Tuesday 20 October 2020

Witch Queens and Women's Power

If as I suggested in my last post, the ‘wickedness’ of the witch is derived from a male fear and rejection of female power that goes back a very, very long way, Ursula K Le Guin embarked on a long-term exploration of that idea in her Earthsea novels. In the first of the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, whether wizards are old scholars or young students, they are men. Women need not apply, and those who show aptitude or an interest in magic are not to be trusted. When he's only a boy on Gont, Ged is tempted by a girl to try a spell beyond his skill. Disaster almost follows and his master Ogion rebukes him:

‘You do not remember what I told you, that that girl’s mother, the Lord’s wife, is an enchantress? … The girl herself is half a witch already. It may be the mother who sent the girl to talk to you. It may be she who opened the book to the page you read. The powers she serves are not the powers I serve: I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well.’

Later in the book, Ged meets the girl again. Dressed in stylish witch queen garb of ‘white and silver, with a net of silver crowning her hair that fell straight down like a fall of black water’, she is now lady of the Court of the Terrenon, which is an evil spirit imprisoned in a foundation stone. Telling Ged that ‘only darkness can defeat the dark,’ she uses her beauty and apparent helplessness to tempt him into trying to bend the spirit to his will, knowing it will enslave him. (‘The beauty of the lady of the Keep confused his mind.’) In reality she’s a dangerous, double-crossing witch who comes to a sticky end. In this book magic, that is to say power, is best left to men: women have no business with it, since ‘the powers they serve’ are likely to be evil. A couple of Gontish proverbs express this well: Weak as women’s magic, and wicked as women’s magic. ‘Good’ women in A Wizard of Earthsea are unlearned and domestic. 

In next book, The Tombs of Atuan, the fourteen year-old Kargish heroine Arha (‘the Eaten One’) is High Priestess of these ancient Tombs and the labryrinthine tunnels beneath them. The Tombs are dedicated to the Nameless Ones: chthonic forces of darkness whose guardians are priestesses or eunuch slaves, all dressed in black, who form a society as barren of joy or purpose as the desert that surrounds them. When Arha encounters Ged as he explores the Undertomb in search of the broken half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, she traps him down there in the dark – triggering a moral and emotional struggle within herself as to what his fate shall be. 

Initially cruel out of fear and anger, Arha moves to the decision to save Ged, and by doing so saves herself, reconnecting with her true identity and her childhood name, Tenar. Each needs the other: to be whole, we need both halves of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, Le Guin is saying: but the Priestesses of the Tombs are a discouraging example of an all-female society. Not until the fourth book of the series, Tehanu, did Le Guin begin exploring the dark, abusive aspect of male power, and the love and strength of women. Moss, the village witch on Re Albi, is the very picture of a wicked crone who lures little childen away to cook them: but in fact she helps Tenar look after the burned and voiceless child Tehanu. 

Moss] took the child into the fields and showed her a lark’s nest in the green hay, or into the marshes to gather white hallows, wild mint and blueberries. She did not have to shut the child in an oven, or change her into a monster, or seal her in stone. That had all been done already. 

And done by men.

Le Guin abandoned the witch queen sterotype to explore positive possibilities for female agency, but there still are plenty of witch queens in fantasy fiction. Following in the old Jezebel tradition, these are usually beautiful sexual women of great power, selfishness and cruelty. The first time we meet TH White’s Queen Morgause of Orkney, she is boiling a live cat – all for nothing; nearing the end of the spell, she loses interest and can’t be bothered to continue. Morgause is adored by her sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth, but she alternately neglects, torments and smothers them. She uses everyone she meets and is the ruin of most. The title of the book in which she appears, The Queen of Air and Darkness, comes from the well known poem by AE 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.

This is an extraordinary conjuration of fear and violence, of antagonism not only between the sexes but between generations. Housman allows no sympathy, no possibility of mercy towards this Queen. She is to be destroyed as one might kill a snake. 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.’ Elisabeth Brewer, in her critical work, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, 1993, quotes White 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, frightful mystery, power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman, who both fascinates and repels him. He didn’t find her in Malory, whose Queen Morgawse isn’t even an enchantress like her half-sister Morgan Le Fay (seen above wearing a come-on-if-you-dare look and seemingly seven feet tall), but 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 in my teens – the Narnia books are, and they 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 (or the other way around, depending which you read first) and the Green Lady of The Silver Chair, who shares many characteristics with fairy queens of the Unseelie Court. And I have to remark in passing that the Unseelie fairy queens of modern YA fiction have very much moved across into witch queen territory. In the wake of Holly Black’s Ironside and Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely we've been introduced to an entire generation of sexy, cruel, powerful fairy queens whose penchant for sadism, in spite of the teenage heroines who combat them, I find disturbingly retrograde. Most of these books are written by women. But is this really the way we still wish to depict female power? 

Lewis’s White Witch owes much to Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen: both are tall, striking, wintry figures wrapped in furs who drive sleighs and lure little boys away. Both are cold. The White Witch is ruthless and cruel, and in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe we are told she descends from Lilith – a demon for whom Raphael Patai provided an entertaining resumé: 

No she-demon has ever achieved as fantastic a career as Lilith, who started out from the lowliest of origins, was a failure as Adam’s intended wife, became the paramour of lascivious spirits, rose to be the bride of Samael the Demon King, ruled as Queen of Zermagad and Sheba, and ended up [in Kabbalistic legend] as the consort of God himself. 

The Hebrew Goddess, 221

Lilith supposedly spent her time seducing men and killing children; she was sometimes described as a beautiful woman from the waist up and flaming fire from the waist down. I do not know whether a demon can be a witch (or a witch, a demon) but whatever else she is, Lilith is Unmistakably Bad. (Lewis of course knew George Macdonald's rather creepy fantasy novel, Lilith.) No child could possibly know any of this, and I think Lewis made Lilith the White Witch’s ancestor mainly to add a little exoticism to the story, and to make the point that the Witch isn’t human. At least that’s how I took it, age nine; children are often more intrigued than baffled by this kind of esoteric reference. 

Jadis ‘is’ the same person as the White Witch, but her character is more carefully drawn. And the comedy of the chapter in which she riots through London on top of a hansom cab (the episode is borrowed from E Nesbit) expresses the author's delight in her sheer wicked energy. Jadis has all the style and magnificence a witch queen could desire, but in spite of her having caused the (offstage) destruction of the whole world of Charn, nothing she does in The Magician’s Nephew has the emotional impact of the White Witch’s killing of Aslan. The Green Lady of The Silver Chair is certainly a witch, but she is derived from the fairy queens of medieval romances like Marie de France’s Lanval, and of border ballads like True Thomas. Softly spoken, charming, ‘feminine’, she is also sly, dangerous and deceitful. Grown women, Lewis clearly feels, should be neither domineering nor manipulative, but he darkly suspects they may be both.

Under the dubious influence of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Celtic legends provide the attributes of many a 20th century witch queen. For me the front runner must be Alan Garner’s Morrigan: it's the name of an Irish battle goddess who could transform into a crow, variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen. Some of the Morrigan’s best lines come from Irish and Scottish tales: the sinister threat to Colin – ‘nothing of you shall escape from the place into which you have come, save what birds will carry away in their claws’ is a quotation from the Irish Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel while the curse, ‘The wish of my heart to you, dwarf!’ which she shrieks at Uthecar in The Moon of Gomrath and the dwarf nimbly averts by crying, ‘The wish of your heart, carlin, be on yonder grey stone!’ comes from a folk tale, ‘Ewen and the Carlin Wife’ in J G Campbell’s The Gaelic Otherworld. In both cases the witch in question is a cailleach or a gruagach: an old woman with supernatural powers. 

The Morrigan appears in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath as the death or crone aspect of the triple Moon Goddess – the roles of maiden and mother being taken respectively by Colin’s sister Susan, and Angharad Goldenhand, Lady of the Lake. Dividing up the feminine in this way allows the author to approve maiden and mother on the time-honoured Madonna pattern, while disapproving of the crone. In fact the Morrigan isn’t all that old, but she seems so to the children, and for a witch queen she 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 either 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.

‘Fat was the word Susan used’ – ‘but again that was Susan's description' – this is oddly arch, for Garner. He manages to make the Morrigan sound sinister while at the same time disassociating himself from Susan's opinion; the subtext is that you might not want to believe her – but why? Because Susan may be jealous? Because you can never really 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’. In the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, the Morrigan is revealed in her full strength, and even after years of re-reading my spine still prickles as Susan faces her outside the ruined house which is only ‘there’ in 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? It’s left unresolved. 

In fact, Garner is forced into an awkward distinction between the Black Magic practised by the Morrigan, and the Old Magic of the elemental Wild Hunt and the moon maidens Susan and Angharad. It seems a little awkward to brand the Old Moon as bad while the New and Full Moons are good. I’m not sure quite where the Morrigan’s evil really resides; Le Guin would say that we need the darkness as well as the light. In his 2012 adult novel Boneland, which wows me although I don’t pretend to understand it, the character of Meg appears to unite these identities while the adult Colin is haunted by the childhood loss of his twin sister Susan (the other half of his nature?) although we’re left uncertain if indeed she ever existed. The ageing Colin split from his sister is a lonely, damaged figure, and the book seems to look for personal and cosmic union and wholeness.  

Blodeuwedd in The Owl Service is also a divided figure. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion she was made from flowers for a man’s use, then punished for her unfaithfulness by being changed into an owl. The pressure of this old tragic legend penned up in a Welsh valley compels those who live there to repeat it over and over. Blodeuwedd/Alison can only be one thing or the other, claws or petals, owls or flowers. But she can’t choose which. Her frightening power – ‘She is coming and will use what she finds, and you have only hate in you,’ says Huw to his son Gwyn – is all derived from men. Only when Roger exercises tenderness and compassion does the endless cycle turn to flowers again. We’re left with the image of Alison lying on the kitchen table, just opening her eyes perhaps, for Roger says ‘Hello Ali’ – while the room fills with gently-falling petals. It’s a beautiful ending but it’s also very Sleeping Beauty and I find it hard to imagine what Alison is going to say or do when she sits up. Who is she really? Who is she?

Who is the woman of power and how does she discover herself? Returning to Earthsea, there’s a (longish) short story Ursula le Guin wrote after Tehanu and published in Tales of Earthsea – before The Other Wind. It’s called ‘Dragonfly’ and tells of a young girl, the only child of a proud, bitter man, the Master of Old Iria on the island of Way. The motherless girl grows up neglected and half wild, and when it’s time for her to be given her true name, her father rages that there’s no one to do it but Rose, the village witch, whom he rules is unfit. But Dragonfly persuades the witch to do it secretly that night, at the spring under Iria Hill. ‘How do you know what name to say, Rose?’ she asks. ‘It comes,’ the witch tells her. ‘You take away the child name, and then you wait’:

‘In the water there. You open your mind up, like. Like opening the doors of a house to the wind. So it comes. Your tongue speaks it, the name. Your breath makes it… That’s the power, the way it works. It’s all like that. It’s not a thing you do. You have to know how to let it do. That’s all the mastery.’
            ‘Mages can do more than that,’ the girl said after a while.
            ‘Nobody can do more than that,’ said Rose.

The witch gives her the name Irian, which angers the girl as it is connected to her father: she feels she is something more. When a young sorcerer tells her tales of the wizards’ school on the Island of Roke, she goes there with him to find out what power is within her. He tries to to trick her into sleeping with him, but is ashamed when she trusts him with her name. He enspells her to look like a man so she can be admitted to the Great House. His illusion fools no one, but the Doorkeeper lets her in, calling her ‘daughter’, and the Master Patterner gives her the freedom of the Immanent Grove. Others, under the leadership of Thorion the Master Summoner, think it sacrilege for a woman – a witch! – to come among them. 

‘Lord Thorion has returned from death to save us all,’ Windkey said, clearly and fiercely. ‘He will be Archmage. Under his rule Roke will be as it was. The king will receive the true crown from his head and rule with his guidance… No witches will defile sacred ground. No dragons will threaten the Inmost Sea. There will be order, safety and peace.’ 

This nostalgic appeal to a past order is doomed. ‘I am not a witch,’ says Irian in a ‘high, metallic’ voice, ‘I have no art. No knowledge. I come to learn.’ She adds, facing him, ‘Tell me who I am.’

‘Learn your place, woman,’ the mage said with cold passion.
‘My place,’ she said, slowly, the words dragging – ‘my place is on the hill. Where things as as they are. Tell the dead man I will meet him there.’

Their dialogue reveals that Windkey has no notion what Irian is, or what a woman is, and since all magic in the world of Earthsea is the true naming of things – learning the true name and true nature – we can see that this ignorance is a great flaw in his power. Windkey cannot not even see, as Irian sees, that Thorion the Summoner is literally the walking dead. From this crucial point we cease to be given insights into Irian’s mind: Le Guin makes us onlookers like the rest. As evening comes, Irian leads the four Masters who taken her side to Roke Knoll, the holiest place on the island, to meet Thorion. He commands her to leave or be banished: she commands him to climb the hill with her, and he cannot.

She left him standing at the waymeet, on level ground, and walked up the hill for a little way, and few strides. ‘What keeps you from the hill?’ she said.
            The air was darkening around them. The west was only a dull red line, the eastern sky was shadowy above the sea.

Thorion tries to control her in the Language of the Making: ‘Irian, by your name, I summon you and bind you to obey me!’ But because he does not know who or what she is, he has no power over her. Crying, ‘I am not only Irian!’ she towers over him in flames and vast wings, and ‘bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to earth’, Thorion is revealed as he truly is – dry bones, long dead.

The business of the wise in the world of Earthsea has been to preserve its balance, the Equilibrium, but the story show that the world cannot be in balance, when only the power of men is valued. As she goes on up the hill in the gathering darkness, the onlookers see Irian’s nature revealed, as, ‘with a rattle like the shaking of sheets of brass’, she springs into the air in dragon form and flies beyond the west to seek her mother’s people and her other name. If women can be dragons…! ‘What must we do now?’ asks the Patterner, who loves her. And echoing the words of Rose, the witch who named Irian and told her that power was like ‘opening the doors of a house to the wind’, the Doorkeeper suggests that the next duty of the Masters of Roke should be to ‘go to our house, and open its doors’. To welcome whoever comes, to let in the fiery breath of truth, the other wind.

Picture credits;

Medea by Frederick Sandys
Morgan le Fay by John Spencer Stanhope c. 1880 
The White Witch by Pauline Baynes
Jadis by Pauline Baynes
The White Goddess by Leonora Carrington
The Owl Service endpapers: the plates can be either owls or flowers
Detail from 'The Scroll of Nine Dragons', hand-copied by me many years ago...


  1. Thanks for a fascinating article and literature review, which includes some of my favourite books. I think you missed some comparisons between male and female power that could be significant. Jadis on the one hand and Uncle Andrew on the other -- both are witches, though Uncle Andrew is only a wannabe, and is overwhelmed when he meets the real thing. And still with Lewis, the chaos caused by Jadis in London compared with Merlin in "That Hideous Strength".

    I write children's books, or try to, and all my witches are male, so far, at any rate. I might come across a female one, one can never tell.

    Witches as human? It turns out not, in Narnia. But cf Tolkien's wizards. That was what hobbits called them, but though they had human form they were more than human.

    In much of African legend and folklore witches (male and female) are human, and played the same role as evil demons in Christian mythology. Now the two perceptions exist side-by-side, mingling and separating and mingling again -- if you are a devil you are a witch and if you are a witch you are a devil.

  2. Those are good points Steve - thankyou!