Saturday 31 August 2013

Witches: Queens and Crones and Little Girls

The witches from children’s fiction who appeared in my last post were all wicked. But their authors wrote about them 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, but 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 ways you secretly long to do yourself, but haven't the nerve.

In this post, though, I’m thinking about some much darker witches, whose authors take them – and expect us to take them – very seriously.  All the examples in this post are from books I've been reading and rereading for years, and deeply admire. These witches are quite 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.

The witch queen is a stereotype 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. This picture of Medea by the Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Sandys suggests the type. Patriarchal monotheism doesn’t go in for powerful females. They’re difficult to keep out, as the cult of the Madonna shows – but the Madonna personifies male-approved feminine qualities of tenderness, mercy, beauty and maternal love. Patriarchal systems save the tougher qualities of justice, wrath, vengeance etc, for the male deity. The Madonna never said ‘Vengeance is mine’. But Diana had Acteon torn to pieces by his own hounds.

Descended from disapproved goddesses, it’s usual 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 the 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 towards this Queen.  She is to be destroyed as one might kill a snake.

T.H. White was a man tormented by his own sexuality and suppressed sado-masochistic tendencies. He had a terrible relationship with his own mother, and once wrote to his friend David Garnett (asking him to call on her), “She is a witch, so look out, if you go.” In Elisabeth Brewer’s critical work, ‘T.H. White’s The Once and Future King’, 1993, White is quoted as describing Morgause thus:

She should have all the frightful power and mystery of women. Yet she should be quite shallow, cruel, selfish…One important thing is her Celtic blood. Let her be the worst West-of-Ireland type: the one with cunning bred in the bone. Let her be mealy-mouthed: butter would not melt in it. Yet also she must be full of blood and power.

Blood and power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman, who both fascinates and repels him. He didn’t find his Morgause in Malory. Malory’s Queen Morgawse isn’t even an enchantress like her half-sister Morgan Le Fay. ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ presents her as a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous. No: White created his Morgause out of his own fears and loathings.

Whether or not ‘The Once and Future King’ is really a book for children – I first read it as a young teen – the Narnia books certainly are, and contain two excellent examples of the Witch Queen: Jadis of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, who reappears as the White Witch in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’; and the Green Witch of ‘The Silver Chair’, who shares many characteristics with fairy queens of the Unseelie Court. (But let’s stick to witches for now.) Jadis is proud, cruel, ruthless and ambitious, and as the White Witch and usurper of Narnia, actually sacrifices Aslan the Lion. Lewis traces her descent from Lilith and – in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ – she is seen stealing the apples of Life in a scene echoing the transgression of Eve. The comedy of the chapter in which she riots through London, balancing on top of a hansom cab as if it were a chariot, does suggest some wicked delight on the part of the author –  perhaps mostly because of Uncle Andrew’s complete discomfiture. Lewis is making a point about different types of evil: where Uncle Andrew is slimy and small-minded,  Jadis has beauty, style and magnificence: but we are not to approve of either of them. The Green Lady, by contrast, is softly spoken, charming, ‘feminine’ – and sly, dangerous and deceitful. Women, Lewis clearly feels, should be neither domineering nor manipulative…

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 ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, she appears as the death or crone aspect of 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.

Susan and the Morrigan vie with one another, black and silver lances of power jetting from their mirror-opposite bracelets, and when at last Susan wins by blowing the horn of Angharad Goldenhand, it’s an all-female victory by which the world is unsettlingly changed: Susan’s brother Colin hears a sound ‘so beautiful he never found rest again’, and ‘the Old Magic was free for ever, and the moon was new.’ Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Garner’s answer appears to be that it’s an unavoidable natural force, and each individual will have to come to his or her own terms with it.

Powerful, magical, beautiful as the 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 LeGuin would say that we need to accept the darkness as well as the light. (In Garner's recent sequel, 'Boneland' he take a fresh look at the Morrigan.)  But the books are brilliant, and the Morrigan is another unforgettable witch-queen.

Moving on from the Celtic goddesses, we come to 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.

As is the acquisitiveness of the next witch: Dr Melanie D. Powers, of Lucy Boston’s ‘An Enemy at Green Knowe’. (For those who don’t know the Green Knowe series, it’s a set of gentle but eerie ghost stories set in Lucy Boston’s own wonderful 11th century manor house, and I can’t praise it too highly.) The grandson of the house, Tolly, and his friend Ping, pit themselves against his grandmother’s new neighbour, a prying, malicious woman, a Cambridge don and scholar of the occult, who has – we slowly realise – struck a Faustian bargain with the devil. She has got wind of an ancient occult manuscript to be found in the manor house, and will stop at nothing to get hold of it. Miss Powers (who has an unaccountable dislike of passing in front of a mirror) invites herself to tea at the manor, and makes ultra-sweet conversation with such ominous lines as:

“One can sense that yours is a very happy family. Happy families are not so frequent as people make out. And unfortunately they are easily broken up. Very easily.”

She refuses to take a small cake:

“Grown-ups do better without extra luxuries like that. It is enough for me to look at them.”

In fact, it seemed to Tolly that she could not take her eyes off them… About half an hour later when tea was over… Mrs Oldknowe offered to lead the way upstairs to see the rest of the house. Miss Powers was standing with her back to the table, her hands clasped behind her, lingering to look at the picture over the fireplace, when Tolly… saw one of the little French cakes move, jerkily, as if a mouse were pulling it. Then it slid over the edge of the plate… and into the twiddling fingers held ready for it behind Miss Powers’ back.

And this tells us everything we need to know about Miss Powers. Petty, deceitful, covetous, full of malice, she is a truly evil person. The damage she causes is real: the boys’ beloved grandmother, Mrs Oldknowe, is nearly defeated by her; and the triumph of good over evil – the grand climax when, in the midst of a total eclipse of the sun, her demon is finally driven out of her – is only precariously achieved.

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. Like some of the witches I wrote about last week, 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.

So there’s the range of seriously presented evil witches in children’s fiction, from glamorous witch queens to extremely nasty little girls. All of the witch queens I could call to mind have been created by men; women writers have created more domestic and less obviously dramatic characters. I leave you to decide what the different examples say, individually, about the various authors’ attitudes to women. Next post will be about the sympathetic presentation of witches – children’s books where witches are given an altogether more positive aspect.

 © Katherine Langrish 27 August 2010


  1. However hard the author tries to disapprove, these witch queens still have a powerful appeal. They are an archetype - the undeniable and inescapable opposite of life, warmth, growth: death, decay, waning, cold. In the most ancient religions - and, I think, still, in Hinduism today, goddesses are seen both as givers and creators of life, and the destroyers of it. Kali is a 'fierce aspect' of Parvati, a gentle mother goddess, and symbolises Time (which brings Death) and is also a destroyer of evil forces. - When an author creates 'a witch queen' they're tapping into all of this, whether they're entirely conscious of it or not. (And the security word I had to type to prove I'm not a robot was 'upmount' which seems oddly apt for witch queens.)

  2. Fascinating post! I wonder what you would make of Miskaella, the anti-heroine of Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts? She's not a witch in the traditional sense and has only one power, to bring beautiful women out of seals, but what she does destroys a lot of lives, and yet there is also a touch of sympathy for her. Just a touch!

  3. Wow. This post was extremely fascinating! Considering I am a huge fan of mythology, folk tales, etc. I am rather surprised at how few of these I've read. Clearly I have some catch up to play here!

  4. Sue, I love that book ('The Brides of Rollrock Island' it's called over here)& I agree, there is sympathy for her - she's a complex character. Traditional witch? Yes, in the sense of wise woman - or even oracle? - the power that grants the wish that was unwise to ask...

  5. And Elizabeth, thanks for dropping by, and I hope you'll have fun finding some of these books!