My husband and I saw Eclipse at the movies today. (Let the record state that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it was his idea, not mine – I went along with it on the grounds of being hungover.) I’ve only read the first Twilight novel; he’s read none, though we’ve watched all the films together. Beyond this, my knowledge of the series has been fleshed out via numerous and detailed internet plot summaries. Walking back from the cinema, we started talking about what we’d seen, and one way or another, this lead to my mentioning the existence of Renesmee, Bella and Edward’s daughter as of Breaking Dawn, and the circumstances surrounding her birth.
Here is what I know about Renesmee: being a special hybrid child, Bella is only pregnant with her for a month or so, and by the end of the book, the continuation of her rapid physical and intellectual development means that, after little more than a year of life, she resembles a bright, precocious six-year-old. Off the top of my head, I can think of six other instances of Magical Pregnancy and/or Fast-Growing Children in fantasy narratives, but even where the device is used with skill and integrity, I’ve come to realise that it bothers me on a number of levels. At the most basic level, it’s simply too…convenient. Nine months is a long time, and small children are complicated, narratively as well as in real life: someone always has to be with them, and though they can’t contribute much in terms of dialogue for the first few years, they nonetheless exert a significant pressure on the actions of those around them. In that sense, using magic to speed things up is an understandable reaction. But what are the costs?
Back in the days of Xena: Warrior Princess, there were a series of episodes given over to the story of Gabrielle’s daughter, Hope, the evil child of the dark god Dahak. After gestating for only two weeks, Hope attained the physical age of a nine-year-old in just a few months, going on to reach full adulthood not long after. Given her intended role as a villain, this sped up her confrontations with Xena and Gabrielle, not to mention the fact that, in a TV setting, you will never see a child grow from infancy to school-age unless the show is specifically about that sort of development (Full House) or there’s a reasonable way to keep them off-screen most of the time (Friends). If a baby is introduced elsewhere, however, the writers have a problem: what happens next?
If the whole point of introducing the child is the person they’re going to grow into, then leaping right ahead to that point certainly makes sense – but it’s also something of a cheap trick. The actions of TV characters are already constrained, certain choices forbidden them in order to maintain the static premise of their shows across multiple episodes and seasons. Confront this normalcy with the prospect of week-in, week-out pregnancy and/or childrearing, and even the least analytic of audience members knows that the threat is hollow: magical or otherwise, something is bound to avert it. Through all the formula and familiarity, the tension in television comes from our knowledge that, even if only once a season, one of the threatened changes will be carried out, forcing the characters to react. Someone will die, a relationship will end – but raising a child is too great a threat. We know the writers are bluffing.
Another example: in Season 4 of Angel the vampire Darla gives birth to baby Connor and dies, leaving Angel to raise his son alone. But, sure enough, the passage of a few episodes sees Connor stolen away by one of Angel’s old enemies, who takes the boy to a demon dimension where – conveniently – time passes at a different rate. Scarcely has his infant son been stolen than a portal opens at Angel’s feet and spits out an angry, vengeful teenager in his place. Fastwind through a series of increasingly melodramatic events, and we watch as the now-grown Connor saddles Cordelia with a speeded-up pregnancy of her own, bringing the trope full circle.
Beyond the realms of television, there are novelised instances, too. In Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire series, the main character, Alisa, carries and gives birth to a powerful, demonic and fast-growing daughter, Kalika, in the space of a few months. Though not evil, the same is otherwise true of Blessing, the daughter of Liath and Sanglant in Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series, though this is the only instance of the trope I find palatable: nothing is circumvented because of it – in fact, it makes things more complicated – while Liath’s absence forces Sanglant to raise and protect their wilful daughter alone. In this iteration, it also helps that Blessing herself is a more realistic mix of childishness and maturity: her body might have developed quickly, but unlike Meyer’s Renesmee, she is still as naive, demanding and impatient as any toddler, and not just an angelic miniature adult. By contrast, the seven children of Snow White and Bigby Wolf in Bill Willingham’s Fables graphic novels progress from infancy to middle childhood in the blink of an eye for seemingly no better reason than that they can, a shortcut that allows their mother to continue her normal working life almost unimpeded. Rounding out the examples is the Icarii race in Sara Douglass’s Axis trilogy, all of whose offspring are sentient even before birth, able to communicate cogently via magic with both parents, thereby rendering the usual childhood troubles moot. This is possibly the weakest example, but even so, it is an instance of wherein normal human difficulties – such as parent/child communication – are erased with magic.
In each of the above instances, some explanation is given as to why these children grow so quickly. But even where that reason feels plausible, it also, with the notable exception of Elliott’s contribution, makes me sad. Because ultimately, what it seems to say is that motherhood – the process of carrying, birthing and rearing a child to an age where they are capable of walking, talking and learning on their own – is incompatible with a mother having separate adventures at the same time. That these parts of childhood must be removed from or circumvented in narrative, not because they might make for dull reading, but because they will inevitably curtail the actions of both parents (and particularly mothers) to such an extent that the story can no longer take place. That a fantasy heroine cannot be both a heroine and a mother at the same time; or at least, not a mother to small children. That it must always be one or the other.
Whenever it is that I have children, I hope that I’ll do my best by them. I don’t want to be selfish, neglecting their wellbeing and happiness for the sake of carrying on my own life as if I’d never had them, or as if they were no more than conversation pieces who’d changed me not in the slightest. But I refuse to believe that my own life, such as it is, will entirely cease to be. It will change, yes, in order to accommodate a different set of priorities, and I will change, too, because how could I not? It certainly won’t be easy. But in real life, parenting has no “skip to the school years” option. And every time I see a fantasy story take that route, a part of me worries that what I’m seeing isn’t just an easy television trope or narrative shortcut, but a warning about the perils of my future life.
Right now, it seems to me that children are an adventure in and of themselves, and maybe we in the fantasy business are doing a disservice to that fact by too often taking the easy, magically-aided route as regards the formative years of their upbringing. Alternatively, I’m being ridiculous and oversensitive. But even if I were given the choice, I think I’d prefer to slog out those early years and know my future children better than to press a button and have them be ready for school. Which, ultimately, seems to be the biggest cost of this trope – a loss, not of time, but family.