Tuesday 27 October 2020

Wicked Witches in Children's Fiction

From goddesses and witch queens, I turn to witches of a more mundane sort, ranging in age from (apparently) sweet old ladies to (apparently) sweet little girls. The examples are all taken either from children's classics or from less well known children's books which in my judgement are classics anyway...  Some of these writers intend us to take the wickedness of the witches in their stories very seriously, and I’ll tackle those first. Others revel in the transgessive naughtiness of their witches and fully expect their readers to enjoy this, too.

The first Seriously Bad Witch I want you to meet is Emma Cobley, from what I consider Elizabeth Goudge’s best children’s book, Linnets and Valerians (1964). Goudge was a religious, spiritual writer and an intelligent, questioning one who wrote movingly about mental illness in some of her adult books. She was conscious of goodness as a great force, and of evil as a force almost as strong… Emma Cobley is an elderly woman of humble background who – at the beginning of the 1900s – keeps the post office and shop of High Barton, a small Dartmoor village. As a young, vivid girl she was deeply in love with Hugo Valerian, the squire, but when he married the doctor’s daughter Alicia, in her jealous hatred she cast spells upon him and his wife and child. Emma’s shop is full of tempting sweets like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel, and she owns a black cat which can change size. 
Her main adversary is the brave and gentle Nan Linnet, eldest of four children who’ve come to stay in the village with their Uncle Ambrose, the vicar. Emma’s snarling cat scratches the children when they first ‘fall into’ the shop to buy sweets and postcards, but Emma – who wears ‘an old fashioned white mob cap, a voluminous black dress and little red shawl crossed over her chest’ seems kind and helpful… though she warns them against climbing Lion Tor, the hill above the village: ‘Something nasty might happen to you there.’ But her sweets! The children choose:

…a pennyworth of peppermint lumps that looked like striped brown bees, a pennyworth of boiled lemon sweets the colour of pale honey, a penny-ha’pennyworth of satin pralines in colours of pink and mauve, and a pennyworth of liquorice allsorts. And out of pure goodness of heart Emma Cobley added for nothing a packet of sherbet. They did not know what that was, and she had to show them how to put a pinch of powder on their tongues and then stand with their tongues out enjoying the glorious refreshing fizz.

But their dog Absolom has his tail between his legs. And later, Nan discovers Emma’s spell book hidden in the little parlour which her uncle has given her – with spells for ‘binding the tongue’, loss of memory and for ‘a coolness to come between a man and a woman’. Later she learns the tragic story of Lady Alicia up at the manor, who lost her little boy twenty years ago in a mist on Lion Tor, and whose husband Hugo is missing. And she meets a dumb, wild man living on the moors – and at last with the help of the gardener Ezra, a sort of white hedge-wizard, the children find a set of little figures carved from mandrake root, with pins driven into them. As Ezra says, 

‘What Emma did to these figures she did to the people. She as the power. It be all in the mind, lad, the mind and the will, an’ Emma, she’s strong-minded and strong-willed. Now, maid, you read out o’ that book the spell for binding the tongue.’
Nan found the place and read it out and Ezra picked up one of the little images and brought it to the light. …It was of a little boy about eight years old and his had his tongue out. … They looked closer and saw that the pins pierced the tongue. They had been thrust in while  the mandrake root was still supple and now it was like hard wood and they were rusted in firmly.

This reflects a rather different light on that picture of the children sticking out their tongues in Emma’s shop to enjoy the fizz of the sherbet. The witchcraft in this book is an expression of the capacity of the human soul to cling to destructive passions, but it is defeated by Ezra’s white magic, and the good magic of honeybees, and by acts of kindness and love. 

The acquisitiveness of the next witch, Dr Melanie D. Powers of Lucy Boston’s An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964), is more difficult to deal with. (For those not familiar with them the Green Knowe books are a series of sensitive ghost stories set in the author’s 11th century manor house in Cambridgeshire.) The grandson of the house, Tolly, and his friend Ping pit themselves against his grandmother’s new neighbour, a prying, malicious woman who is a Cambridge don and scholar of the occult and has – we slowly realise – struck a Faustian bargain with the devil. Believing an ancient occult manuscript is hidden somewhere in the house, she 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 Green Knowe where she 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.’ And she refuses a small cake with the words, ‘Grown-ups do better without extra luxuries like that. It is enough for me to look at them’. However she can’t stop greedily eyeing 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.

This tells us everything we need to know about Miss Powers. She is petty, deceitful, covetous and malicious, sends a series of almost Biblical plagues on the house (snakes, feral cats that kill the songbirds, etc) and causes real harm. The boys’ beloved grandmother Mrs Oldknowe is nearly defeated by her, and the eventual triumph of good in the midst of a total eclipse of the sun, when Miss Power's demon is driven out, is precariously achieved at the cost of considerable damage to the house. 

Emma Cobley and Melanie Powers come to different ends. After Emma’s book of spells is burned on Ezra’s fire, where the pages writhe ‘like snakes in the flames and then were consumed to nothing,’ Emma and her husband Tom change from being the leaders of the village coven to ‘quite nice old people’. They make amends and are forgiven for the harm they have done. Wickedness has gone for ever and the village is happy again; but what has happened to Emma’s ‘strong mind and strong will’? We may hope she now uses her strength for good, but the lukewarm phrase ‘quite nice’ doesn’t promise much.

Miss Powers comes to a more disturbing end: she is broken. The two boys have learned her full, demonic name – Melusine Demogorgona Phospher – and hiding in a tree they chant it aloud to her through paper trumpets, diminishing it by one syllable on each repetition in a ritual of dissolution. On the last and final syllable, ‘pher!’ she collapses, crying to her demon lord, ‘Don’t leave me!’ 

With a last convulsion the writhing form, now on the ground, broke up into two, and an abomination the mind refuses to acknowledge stood over her, and spurned her, and sped away hidden by a line of hedge.

Now harmless, Miss Powers is dreadfully damaged, a ‘pop-eyed, huddled little woman’ who runs aimlessly about like a hen.

‘I’ve lost my Cat.’ She turned and scurried away. ‘I’ve lost…’
          For the last time the boys watched her going away down the garden path – nervous, running, stumbling, diminishing. The gate clicked.

It’s wonderful writing, though rather a shame that it's a woman scholar who gets to be evil while the male scholar in the story, the quiet but dependable Mr Pope (named in contrast to the equally meaningfully named Miss Powers) helps save the day by declaiming an Invocation of Power from a manuscript he's working on: 'The Ten Powers of Moses'. But Tolly's grandmother Mrs Oldknowe is good (as in children's fiction, grandmothers nearly always are) and a bad male scholar does figure in the tale, for as ever at Green Knowe, the story has its roots in the past of the house, when a Faustian 16th century alchemist named Dr Vogel had his own brush with the devil. It's his book Miss Powers is ambitious to find.

There are elements of comedy in both titles – the episode of the cakes and Miss Powers’ twitching fingers for example – but neither of these witches are funny in themselves and though at the end we may pity them, we are not tempted to admire them. This is not the case for Gwendolen Chant, the anti-heroine of Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life (1977). A pretty young girl with blue eyes and golden hair, Gwendolen is a witch who exploits and betrays her younger brother Cat (the viewpoint character) to the extent of actually causing his death on several occasions, for Cat – as she knows and he doesn’t – is a nine-lifed enchanter. Gwendolen has been squandering her brother's extra lives to enhance her own powers: we don’t find this out for a while, but she’s a self-centred, ambitious, arrogant young lady whose anti-social behaviour can be very entertaining to witness. When she and Cat – orphans since their parents drowned in an accident she herself arranged – are taken under the guardianship of the enchanter Chrestomanci to be educated at Chrestomanci Castle, Gwendolen feeling her importance to be insufficiently recognised causes magical mayhem to gain attention, which everyone ignores. She throws tantrums in her bedroom:

‘I hate this place!’ she bawled. … Her voice was muffled among the velvets of her room and swallowed up in the prevailing softness of the Castle. ‘Do you hear it?’ Gwendolen screamed. ‘It’s an eiderdown of hideous niceness! I wreck their lawn, so they give me tea. I conjure up a lovely apparition and they have the curtains drawn. Frazier, would you draw the curtains, please? Ugh! Chrestomanci makes me sick!’
‘I didn’t think it was a lovely apparition,’ Cat said, shivering.

As well he might not, for the apparitions turn out to have been 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. 

These really are horrible, but as Cat says later to Chestomanci, ‘I quite liked some of the things she did’. So do we: her wicked pranks are great fun to watch but she herself is no joke. Entirely selfish, she's ready to sacrifice what’s left of her brother’s nine lives. At the end she seals herself into another world where, perhaps mistakenly, she believes she will be a powerful queen. She is a soberingly nasty little girl.

Not all bad witches are evil ones though. Children love stories about naughtiness, and naughtiness is the main characteristic of the witches I discuss next. Their authors make much of the comic possibilities open to characters with magical power and zero scruples. Miss Smith, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer and Madam Mim are quite unlovable, yet we can enjoy their wickedness in complete assurance that all will be well in the end. They offer the evergreen appeal of watching someone behave appallingly badly in ways we ourselves would not not dare to try, and in this spirit of subversive enjoyment many of the best witches of children’s fiction have been conceived. 

I'll begin with a favourite from my own childhood, out of print now for many years but available second-hand: Beverley Nichols’ excellent fantasy series for children beginning with The Tree That Sat Down (1945). In it we meet the unforgettable Miss Smith who looks like a Bright Young Thing, ‘pretty as a pin-up girl’, but is actually three hundred and eighty-five years old. Three disgusting toads are her familiars, who spit poison and live in her refrigerator. They have a tendency to burst into song:

Three little toads are we, are we,
Ready for any sinful spree,
If you do not treat us well
We’ll spit in your eyes and you’ll go to…

Miss Smith puffs green smoke from her nostrils in moments of crisis, flies a Hoover instead of a broomstick and takes energetic delight in wickedness. As she walks through the wood on her way to make trouble for little Judy and her wise old 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 false but attractive 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 if Miss Smith is just as bad herself. She appears in all of Nichols’ children’s stories (the others are The Stream that Stood Still, The Mountain of Magic and The Wickedest Witch in the World) and without her the books would be charming, but anodyne. She is of course foiled on every occasion, but 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 (1927), who also appears in its better-known sequel The Box of Delights. Little Kay Harker is a lonely, imaginative child and the book is peopled with his imaginary friends: toys, pet cats, and ancestors who may or may not be ‘really there’. His everyday 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…

We see from this that Miss Pouncer isn’t cruel (Kay gets his egg) but neither is she kind, so it’s not surprising that at night when the Midnight Folk reign in the old house, she's cast in the role of chief witch.

There were seven old witches in tall black hats and long scarlet cloaks sitting round the table at a very good supper: the cold goose and chine which had been hot at middle-day dinner, and the plum cake which had been new for tea. 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 tapped with her crooked-headed stick and removed her tall, pointed hat. She had a hooky nose and chin and very bright eyes.

I did not know what Marsala was when I first read this at the age of seven (and I’ve just now had to look up ‘chine’, which turns out to be the backbone with meat attached), but with the right encouragement children can scramble around difficult words as easily as they might scramble over a tree-trunk on a woodland trail. The context was obvious: the witches were being greedy; it was all I needed to know. This hooky-nosed, pointy-hatted old witch who might have come straight out of the Discworld is the very Mrs Pouncer who earlier that day was telling Kay to ‘use the subjunctive and the genitive’ but who now starts up a rousing song:  

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 Kay’s cat Nibbins (a reformed witch’s cat) exclaims, ‘I can’t resist this song. I never could.’ Wicked the witches may be, though they are only trying to discover the Harker treasure, not a terribly evil aim – but how Masefield relishes their energy and subversive delight! And although the coven meets to dance around a bonfire at an earthwork called called Wicked Hill where ‘a magic circle was burning in a narrow line of blue fire,’ there can be nothing very scary about a fire ‘fed by little black cats who walked around the ring dropping herbs on it.’ 

In Mrs Pouncer the idea of female authority is once again characterised as witchy, but children always find it difficult to imagine what their teachers do outside school hours, and she’s far more fun as one of the Midnight Folk than as the strict and unsympathetic lady who keeps scolding: ‘Now go and have your milk, but not your biscuit; you haven’t deserved one; and mind you come to lunch with washed hands.’ 
Another small boy in the clutches of a powerful female is the Wart in the hands of Madame Mim, in TH White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938). This episode was cut from The Once and Future King; perhaps White thought it too burlesque for the soberer, more epic quality of the longer work. Madame Mim is a far humbler creation than the terrifying Queen Morgause of Orkney in The Once and Future King – but one probably quite familiar to any little boy whose mother or nurse undressed him for an unwanted bath. Madam Mim forcibly undresses the Wart with an eye to popping him in the pot and cooking him, singing a chicken-plucking song as she does so:

‘Pluck the feathers with the skin
Not against the grain-oh.
Pluck the small ones out from in,
The great with might and main-oh.
Even if he wriggles, never mind his squiggles,
For mercifully little boys are quite immune to pain-oh.’

With all this, you’d imagine Madame Mim to be an old crone, as Walt Disney portrays her in the cartoon film of The Sword in the Stone. In the book however, she is ‘a strikingly beautiful woman of about thirty, with coal-black hair so rich it had the blue-black of maggot-pies [magpies] in it, silky bright eyes, and a general soft air of butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my mouth.’ As if these shades of Morgause weren’t enough (he uses the very same term for her: butter would not melt in it) White adds, ‘She was sly.’ Madame Mim looks like a witch queen and sounds like a crone. The Wart and his foster-brother Kay arrived at her cottage in pursuit of a gore-crow which had stolen one of their arrows; Madame Mim tempts them into her cottage by playing upon Kay’s sense of what is due from him as an aristocrat to his inferiors. It’s very funny. ‘Few can believe,’ she simpers, ‘how we ignoble tenants of the lower classes value a visit from the landlord’s sons.’ Sweeping the boys a low curtsy as they enter, she grabs them both by the scruff and shoots them through the cottage to the back door to imprison them in rabbit hutches; the Wart catches a glimpse of her parlour and kitchen as he’s hurried through:

The lace curtains, the aspidistra, the lithograph called The Virgin’s Choice, the printed text of the Lord’s Prayer written backwards and hung upside down, the sea-shell, the needle-case in the shape of a heart with A Present from Camelot written on it, the broomsticks, the cauldron and the bottles of dandelion wine.

Genteel aspiration with a witchy twist! Luckily, just before the witch dispatches the Wart, Merlyn arrives with the words, ‘Ha! Now we shall see what a double-first at Dom-Daniel avails against the private education of my master Blaise’ – and a wizards’ duel begins. The whole thing is a joy.  

The Scots writer Nicholas Stuart Grey created another memorable witch in Mother Gothel, the desperately evil witch of The Stone Cage (1963), his retelling of the fairytale Rapunzel. In this novel, the fun and energy of the story belong to the narrator, Tomlyn the witch’s cat, whose cynical and laconic style belies the fact that his heart is in the right place. The witch herself is powerful, terrifying, slovenly and sluttish, but ultimately pathetic and redeemable. Mother Gothel wants to be loved, but doesn’t know how to love anyone back; she wants Rapunzel to grow up to be the wickedest witch in the world – to surpass herself (she isn’t very good at witchcraft), in a parody of what most parents want. 

Mother Gothel conjures up a cradle and toys for the child, but they’re as scary as the monstrous toys of the boy next door in Toy Story 1.

There was a greyish sort of lamb-thing, with crossed eyes. If you hit it hard, it bawled 'Maa-maaah!' till you stopped. There was a doll, too. Cor! Its head was on back to front, and it could crawl very quickly all over the floor, and it put its tongue out six inches if you went near. I hated it. Its name was Nellie, and it had long pink curls.

Tomlyn and his fellow familiar Marshall the raven work together to look after Rapunzel; they foil Mother Gothel’s plans by secretly enspelling the child so that she cannot learn magic; and as the girl grows up the witch is increasingly (and dangerously) frustrated by her protegĂ©e’s apparent stupidity. Nicholas Stuart Grey manages to keep alive a sense of sympathy for the witch, however, who is unhappy as well as horrible, and tries hard according to her mistaken lights. Descending the tower on Rapunzel’s rope of hair, after a failed sixteenth-birthday party attempt to get the girl to succeed in any spell, however small, Mother Gothel reaches the ground and yells up at the window:

‘Get to your spinning now! If the thread is the wrong colour again, you’re for the nettle whip, girl – birthday or no birthday!’
            She gave an angry laugh, and turned away. We heard her muttering, ‘I meant this to be a nice day for everyone!’

It’s funny – because haven’t we all been there? Even though she's brought it on herself, her angry disappointment is so human and familiar that we understand it. Mother Gothel is a more complex character than any we’ve looked at so far.  Full of faults, she’s not altogether evil and there’s hope for her in the end, because in spite of all she is and everything she’s done, her ill-treated pets Tomlyn and Marshall somehow still love her.

From goddesses to witch queens, from old women to little girls, women get to be called witches when they wield power, show ambition, refuse to do as they’re told, refuse to know their place, refuse to conform. It isn't surprising that children, who have little power and big dreams, and are always being told what to do and how to behave, should love stories which celebrate the unbiddable naughtiness of witches who can defy all the rules, stay up late, eat midnight feasts with their fingers, fly through the air on broomsticks, and behave just as badly as they wish.

Picture credits

Miss Smith: illustration by Peggy Fortnum for The Mountain of Magic 
Emma Cobley: illustration by Ian Ribbons for Linnets and Valerians 
Melanie Powers appears in the Persian Glass: illustration by Peter Boston for An Enemy At Green Knowe  
Miss Smith: illustration by Isobel & John Morton Sale for The Tree That Sat Down 
Miss Smith and toads: illustration by Richard Kennedy for The Stream That Stood Still 
Witch: illustration by Rowland Hilder for The Midnight Folk

Tomlyn: illustration by Nicholas Stuart Grey for The Stone Cage
Witch cradle: illustration by Nicholas Stuart Grey for The Stone Cage
Around the fire: illustration by Peggy Fortnum for The Mountain of Magic

1 comment:

  1. I have never read The Stone Cage, but other than that these are all favourite witches of mine. Thank you!