairy-land, Anodos is essentially childlike and submissive. The beech-tree spirit is taller than he, cradles him in her arms so that “I felt as if I was wandering in childhood …” In the various houses he visits, the initiated, wise people who guide and help are all women. And the goal of his quest is not the romantic vision of a fair young maiden to whom he may aspire as a mate, but a married woman who he reverences, and whose husband is also an object of near-worship to him. He does not feel worthy of their attention, but is compelled to go on seeking them in case he can be of service to them. His clearest sight of them is in a mirror, and he overhears their talk of love for one another:
“She was near me and I could not see her; near me in the arms of one loved better than I, and I would not see her and I would not be by her. . . . I moved in a vision while they moved in life.”
When he eventually reaches them, all he can do is die in their service; there is no part for him to play in their lives:
“I was dead, and right content. I lay in my coffin, my hands folded in peace. The knight, and the lady I loved, wept over me. Her tears fell on my face…. They left me to my repose. I felt as if a cool hand had been laid upon my heart and had stilled it. . . . Never tired child lay down in his white bed, and heard the sound of his playthings being laid aside for the night, with a more luxurious satisfaction of repose than I knew when I felt the coffin settle on the firm earth, and heard the sound of the falling mould upon its lid.”
The juxtaposition of these two images of death and of a childhood bedtime, is shocking, and the sense of relief and peace hardly explicable unless one posits the catharsis of the buried guilt, whose possible effect on Lewis and MacDonald has already been mentioned.
Guilt is not a noticeable undertone in the works of Tolkien; but the effects of loss and deprivation are apparent. Tolkien was much older than Lewis and MacDonald when his mother died – thirteen. This was his second experience of such loss, although he was very young indeed when his father died, and claimed that he totally forgot him. Still, he refers to “my Atlantis complex” in a phrase strikingly reminiscent of Lewis, and that sense of leaving behind what was secure and settled was undeniably a repeated experience for him, as his life style and circumstances changed radically with the death of each parent. Humphrey Carpenter emphasises two important reactions in Tolkien to the death of his mother: first, an association in his mind between her and his faith; and second, a conviction that she had worked herself to death for the sake of her two sons. Carpenter speaks of
“. .. a deep sense of impending loss. Nothing was safe. Nothing would last. No battle would be won forever”.
This mood pervades “The Lord of the Rings”:
“I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. “
“Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the enemy. Yet if you succeed then our power is diminished and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.”
The allusions to the past and its comforts in “The Hobbit” are altogether more simplistic in tone, lighter and more amusing. Nevertheless they are there and function as a sort of refrain as Bilbo passes further and further away from the safe and familiar world of the Shire. From the beginning of his adventure he is out of his depth and expects to remain so, in spite of Gandalf’s belief that there is more to him than appears at first sight. His early reaction to his own involvement is typical:
“To the end of his days, Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, or a walking stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out. . . . “
And he fares no better when he is first ordered by Thorin to take an active part:
“Off Bilbo had to go, before he could explain that he could not hoot even once like any kind of owl any more than fly like a bat.”
Both these incidents clearly recall Neumann’s “crucial transition to a new sphere of existence” and its attendant trauma of rejection.
Bilbo longs constantly for home and familiar comforts, his own fire, his cup of tea, eggs and bacon, a pipe – all the domestic trivia of Bag End. Yet he goes on; and as he progresses, he develops. Tolkien seems aware, as the other two authors do not, of his own nostalgic tendency, his Atlantis complex, and there are signs in the story of Bilbo that he battled against it to some degree, even though, as the whole body of his fiction plainly shows, he never broke completely free of it. Bilbo thinks less frequently of home as his involvement in the quest deepens. A turning point comes in Mirkwood when his dreaming abstractedly of home leaves him unaware of the approach of the Spider and nearly finishes him. After this Bilbo is much more active, indeed dominant in the affairs of the dwarfs, and it is noticeable that the next time he wishes for home, it is because
“This is the dreariest and dullest part of all this wretched, tiresome, un- comfortable adventure.”
Previously he has wished for home on the grounds that it was safely dull, and the adventure too exciting.
When Bilbo is sitting on Smaug’s “doorstep:’ he again looks West towards home, but now he is aware of distance and strange lands, and imagines not just the quiet interior of his hole, but rather “. . the quiet Western land and the Hill and his hobbit-hole under it.” His vision has broadened.
He longs again for home under the stress of his two visits to the Dragon, and it is really homesickness that motivates his “treachery” and the bourgeois, inglorious turn his heroism is fated to take. Yet when he does get home, both he and home are different. “You are not the hobbit that you were,” says Gandalf; nor is Bag End the longed-for haven, all at sixes and sevens and the Sackville-Bagginses in possession. Even coming home involves a struggle. You cannot simply step back through a growth point, a critical experience, and be as if it had never happened. So Tolkien faces up to change, accepts that there is gain as well as loss, and does not seek either the impossible reversal of fortune Lewis depicts, nor the avoidance of growth to maturity that MacDonald symbolises in Anodes’ death. Yet loss and seeking remain keynotes of his work, and his ultimate source of comfort is beyond the tales of Middle-Earth. MacDonald and Lewis might have joined him in this assertion:
“In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. For behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond is more than memory.”
The appeal and value of tales such as these for young readers lies in the universality of the experience they evoke. Neumann’s claim that rejection is an integral part of nurturing is supported by Bettelheim and Winnicott. Bettelheim, writing about the origins and development of the self-concept and of self-awareness, quotes Winnicott:
“The good enough mother [we might say “primary carer” today] . . . starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.. .. If all goes well the infant can actually come to gain from the experience of frustration, since incomplete adaptation to need makes objects real. . . .”
Bettelheim then goes on to say that the beginning of the self concept lies in the understanding of the reality of the other, of the existence of things outside the self. First the mother, and then other people and a growing number of physical objects are recognised by the child as independent of itself, and from this understanding comes the knowledge of the self. Therefore it is vitally important that the nurturing mother figure should be, in another aspect, the rejecting or abandoning mother. Without this function, the carer would not assist the growing individual to full emotional and psychological security.
Nevertheless, it hurts. Adult human beings, older children, toddlers displaced by new babies, all need help to cope with the grief that comes from the loss of the former state, the golden age, the paradise. Such stories as the quest tales we have been discussing can assuage our grief by helping us to realise that others have experienced the same sorrows, and can purge our sorrow by enabling us partly to relive the experience itself and so come to terms with it.
Bettelheim, Bruno “The Empty Fortress: Childhood Autism and the Birth of Self” New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Carpenter, Humphrey “The Inklings” London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1978.
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Lewis, C. S. “The Magician’s Nephew” London: Lane, 1955. New York: Macmillan, 1955.
Lewis, C. S. “Perelandra” London: Lane, 1943. New York: Macmillan, 1944.
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