Frau Totenkinder is a powerful witch from the comic book series Fables–a 150 issue series that tells the story of folklore and fairy tale characters who have been forced out of their homeland and into the mundane world of Earth by an enemy called The Adversary. I read the series earlier this year, and Frau Totenkinder quickly became one of my favorite characters because her story is so full of surprises.
Frau Totenkinder was young during the Paleolithic era…Or thereabouts. She began to see premonitions once she reached puberty, and her powers grew until she became the shaman of her tribe. She was expected to marry the chief’s son Aurac, who she loved, but when another tribe invaded their lands, he was married to that chief’s daughter to ensure peace. Totenkinder found herself alone and pregnant, an outcast. She sacrificed their child in exchange for the power to take revenge on her tribe—and she learned that sacrificing another child would keep her from aging. For man years she tormented the tribe that had ill-treated her while helping those who were kind to her. Eventually she tired of the blood-letting and allowed herself to age, going to live in a cottage in the woods.
Frau Totenkinder looks like a rather frail, fairly harmless old woman. But even her name (which is a pseudonym, of course) suggests darkness underneath the facade, as it translates rather literally from German to English as “dead children.” This hints at Frau Totenkinder’s identity back in the Homelands as the witch Hansel and Gretel burned to ashes after being caught in her cottage. Frau Totenkinder is also called by several other names, and it is not until she is ready to expend her full power that she allows her true name, Bellflower, to be widely known.
Frau Totenkinder is a respected and somewhat-feared member of the Fabletown community. She lives on the 13th floor of Fabletown’s building among the powerful witches and warlocks whose magic keeps the community going, and for most of the Fables story arcs, she is also the leader of the 13th floor community. Frau Totenkinder owes a debt to Snow White and Rose Red, or at least she feels as though she does–the two helped resurrect and care for her after she was burned in the oven, and so Frau Totenkinder has made their enemy her own.
But that does not mean Totenkinder always acts only for the good of Fabletown. Lets we forget her past…She is a complex character, ages old, with blood feuds of her own—Baba Yaga and the Blue Fairy are among her enemies. Frau Totenkinder is sharp-eyed and generally expects something in return for her assistance. She has an extensive intelligence network of spies and covert operatives in the Homelands, and she does not always immediately relay information to the Fabletown government. She still sacrifices children to bolster her power, though the Fabletown authorities believe that she has stopped.
Frau Totenkinder manages to be just about every unnamed witch in every story—she captured Rapunzel; she enacted the curse on the Beast; she captured Hansel and Gretel–and this is intentional, as creator Bill Willingham has acknowledged. She reminds us that there is great power in the unnamed, and that there is great power in names themselves. It is this duality that shapes her identity and the way that we experience her character.
And that is somehow true of all witches–they are both otherworldly and human; both crone and maiden; both desirable and repulsive.