Reposted from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.
“Witch” is not a neutral word. In popular usage, even in this day and age, calling a woman a ‘witch’ is never complimentary – but neither is it entirely without positive implications. A ‘witch’ is a woman who may be perceived as (illicitly) powerful, throwing her weight about, inspiring fear or envy. A ‘witch’ is a woman who cannot be ignored.
And in this spirit of subversive enjoyment, I think many of the witches of children’s fiction have been conceived. I’m going to start off with a favourite from my own childhood, out of print now for many years: Beverley Nichols’ fantasy series for children beginning with ‘The Tree That Sat Down’. Here we meet the unforgettable Miss Smith. She looks like a Bright Young Thing, ‘as pretty as a pin-up girl’; she is actually three hundred and eighty-five years old; her familiars are three quite disgusting toads whom she keeps in the refrigerator; she puffs green smoke from her nostrils in moments of stress; she flies a Hoover instead of a broomstick, and she takes an energetic delight in wickedness with which the author clearly had enormous fun. As Miss Smith walks through the wood (on her way to make trouble for little Judy and her grandmother who keep a shop in the Willow Tree),
… all the evil things in the dark corners knew that she was passing… The snakes felt the poison tingling in their tails and made vows to sting something as soon as possible. The ragged toadstools oozed with more of their deadly slime… In many dark caves, wicked old spiders, who had long given up hope of catching a fly, began to weave again with tattered pieces of web, muttering to themselves as they mended the knots…
Miss Smith’s fetching exterior allows her to inveigle her way into all sorts of places. For example, she deals with the evil Sir Percy Pike who preys upon widows and orphans by lending money at extortionate rates. Miss Smith is ‘also very keen on widows and orphans’, and – driven by professional jealousy – presents herself to Sir Percy in the guise of a beautiful widow, bedizened with diamond rings.
At the sight of these rings Sir Percy began to dribble so hard that he had to take out a handkerchief and hold it over his chin. … No sooner had he shut the door, than she spat in his face, hit him sharply on the chin with the diamond rings, knelt on his chest, and proceeded to tell him exactly what she thought of him.
You can’t help cheering – even though Miss Smith is just as bad herself. She comes into all Beverley Nichols’ children’s books: the others are ‘The Stream that Stood Still’, ‘The Mountain of Magic’ and ‘The Wickedest Witch in the World’. Though she is of course foiled on every occasion, hers is the energy that drives the narrative.
Next on my list is the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer in John Masefield’s ‘The Midnight Folk’ (Heinemann, 1927) and – though appearing to a lesser extent – in the sequel, ‘The Box of Delights’. Little Kay Harker is a lonely, imaginative child: the book is peopled with his imaginary friends, toys, pet cats and ancestors who may or may not be ‘really there’. His life is ruled by the strict and over-fussy governess Miss Pouncer:
“Don’t answer me back, sir,” she said. “You’re a very naughty, disobedient little boy, and I have a very good mind not to let you have an egg. I wouldn’t let you have an egg, only I had to stop your supper last night. Take off one of those slipper and let me feel it. Come here.”
Kay went up rather gingerly, having been caught in this way more than once. He took off one slipper and tended it for inspection.
“Just as I thought,” she said. “The damp has come right through the lining, and that’s the way your stockings get worn out.” In a very pouncing way she spanked at his knuckles with the slipper…
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that at night when the Midnight Folk reign in the old house, Miss Pouncer is cast in the role of the chief witch:
There were seven old witches in tall black hats and long scarlet cloaks sitting round the table at a very good supper. They were very piggy in their eating (picking the bones with their fingers, etc) and they had almost finished the Marsala. The old witch who sat at the top of the table…had a hooky nose and very bright eyes.
“Dear Pouncer is going to sing to us,” another witch said.
And Pouncer does, to great effect:
“When the midnight strikes in the belfry dark
And the white goose quakes at the fox’s bark,
We saddle the horse that is hayless, oatless,
Hoofless and pranceless, kickless and coatless,
We canter off for a midnight prowl…”
All the witches put their heads back to sing the chorus:
“Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl.”
No wonder Nibbins, Kay’s cat, exclaims, “I can’t resist this song. I never could.” Wicked the witches may be, but once again the author relishes their energy, their subversive delight.
The Scots writer Nicholas Stuart Grey created another memorable witch in ‘Mother Gothel’, the desperately evil witch in “The Stone Cage” (Dobson 1963), his retelling of ‘Rapunzel’. Here, the fun and energy of the story belongs to the narrator, Mother Gothel’s cat Tomlyn – whose cynical and laconic style belies the fact that his heart is in the right place. The witch herself is powerful, terrifying, slovenly, sluttish, but ultimately pathetic and redeemable.
Though all these are wicked witches, their authors wrote with humour, and a relish for the sheer range of social possibilities open to a character possessing magical powers and zero scruples. Miss Smith, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer and Madam Mim are most unlovable, yet we can thoroughly enjoy their subversive wickedness (in complete assurance that all will be well in the end). Theirs’ is the evergreen appeal of seeing someone behave appallingly badly in a way you’ve always secretly longed to do yourself, but have never had the nerve.
But there are darker witches, whose authors take them – and expect us to take them – very seriously. They are diverse, but two things are constant: they are all bad characters and we are not expected to feel any secret sympathy for them.
And you can forget about the old crone with nutcracker nose and chin, wearing a pointed hat and riding on a broomstick. Instead, we meet a range of variants on the ‘witch queen’ theme, plus a scatter of adherents to black magic including a scholar, a postmistress and a little girl.
We should begin with the witch queen, I think (probably best not to relegate her). This is a type as old as the hills, coming down to us from many an ancient goddess, Ishtar, Astarte, Diana Queen of the Night, whose worship was suppressed. Descended from disapproved goddesses, the norm is for fictional witch queens to be beautiful, sexual women of great power, selfishness and cruelty. Check out T.H. White’s Morgause, Queen of Orkney, busy – on the first occasion we meet her – boiling a cat alive, and all for nothing: nearing the end of the spell, Morgause can’t be bothered to continue. She’s the mother from hell. Adored by her sons, she alternately neglects, torments and smothers them. She uses everyone she meets and is the ruin of most of them. The title of the book in which she appears, “The Queen of Air and Darkness”, comes from a well known poem by A.E. Housman, worth quoting in full:
Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
And the knife at her neck
The Queen of air and darkness
Begins to shrill and cry,
‘O young man, O my slayer.
Tomorrow you shall die.’
O Queen of air and darkness,
I think ’tis truth you say,
And I shall die tomorrow,
But you shall die today.
It’s an extraordinary conjuration of fear and violence, and antagonism not only between the sexes but possibly between the generations. There is no sympathy, no possibility of mercy.
Celtic legends have provided the attributes of many a witch-queen of modern times. The foremost is Alan Garner’s ‘the Morrigan’, a name borrowed from Irish legend and originally probably that of a war goddess. The name is variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen. At any rate, in Garner’s two early books ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, she appears as the death or crone aspect of Robert Graves White Goddess, the triple Moon Goddess: the roles of maiden and mother being taken respectively by the young heroine Susan, and the Lady of the Lake Angharad Goldenhand. Dividing up the feminine in this way allows the author to approve maiden and mother (on the time-honoured Madonna pattern) while disapproving the crone. The Morrigan isn’t all that old, but she seems so to Susan, and is physically unattractive:
She looked about forty-five years old, was powerfully built (“fat” was the word Susan used to describe her), and her head rested firmly upon her shoulders without appearing to have much of a neck at all. Two deep lines ran from wither side of her nose to the corners of her wide, thin-lipped mouth, and her eyes were rather too small for her broad head. Strangely enough her legs were long and spindly, so that in outline she resembled a well-fed sparrow, but again that was Susan’s description… Her eyes rolled upwards and the lids came down till only an unpleasant white line showed; and then she began to whisper to herself.
‘But again that was Susan’s description’ – this is oddly arch, for Garner. It’s as if he’s disassociating himself from Susan’s opinion: the subtext is that you might not want to believe her – but why? Because Susan might be jealous? Because you can’t ever wholly trust what one female says about another?
Anyway. Frightening, powerful, ruthless, the Morrigan wastes no time in trying to conjure the children into her car so that she can take the ‘Bridestone’ from Susan. Later, in the second book, ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, the Morrigan is revealed in her true strength. In a chapter which still makes my spine prickle after years of re-reading, Susan faces the Morrigan outside the ruined house which is only ‘there’ in the moonlight:
Now Susan felt the true weight of her danger, when she looked into eyes that were as luminous as an owl’s with blackness swirling in their depths. The moon charged the Morrigan with such power that when she lifted her hand even the voice of the stream died, and the air was sweet with fear.
Powerful, magical, beautiful as the two early books are, Garner is forced into an awkward distinction between the Black Magic supposedly practised by the Morrigan, and the Old Magic of the elemental Wild Hunt and the moon maidens Susan and Angharad. It seems a little illogical to brand the Old Moon as evil while the New and Full Moons are good… I’m not sure quite where the Morrigan’s evil really resides, and I think Le Guin would say that we need to accept the darkness as well as the light. But the Morrigan is another unforgettable witch-queen.
Moving on from the Celtic goddesses, we arrive at some witches of more mundane appearance. First, Emma Cobley of Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘Linnets and Valerians’. Goudge was a spiritual, religious writer: also an intelligent, questioning one, and there are some moving passages in her adult books about the trials of mental illness. She was conscious of goodness as a great force, and of evil as a force almost as strong. In this book, Emma Cobley is an elderly postmistress of humble background; as a young, vivid girl she was in love with Hugo Valerian, the squire; and when he married the doctor’s daughter Alicia, in jealous hatred she cast spells on him and his wife and child. Spells for ‘binding the tongue’, for causing loss of memory, for ‘a coolness to come between a man and a woman’: little images carved of mandrake root with pins piercing the tongue or heart. Emma keeps the village shop, full of tempting sweets like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel, and owns a black cat which can change size. The wickedness in the book is an expression of the capacity of the human soul to cling to destructive passions.
Pettiness and selfish ambition are qualities lavishly displayed by Gwendolen Chant, of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘Charmed Life’. Wynne Jones writes even-handedly about good and evil witches, warlocks and wizards, but Gwendolen is one of the worst of the bunch. What Wynne Jones despises above all is exploitation of others and betrayal of trust. Gwendolen, a pretty girl with blue eyes and golden hair, exploits and betrays her younger brother Cat to the extent of actually causing his death on several occasions – since Cat, as she knows and he doesn’t, is a nine-lifed enchanter. Gwendolen uses his extra lives to enhance her own powers of witchcraft. Gwendolen has no problem with the sort of anti-social behaviour which can be entertaining to behold – as Cat says, ‘I quite liked some of the things she did’ – but we are left in no doubt that she has gone too far when she conjures up what we later discover to be the apparitions of Cat’s lost lives:
The first was like a baby that was too small to walk – except that it was walking, with its big head wobbling. The next was a cripple, so twisted and cramped upon itself that it could barely hobble. The third was… pitiful, wrinkled and draggled. The last had its white skin barred with blue stripes. All were weak and white and horrible.
Finally, what about the sympathetic presentation of witches – children’s books where witches are given an altogether more positive aspect? I’m not sure I know of any good witches in older children’s fiction except for Glinda in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, so all of these examples are modern.
Let’s start with the great Terry Pratchett. The very first book of his I ever read was ‘Wyrd Sisters’. I’d been put off the Discworld novels by their covers, which looked too hysterical for me. But I picked up ‘Wyrd Sisters’ in the library one day and read the opening page:
The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin…
…In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes, like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?”
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”
On this comic anticlimax we meet Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat (‘Margaret’, only her mother couldn’t spell). And what these three witches do is what women down the years have always done. They help bring babies into the world, they do their best to cure the sick, they lay out the dead, and they dispense commonsense advice with a bit of magical flimmery-flammery to help it along. On top of that, Granny Weatherwax in particular is skilled in what she calls ‘headology’ – a fine-tuned sympathy with the minds and beings of others. In ‘Wyrd Sisters’ the three witches prevent soldiers from killing a baby on the moor at night, and on discovering a crown in the bundle of wrappings, realise they have to hide the child. And the crown? Can it be hidden too?
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Magrat. “I mean, you just hide it under a stone or something…”
“It ain’t,” said Granny. “The reason being, the country’s full of babies and they all look the same, but I don’t reckon there’s many crowns. They have this way of being found, anyway. They kind of call out to people’s minds. If you bunged it under a stone up here, in a week’s time it’d get itself discovered by accident. You mark my words.”
“It’s true, is that,” said Nanny Ogg earnestly. “How many times have you thrown a magic ring into the deepest depths of the ocean and then, when you get home and have a nice bit of turbot for your tea, there it is?”
They considered this in silence.
“Never,” said Granny irritably.
The Discworld novels are written for adults, but are YA in their appeal, and Terry Pratchett has also written several children’s books set in the same world, featuring the young apprentice witch Tiffany Aching – a girl of great grit, determination and courage. The first in the series is ‘The Wee Free Men’, and begins with yet another witch (Miss Perspicacia Tick) sitting under a hedge in the rain, making a device to ‘explore the universe’:
The exploring of the universe was being done with a couple of twigs tied together with string, a stone with a hole in it, an egg, one of Miss Tick’s stockings which also had a hole in it, a pin, a piece of paper, and a tiny stub of pencil. Unlike wizards, witches learn to make do with very little.
Terry Pratchett, you feel, actually likes women. He seems comfortable around them in a way in which C.S. Lewis, T.H. White and even Alan Garner – do not.
The Russian witch Baba Yaga is referenced in Susan Price’s Carnegie Medal winning ‘The Ghost Drum’ – with its sequels ‘Ghost Dance’ and ‘Ghost Song’ set in “a far-away Czardom, where the winter is a cold half-year of darkness.”
Here we meet the witch-girl Chingis, daughter of a slave, rescued and raised to be a Woman of Power by a shaman woman, who exchanges the child for a snow baby and takes her away.
Out in the night, in the snow, stood another house. It stood on two giant chicken-legs. It was a little house – a hut – but it had its double windows and its double doors to keep in the warmth of the stove, and it had good thick walls and a roof of pine shingles. The witch came running over the snow, and the house bent its chicken-legs and lowered its door to the ground…
…Then the legs took a few quick, jerky steps, sprang, and began to run. Away over the snow ran the little house… Its windows were suddenly lit by a glow of candlelight. The hopping candlelight could be seen for a long time, shining warmly in the cold, glimmering twilight, but then the light was so distant and small that it seemed to go out. All that was left of the little house was its footprints.
Raised by the witch-shaman, Chingis becomes her successor, and eventually goes to rescue young Safa, the son of the mad Czar, whose father has kept him shut up in a single room for his entire life. Armed with her wits, her spells, and her grandmother’s proverb: “Whenever you poke your nose out of doors, pack courage and leave fear at home,” Chingis sets off on a mission that will take her all the way to Iron Wood and the Ghost World. This book inverts the terror and evil of Baba Yaga, reinventing her as a shaman with powers allied to nature, stronger and more merciful than the cruelties of Czars.
Lastly, what about the Harry Potter books? And why on earth didn’t I begin with them?
To my mind, the Harry Potter books are hardly about witches at all. They’re about school-children masquerading as witches. Yes, there are plenty of the trappings of witchery about: pointed black hats, robes, wands (wands? witches don’t need wands, those are for wizards), cauldrons, etc. And yes, Harry and his friends are pitted against a Dark Lord of impeccable credentials, Voldemort, undoubtedly a member of the same club as Sauron and Lucifer. But does anyone really believe Hermione Granger is a witch? Top of the class in spells she may be, but seriously? Are Harry and Ron really wizards? Try mentally lining them up with Gandalf or Ged, and see what I mean.
Wizards may go to school, wizards may study things: wizards are expected to be forever poring over old curling scrolls while the stuffed crocodile dangles overhead. But as soon as you make witchcraft into something taught in a classroom, for me the magic runs right out of it like water from a bath. I do like the Harry Potter books – I love the energy and fun and sheer inventiveness of Rowling’s writing. But, along with other witch school series such as Jill Murphy’s ‘The Worst Witch’ and some of Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci titles, the witchery seems to me to be there to lend colour and flavour to what is basically an old-fashioned school story. And none the worse for that. However, and it’s an important point, in these modern books the traditional image of the witch has lost its power. Dress up Hermione in robes and black hat as much as you like, she’ll always look more like a college girl on graduation day than a minion of Satan.
Over the past century, the image of the witch in British children’s fiction has changed considerably to have reached the point where a set of books about a school full of children training to be witches fighting against evil can be received by the mainstream with perfect aplomb. Evil crones, witch queens, earnest trainees, moon goddesses, pragmatic healers – the witch can be many things and appear in many guises. Her appeal is endless.
Happy Hallowe’en. I think I hear the doorbell ring.