Like a lot of writers, I have tons of random interests and a head full of useless facts. One of those is Egyptology. It’s given me a lot of fodder for the grimdark stories I weave, from priesthoods and monarchies to architecture and the afterlife. That said, I’m scrolling through the internet, and what do I find? This article about the first-ever pregnant mummy that was identified.
The mummy was flown to a research facility in Warsaw. It was labeled as a male priest, but thanks to the powers of technology, Egyptologists quickly identified the mummy to be a woman…and a mummy to be. 😈
Lame pun aside, it got me thinking about how pregnancy and motherhood are handled in the grimdark. First, because there’s so much of history that eventually gets lost that we don’t really know what was up. We can guess based on evidence, but that might not get us that far. Case in point: that one show That Shall Not Be Named™ with a recent brutal Caesarian section. But I digress. Also, case in point: the article.
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: because this was the first mummy they found with a fetus inside of it, they have no clue about the customs surrounding mummification and pregnancy in this case. Stillbirths were commonly mummified separately from the mother, and the mummification process would often dissolve fetuses that hadn’t hit the third trimester, the time when bones begin to gain their density. This pregnant mummy was about 20-30 weeks along, so no one is sure why the fetus wasn’t mummified alongside the mother. As the article said, stillbirths would be removed and mummified alongside the mother.
The find creates more questions than answers about how the Egyptians viewed pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood when it came to death, and even more questions about their beliefs about the unborn. These led me into questions about how these elements are incorporated into grimdark fantasy.
Other People’s Shoes
Personally, I have never, nor will I ever experience the hardcore process of growing a human being inside me and pushing it out over the better part of a whole day or more. I’m not going to experience morning sickness or have to worry about pre-eclampsia or the entire litany of what people in a “delicate condition” might experience if they have a growing fetus inside of them. Therefore, it’s not something I seriously think about as a personal experience.
Since writing’s the game though, I have to put myself in my characters’ shoes, regardless of my own personal experience (or lack thereof). So, as a grimdark writer, here I go, filling in the blanks on what pregnancy and motherhood is like in the grimdark. Most of which, I’d imagine, is obvious.
Zoom in on the Details
Like everything else in the grimdark, there’s neither sunshine nor ponies. If there are, it’s only to marinate the meat for your tears later. Pregnancy is definitely that in the grimdark. Someone finds out they’re expecting, the love they have for their sweetheart has been consummated, and it can be a great joy. Conversely, if it’s a conception by rape, well…that’s also a possibility in the grimdark, and like in our own world a horrifyingly real one.
Let’s put a pin in that for now.
The dark side of pregnancy is increasingly talked about on the internet: the health risks, shitty side effects, and the grand finale: labor and delivery, including pooping on the table, vaginal tearing, emergency C-sections, and the chance of dying.
Thanks to modern medicine, the latter is slim, at least, if you live in a country with comprehensive modern medicine. In the grimdark? You’re not so lucky.
Since most grimdark fantasy is set in the Middle Ages or before the modern era, it mimics the reality of that historic period: the chances of dying in childbirth were so shockingly high, it skewed the life expectancy of women. It’s also speculated to be the reason so many fairy tale protagonists don’t have moms!
Dying in childbirth is a gruesome way to go. Plus, the tragedy of a widowed spouse and an orphaned child can breed more tragedy in the form of wicked stepparents, destitution, growing up without a mom, and/or worse, being blamed by the surviving parent for your mother’s death.
Let’s rewind though, before childbirth and the related perils. If you found out you were pregnant in the grimdark, what would you do?
If someone gets pregnant, there are only three ways to manage it: termination, adoption, and parenthood. The first is more commonly called abortion (yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s controversial, whatever, I’m addressing it as fact), and abortion was around long before Roe vs. Wade. And the methods back in the Middle Ages for abortion weren’t pretty.
Besides dilation and curettage, which can be written as a horror scene in a medieval fantasy world, poisons were more common in the Middle Ages. Using herbs like rue and pennyroyal to induce a miscarriage was common and could be fatal if you took too much of a dose. George R.R. Martin refers to these methods when he mentions Tansy tea: both the tansy tea Lysa Arryn has to take after it’s revealed she’s carrying Littlefinger’s bastard, and the tansy tea Jeyne Westerling is pressured to take after Robb Stark is killed during The Red Wedding; unlike in the show, Robb’s wife doesn’t get axed there.
And that opens another can of grimdark worms: forced abortions.
Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare
Then, of course, there’s adoption and parenthood. Birth in a dark, cruel world. Since most grimdark is based on pre-modern settings, infant mortality was high, and with little to no social safety net, life outside the family unit (even in the family unit) meant destitution, starvation, or worse. Even within the family unit, abuse of all stripes and neglect would be common.
Those of you who are parents know: you’d rather not bring your kids into a grimdark world. Between what they’ll have to endure and the horrible things they’ll have to do to survive, it’s a clear “hell, no” as us moms and dads flip through the pages.
Is my Illyria going to witness pregnancy and parenthood in the grimdark? Will she become a mother herself at some point in the Temple of Vengeance series? Spoiler Alert: I haven’t finished writing that book yet.
In the meantime, though, check out the free (to newsletter subscribers) prequel to Raven Queen: Arise which features (surprise!) a pregnancy that could have gone better.