Thursday, 2 September 2010

Witches (4) Good Witches

In this final post about witches, I’m thinking about children’s books where characters are recognisably witches but are on the side of good rather than evil.

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. Incidentally, I don’t know how I forgot to mention the Wicked Witch of the West, in my first witchy post, as a fine example of an American witch – and her recent reinvention by Gregory Maguire in ‘Wicked’ exemplifies the changes in attitude which have been taking place, changes which have to be set down to the feminist movement.  The very title of Maguire’s book is a gauntlet thrown down. If anyone is wicked in ‘Wicked’, it’s not the witch.  And it’s a lot more difficult these days than it used to be, to think powerful female = witch = evil.   

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 fourth ('I Shall Wear Midnight') is out NOW - and I can't wait to read it.  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 the male authors of my last week’s post – C.S. Lewis, T.H. White and even Alan Garner – do not. 

In Philip Pullman’s ‘The Golden Compass’, the first book of ‘His Dark Materials’, we meet a race of witches of a very different type.  They are far wilder and more romantic than Terry Pratchett’s – a reversion to the witch queen type, in fact, but as ever-youthful as the fairies and as warlike as the Amazons.  They come to the rescue of Lyra and her friends during the attack on the Bolvangar experiment station, shooting their arrows with deadly effect:

“Witches!” said Pantalaimon.
            And so they were: ragged elegant black shapes sweeping past high above, with a hiss and swish of air through the needles of the cloud-pine branches they rode on.  As Lyra watched, one swooped low and loosed an arrow: another man fell.

A few pages later, Lyra meets one of them: clan queen Serafina Pekkala:

She was young – younger than Mrs Coulter; and fair, with bright green eyes; and clad like all the witches in strips of black silk, but wearing no furs, hoods of mittens.  She seemed to feel no cold at all.  Around her brow was a simple chain of little red flowers.  She sat on her cloud-pine branch as if it were a steed…
            Lyra could see why Farder Coram loved her, and why it was breaking his heart… He was growing old: he was an old broken man, and she would be young for generations.

They aren’t central characters, and you could argue that Mrs Coulter wears the pointed hat in this story, but the courageous, nearly immortal witches, with their necessarily brief liaisons with human men and women, lend an exotic touch of wildness and tragedy to Pullman’s world. 

A couple of posts back, Jo commented that she’d found the Russian witch BabaYaga, with her hut on chicken legs, pretty scary as a child.  Currently out of print but readily available second hand, is 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. 

Every moment, day and night, waking and dreaming, his spirit cried; and circled and circled the dome room, seeking a way out.
            And Chingis heard.
            She heard it first as she slept; a strange and eerily disturbing crying.  Stepping from her body, her spirit grasped the thread of the cry and flew on it, like a kite on a line, to the Imperial Palace, to the highest tower, to the enamelled dome.

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 is one of those books I just wish I had written myself, although I know I never could have done it half so well.  It 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.  It’s beautiful.  Please read it! 

I have written a witch of my own – Astrid, the girl with ‘troll blood’ in the book of that name, 'Troll Blood'.  Is she really a witch, though?  That’s what the viking sailors call her, because they fear and dislike her, and it’s true she practises seidr – the old northern magic (pronounced roughly saythoor).  But Astrid – haughty, proud, thin-skinned, damaged and vulnerable – hasn’t had much of a chance in life, and uses her powers to command what respect and fear she can, since she doesn’t expect love. Whether or not any of her spells really work is left open.  I don’t know myself.  But I do know that I have a lot of sympathy for difficult, prickly, deceitful Astrid, and I hope the reader will too.

Lastly, what about the Harry Potter books?  And why on earth didn’t I begin with them?

Well, to my mind, the Harry Potter books are hardly about witches at all.  They’re about school-children masquerading as witches.  Yes – they go to Hogwarts, which is billed as a school for witches and wizards. Yes, they learn spells. 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, who undoubtedly goes to 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, Ged, and even Dumbledore, 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 first three Harry Potter books (with reservations about the rest concerning editing, mainly) – 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.

Well, there you go. When I started these posts, I wasn’t sure where they would lead me.  But it seems to me that over the past seventy years, the image of the witch in children’s fiction has changed considerably to have reached the point where a set of books about a whole school full of children training to be witches fighting against evil can be received by the mainstream with perfect aplomb. And I end where I began, about four posts back – those people worried about the Harry Potter books and the treatment of witches in children’s fiction, need to learn to look past the shadow to the substance. 


  1. Have you read Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series yet? I bet you would enjoy them lots! There is a lovely good witch, living out in the marsh....

  2. Most enjoyable - yet again Katherine. I am itching to read the new Pratchett( I want to be Susan Sto Helit by the way)and the Susan Price books sound fantastic.
    Please keep it up.

  3. I haven't read the Septimus Heap books, Charlotte, so thanks for the tip.
    And Philippa, Susan Sto Helit is SO COOL!

    As some you you will know, this has been a stressful summer for me and my family, and we're off to Devon on Saturday, so I may not be checking in to the blog much for a week or so. But I'll be coming back with some very exciting fantasy and fairytale posts from both me and some very distinguished guests... all will be revealed later in the month...

  4. How can we bring The Ghost Drum by Susan Price back into print? Shall we chain ourselves to the gates of Parliament House? Run under the hooves of racehorses at Ascot or the Melbourne Cup? Endure force feeding in prison? Or are there other, more desperate measures? How is it to be done?

  5. Fantastic information - thank you. I need more time than I'll ever have to be able to read everything I want to/plan to read. Help! And you've made it worse.

    I find it very satisfying and encouraging to know that male authors are portraying witches (and therefore, women) in such a complex, yet positive light. To top it off, one of my daughters came home from school today reporting that her English teacher had declared that God should be referred to as 'She.' This is a fine day for women from my point of view. I hope you have a peace-filled break, Katherine, if that's at all possible.

  6. A few books spring to mind from the 1970s or so where there was a good witch, but always pitched against an evil one (to make it fair, perhaps). Examples: the two witches in Nina Beachcroft's Well Met by Witchlight; Mrs Hepplewhite and Morgan Le Fay in Penelope Lively's The Whispering Knights; and Mrs Oldknowe and that really nasty witch (whose name I forget) in Lucy Boston's Enemy at Green Knowe. Okay, some of those people aren't witches *officially*, but they're not fooling anyone.

  7. She is Dr. Melanie D Powers, Charlie! So nice to find another Lucy Boston fan. She's mentioned in my last post on wicked witches.

    Cassandra, I know - it's shocking. The books are simply brilliant Let me know about the railing chainings, and I'll join up.

    Cathrin, thanks...

  8. I've loved these posts! And I really must read that Terry Pratchett series :)

  9. Thanks for these posts, Kath! Brilliant stuff. And yes, I'm with the chainers to posts over Susan Price's wonderful Ghost Drum. What a scandal that books like this are allowed to go out of print. Maybe on ebook??

  10. I can also recommend Susan Price's Ghost books for witchy atmosphere... and there is a new one, too, I believe, looking for a publisher still.

    But thinking about this, maybe witches for children sell better if they are of the Harry Potter/Terry Pratchett type? Maybe readers tend to move on to more "real" fantasy as they grow older? Don't know... but I can't remember being much into spooky witches as a child.

  11. Lovely post Kath! Coincidentally I have a piece in the Times today about how fairy-tale tropes have become less grim, quoting the great Sir TP saying that his witches more like social workers. I love those books too, and was also put off them by the covers. Amanda

  12. I usually don't put a link in a comment, but I thought you'd like seeing my detailed roundup of witches in children's books from last Halloween. Baba Yaga is my top pick!

    Anyway, I've really liked reading your witch posts. Thank you!

  13. I am ashamed to say I have never read any Terry Pratchett- mostly because I never knew where to start- so thanks for giving me the YA and the younger series to be getting on with. I laughed out loud when I read the excerpts.
    Wonderful series of blogs.
    And I agree with you completely re. Harry Potter. I always thought of them (and loved them) as school stories with a twist, but missing the wild, unpredictability and exultation of magic.

  14. Came late to these lovely witchy posts as I've been away, but have very much enjoyed catching up with them. While we were away, I read to my 4 year old grandson a version of Baba Yaga in a new Orchard collection. I was actually doubtful as to the wisdom of including such a scary story in a collection for small children - heck, I found the iron teeth etc pretty scary! -but Oskar really enjoyed it.

    My own favourite witch as a child was called the Hag Dowsabel and she lived in a hen-house on legs too, but wasn't at all scary, just funny. The books were from the library, and I don't know who the author was, but I tought they were great.I think she would probably have been friends with Granny Weatherwax etc, but possibly a little in awe of them.

  15. Hi Katherine
    You may want to update your article as the Ghost trilogy is now selling on Kindle for only $3-$4 each, a great price for such a feast of fantasy. NB: I am in my forties and have just started reading Troll Fell, I was so engrossed my kids started to complain of starvation as dinner was an hour and a half late. I told them I would send them to live with Peer's uncles then they wouldn't complain.
    Rob Lear

  16. very good point, Rob! And thanks so much for the kind comments about Troll Fell!