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).
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.
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…