The writer Robertson Davies was plagued from childhood with waking dreams and nightmares of a witch chasing him, trying to catch and eat him. He would wake up, paralyzed with fear. These dreams followed him into his adult years, until finally in one dream he turned to the witch and asked her, "Can't we be friends?" The witch became a kindly figure and took his hand, ceasing to be terrifying.
How can a witch mean? Davies took this to mean he had gained some mastery over his fears; a Freudian might say he'd finally come to terms with complex feelings about his mother; a Jungian that he'd reconciled himself with a fearsome aspect of his own personality. All three might be talking about the same thing, from a different point of view. The witch is a potent symbol, and a complicated one.
A distinguishing characteristic of the witch, be she good or bad, is a full out, straight ahead, all-or-nothing attitude. Most human beings amble along in life, neither very good nor very bad; a witch goes over the top in search of knowledge or power or simply in a rage of life. The extremes of her personality (often characterized as hunger) take her into an amoral, inhuman zone. Even a good witch, like Granny Weatherwax, can terrify by her strict code. It is the enthusiasm, the verve, the full depth of experience, that makes the witch an appealing character.
This could be why lots of people would like to be a witch (a storybook witch, with nothing to do with the dreary Satanic or neo-Pagan witches). It's not simply the magic powers; it's living beyond the work-a-day world and common definitions of behavior that appeals. In this sense witches are rather like pirates as epitomized in recent movies: they steer by their own compasses and can be as moral or immoral as they choose. Witches have been metaphors (in literature) for the artistic, the bohemian, the outsider who sees a part of life that ordinary society denies. Who hasn't felt an admiration for toads and owls and crooked trees that most people would brand ugly or useless? Who hasn't felt the impulse to go after one's desires as single-mindedly and without thought of cost as the Wicked Witch of the West goes after the Ruby Slippers? It's the pointy hat showing itself, and for good or ill we're usually forced to push it back down.
As a metaphor, and not only as folklore or history, the witch will always be a potent symbol. The witch is like the world, or like life itself: the sooner we come to terms with them and put them in their proper place the better off we are.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Friday, October 29, 2010
Witches in popular culture come in many kinds and groups. This post will deal with identifying several of these types and give a sampling of each.
The Old Witch In The Wood. This is a very old and common type of witch. A solitary crone who dwells deep in the forest, she is often cannibalistic and sometimes rich. The witch in "Hansel and Gretel" is the most familiar example of this type; Baba Yaga in Russia is another, and the witch in "Old Gally Mander" from the United States another. She is a supernatural force, and she seems to embody hunger, either for flesh or riches.
The Three Witches. An extremely old grouping of witches, that may go back to the triple goddess Hecate, the Fates, or the Norns of Norse mythology. They classically appear in the persons of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, but just as often are of an age. Examples include Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick in Terry Pratchett's Discworld books; Orwen, Orgoch, and Orddu in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, and Mildred, Mordred, and Cynthia in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels, down to the Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus. The most famous three, of course, appear in Shakespeare's Macbeth.
The Witch Queen. The Witch Queen (who is not necessarily the Queen of the Witches) is a master of deception. She disguises her malicious actions behind a beautiful exterior, but she can use her position to help work her will. The Queen in "Snow White" leaps to mind right away. The White Witch in C. S. Lewis' Narnia books, the Queen in Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, and to a lesser degree L. Frank Baum's Queen Zixi if Ix. The Witch Queen might actually be a crone made beautiful by her glamorous magic.
The Good Witch. Good witches are (or were, perhaps, until recently) statistically rarer. If there was a good female magic user in a tale she was more often referred to as a wise woman or perhaps a fairy godmother as being a less opprobrious term. Glinda the Good Witch of the South in L. Frank Baum's Oz books is perhaps the most familiar example of this type, and indeed in the 1939 movie she resembles a good fairy more than the usual idea of a witch. Zaneba is the good sister of the evil witch Yubaba in Spirited Away, Princess Irene's "Grandmother" first appears as an aged crone in George Macdonald's The Princess and the Goblin, and almost all of Terry Pratchett's witches are good. The odd thing about good witches is that they can be almost as intimidating in their pursuit of good as bad witches in their pursuit of evil.
The Witch-In-Training. This type of witch is a fairly recent development. While a full-fledged experienced witch might actually be too powerful to figure as an interesting main character, one who is just learning is hindered from solving her problems too easily and is naive enough about the magical world to act as a reader's stand in. As the witch learns, so does the reader. This type is most often a little girl. Judy in Camilla Fegan's Late For Halloween, girls in Ruth Chew books like The Wednesday Witch and The Witch's Buttons, and lately and perhaps most greatly Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett's books. Miss Price in Mary Norton's Bed-knob and Broomstick is a grown-up example; she only takes to witchcraft late in life.
The Modern Witch. The epitome of the modern witch has to be Samantha Stevens and her family from the TV show Bewitched. The modern witch is miles away from pointy hats or eating children; they dress ordinarily, try to fit in, but can be a little "kooky" or bohemian around the edges. At some point a story about a modern witch will almost certainly have someone riding a vacuum cleaner. Besides Bewitched, the movie Bell, Book, and Candle, Peggy Bacon's "About The Good American Witch", and Margaret Embry's "Blanche's High-Flying Halloween" are good examples of the modern witch.
These are, of course, very generalized types, and any given witch might wander between them. There are almost as many types of witches as there are authors who write about them. But you can point to any one of them and say "That's a witch, all right."
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
One hundred and ten years ago L. Frank Baum introduced the world to what would become one of its most famous and iconic witches: a malicious magical maven known only as the Wicked Witch of the West. Through the years she's gone through several interpretations and been pictured in many different ways, but she's always been a menacing trial to Dorothy and her friends.
The Witch of the West in the original book is very different from the Witch in the 1939 movie. Perhaps the most unusual of her features and almost the first thing mentioned about her is that she only has one eye, but that as powerful as a telescope. Usually she is shown wearing an eye patch, but occasionally pictured as a sort of Cyclopean hag. She carries an umbrella instead of a broomstick; this is to keep off the water that she is deathly afraid of. Most of her power resides in the creatures she controls. She has a pack of wolves, a swarm of bees, and an army of Winkies. Dorothy's friends destroy the wolves and bees and scare the timid Winkies away. The Witch is forced to use her Golden Cap to summon the Winged Monkeys to capture Dorothy; she can only control the Monkeys three times, and this is her last time. Using them to take Dorothy leaves her seriously weakened.
But she hopes to have even greater power if she can take the Silver Shoes (no ruby slippers in the book) away from Dorothy. But the only time Dorothy takes off the shoes is when she's in the bath (and the Witch is afraid of water) and at night in bed (and the Witch is afraid of the dark!). When the Witch tries to take the shoes otherwise, Toto bites her, but she doesn't bleed, as all her blood dried up years ago. Finally she enchants an invisible bar that trips Dorothy. One of the shoes comes off and the Witch grabs it. Dorothy is so angry she dashes a bucket of water on the Witch, who promptly melts, fulfilling her worst fears. It is the end of the Witch, but not of the book, which goes on for twelve more chapters.
Two more differences between the book and the movie: The Wicked Witch of the East is not the sister of the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Wicked Witch of the West's castle is described as beautiful instead of being the gloomy fortress shown in the movie.
Of course the 1939 movie changed how Oz was perceived by the majority of people. It was Margaret Hamilton's iconic portrayal that defines how most people think of the Witch. It has been a chore for illustrators in the years since to reinterpret and redefine the Witch, to give their own spin on the character and avoid what is probably a copyrighted image. It is the 1939 Witch that has fueled her incarnation as Elphaba, the not-so-Wicked Witch of the West in Gregory Maguire's Wicked.
List of pictures: 1)Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film; 2)W. W. Denslow's original 1900 witch; 3)Cyclopean witch by Paul Granger; 4)by Libico Maraja; 5)by Evelyn Copelman; 6)by Michael Hague; 7)from the 1982 anime; 8)by Greg Hildebrandt; 9)Eric Shanower's re-imagining of Denslow; 10)from Wicked.