Covens above!

Henry Fuseli’s 1796 painting ‘The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches’

As many of you know, the evening of April 30th, May Eve, is also known as Walpurgisnacht in Germany. The term comes of course from one of the religious feasts for St Walpurga, a 9th-century saint from Devon who went on to convert heathen Saxons on the continent, this particular feast day being 1st May.

Because May Day was an ancient seasonal festival — called Beltane in some cultures — some of the pagan beliefs and traditions associated with it have become mixed up with the saint, with the result that May Eve has become associated like Halloween with unchristian practices, with Saint Walpurga held up as a champion against magic, superstition and … witchcraft.

Witches have therefore had a mixed reception, from rabid persecution to modern mystique, from clichéd representations to wise women who are completely unassuming. That varied reception has been reflected in fiction and the media, and so I thought I might have a quick jaunt through some of the literary approaches authors have taken, using fiction (much of it for younger readers) which I’ve reviewed in blog posts over the last decade (links take you to those reviews).

Saint Walpurgis

Some authors have lazily characterised witches as wicked over succeeding novels, as for example Jadis in the Chronicles of Narnia, whose origins C S Lewis describes in The Magician’s Nephew; he of course borrowed elements from Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen as well as traditional misogynistic witch tropes. A little later Alan Garner featured a terrifying figure borrowed from the Irish goddess Morrigan in his Alderley Edge novels beginning with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, though he has her come back in an unexpected guise in Boneland. Meanwhile John Masefield had previously featured the conniving Miss Pouncer and her coven in his linked fantasies The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.

I pass over Tolkien’s Witch-Kings and E R Eddison’s Witchland fantasies such as The Worm Ouroboros and go straight to Philip Pullman’s witches in the His Dark Materials books; he of course adapted the Lapland witches from Milton’s epic, making them not only different in character but both good and bad. In contrast Terry Pratchett’s idiosyncratic witches are beautifully and wittily depicted, especially Tiffany Aching and her contemporaries and advisers, with Pratchett’s typical subversion of tropes.

Cornelia Funke’s Reckless series feature beguiling but sinister sisters, while Zen Cho’s series beginning with Sorcerer to the Crown brings us a female adept as protagonist. Madeleine L’Engle had a trio of aptly named witches in A Wrinkle in Time (the first of a series). Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda was also the first of a series, with a magical governess who regains her looks once her charges no longer need her. Finally, Diana Wynne Jones rang the changes on her witch characters, from the engaging protagonist of Witch Week to the chilling and controlling antagonist of Black Maria.

If you have created a memorable character, whether the midnight hag, the fair but not foul enchantress, or someone in between, it seems incredible to dump them after one outing, as pretty much all the above titles suggest. But I’ve also read and reviewed a few books in the last ten or dozen years, most of them for young readers, which have been content to allow their creation just the one appearance. H Rider Haggard (whose works soon became popular with boys) began his literary career with King Solomon’s Mines, a work which included the trope of a femme fatale, first in the form of the aged crone Gagool, and then later in novels like She the near immortal Ayesha — She Who Must Be Obeyed, or else. More terrifying than either of these I think is the witch in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a personage who not only enters the nightmares of one of the two boys but, I fancy, many a reader.

© C A Lovegrove

I finish now with a handful of witches from the last few decades. Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch, part of her The Dark is Rising sequence, has the titular character ritually fashioned out of branches and greenery before coming into existence. Neil Gaiman, no stranger to dark fantasy himself, fashioned two memorable witches in The Graveyard Book and Coraline, the latter a truly spinetingling Other Mother with button eyes. J K Rowling’s spin-off from the Harry Potter books, Tales of Beedle the Bard, included the tale of ‘Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump’, an animagus of a different complexion to Hermione Grainger, dubbed “the brightest witch of her age”.

Then there’s Eva Ibbotson, well known for Which Witch? (which I haven’t read yet) but whose The Secret of Platform 13 includes the truly awful Mrs Trottle who, amongst a lot of magical folk, remains ungifted but is a kind of mirror image of a spellcasting witch. I’ll complete this foray revealing miscellaneous beldams with Nina Bawden’s The Witch’s Daughter, a novel which plays around with fantasy tropes but where any magic is never really evident, just suggested.


When I look through this roster I note how few of the titles might figure on universal listings: books such as Miller’s The Crucible or Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick which spring to mind. What witchy books have you read? I know many titles have been mentioned to me before now in comments but (remembering next month features the meme Wyrd & Wonder) which ones would you recommend?

I’m guessing that St Walpurga was a pretty powerful individual in her own right to stand up to adherents of the Old Religion but could she have had some tricks up her sleeve? Just throwing that out as an idea…

23 thoughts on “Covens above!

  1. 9 year anniversary! That’s quite an achievement, Chris, congratulations! 😊 And a very suitable post given your blogging interests. I look forward to many more fascinating facts and discussions to come.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Sandra! Yes, it creeps up on one, those anniversaries — and it looks as if I may have to fork out for a paid site soon as I’ve passed the 80% storage for free blogging…

      I admit I do like mainstream fantasy, with the odd exploration into less charted territory; I suppose it’s the playing around with motifs and tropes that fascinates me — and possibly puts off some of those who follow me!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Puts off some maybe, but attracts others. What’s important is that it reflects you and your interests, Chris. And you’ve certainly broadened my understanding of much more than just mainstream fantasy 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, thank you again, and I think that’s what’s wonderful about blogging — the sharing of interests, which one can accept or leave — and why in these times it can prove an antidote or welcome distraction to the more frightening things going on.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. On my WordPress dashboard it says I have 3,072 MB of space allowed, of which I’ve used over 2,500 MB, or 82%. I had to mothball my previous photoblog MyNewShy because I’d nearly reached my limit on that, but simply started up a new one, Minutiae.

      So do check your wp-admin dashboard, Jeanne — just adding /wp-admin after your site address takes you there, in case you don’t know.

      I don’t think I just want to abandon this blog once I use up the free space so need to explore ways of somehow keeping it going — but I’ve probably got a year or so to decide! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting that many of these key dates in the calendar had a spooky eves before them, Jane: New Year’s Day and the eve before (Hogmanay with its tall dark-haired stranger), May Eve and May Day, St John’s Day (June 24th) and St John’s Eve (remember the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney’s Fantasia?), All Saints / All Hallows day and Hallowe’en, even Christmas Day and Christmas Eve (when nothing was stirring, not even a mouse).

      Anyway, glad you liked the background info, it’s always good to know some context, isn’t it! 🙂

      Like

    1. Poor you to have Rider Haggard inflicted, but then I know that we were all subjected to authors at school, authors who we were either not ready for (if ever) or were forever put off. I have still not got round to Thomas Hardy after being forced to study The Trumpet Major and The Mayor of Casterbridge with no clear understanding of the cultural or historical context and unable to comprehend the grown-up emotions they were trying to convey. I have no real idea though where and when I was introduced to fantasy unless it was through those kids books with witches and their ilk.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. At least Hardy has some claim to literary merit. I think we were issued whatever set of books were left in the stock cupboard after the top forms had been given their dollop of culture. So in addition to Haggard I remember several John Buchans.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, wonderful coloniast propaganda from the height of Empire, eminently suitable fodder for young minds. Not.

          Now we can interrogate the text and distinguish what was good and what was truly questionable; then I’m not sure we were equipped to question the ethics even if we felt uncomfortable about it (as I know I somehow did).

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy Anniversary! I have no real (fictional) witches to add to your collection, but there’s a lovely coven of middle-aged Satan-worshipping witches scandalizing the townsfolk in Broomsticks Over Flaxborough by Colin Watson – part of a series of semi-humorous crime novels from the 50s-70s. The story kicks off when a young lady goes missing during the revels to celebrate Walpurgis Eve… 😀

    “Naked as on the day she was born, save for a double-looped string of amber beads and a pair of harlequin-framed spectacles, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, of 33 Partney Avenue, Flaxborough, leaped nimbly over the embers of the fire.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Mrs Flora Pentatuke’: hah! There’s a flavour of Terry Pratchett here in the choice of the Biblical surname. And now I almost don’t need to read this, I can virtually imagine the progress and the outcome!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations on your anniversary! And thank you for a fascinating post. I had no idea it was Walpurgisnacht today. I like the sound of the Flaxborough novel mentioned above! And have you read The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea? Also excellent in the Garner/Cooper tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Pat O’Shea novel title rings a bell — I think I may have spotted it in a library several decades ago — but I haven’t read it, though I now note it was republished in paperback this side of 2000.

      And thanks for your wishes on my blogiversary, I’m glad WordPress reminds us of these dates as it would’ve easily passed me by.

      Like

  4. Narnia and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Shout out for the good witch in The Wizard of Oz! It always annoys me that wizards are usually heroes and witches are usually baddies, so it’s nice to see a witch being a goodie. And, of course, the glorious Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My impression is that a lot of YA fantasy has, since the 60s, tended to feature witches as good and — as per Saruman and Sauron — wizards as likely to bad ‘uns as much as benign.

      You mention the Worst Witch books, but my memories include reading picture books by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pieńkowski in the Meg and Mog series to our kids, and Meg was definitely good!

      In fact I’d hazard a guess that witches in the majority of picture books for youngsters are good, as is the witch in Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom, a restorative response perhaps to the Disney witches in The Sleeping Beauty and Snow White for example.

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  5. Pingback: Fun for Monday: Get to Know the Fantasy Reader Tag – bookforager

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