On witches

One day, Old Witch, the head witch of all the witches, was banished. Amy, just an ordinary real girl, not a witch, said Old Witch would have to go away. So, Old Witch had to go.

Long before Hermione Granger arrived at Hogwarts, and even before Mildred the Worst Witch attended Miss Crackle’s academy, Eleanor Estes wrote a magically weird story called The Witch Family. I still have my copy – originally my sister’s – with its browning stiff pages and its corners dog-eared with love. In this story, the boundaries between the dreamlike imaginary and the “ordinary real” become so blurred, the two realms become so intricately intertwined, that one must simply surrender to the narrative and ride along as though carried on a broomstick. How else could one reconcile the worlds described: on the one hand, that of a little girl sitting at her red playtable with paper and crayons, beside the window in her mother’s bedroom; and on the other, that of the mean old wicked Old Witch, croaking her spells and dancing the Hurly Burly, and her Little Witch Girl, enduring the hardships of witch school and picnicking with her mermaid friend by the side of a colourful lagoon, deep inside the caves of a great glass hill.

Witches have an honoured place in the world of stories: from the tyrant Wicked Witch of the West in Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, later named Elphaba in Gregory Maguire’s spin-off novel Wicked, to the fearsome Baba Yaga Bony Legs of Russian folktales, and not forgetting the witches of well-known fairy tales such as Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel. Contemporary children have of course the Harry Potter (Rowling) and Worst Witch (Murphy) series, as well as picture book favourites Meg and Mog (Nicoll) and Winnie the Witch (Thomas). Historic novels considering the dilemma of women accused of witchcraft include The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Speare), Witch Child and Sorceress (Rees), and The Witching Hour (Laird) – in fact, young adult fiction is abundant with witches.

Witches are of course not confined to fiction. They have existed throughout history as the scapegoats upon whom society exercises its fear and repression. As to fear, consider the motivation of the creators of witch bottles, those talismans against spells and curses that are excavated in old dwellings.  Rima Staines has written evocatively about these artifacts, and has created a beautiful image of her own Witch Bottle. And as to repression, one need only refer to the infamous Malleus Maleficarum to see the religious indignation and spite that fuelled medieval inquisitions.

Witches are likewise not confined to history. Last week, a friend of mine gave a presentation at the Capturing Witches conference in Lancaster – Zoe’s reflections on the event highlight some of the issues at stake (no pun intended) in present-time witchhunts, and our reluctance to recognise bigotry, persecution and ageism occurring at close range.

But this distinction between fiction and nonfiction is misleading. Is any story real? When we speak of someone’s own story, or the stories of history, or the cultural stories we abide by in our own times, what do we mean? Is a story not simply one line captured from an infinite number of perspectives and subjective experiences? Surely there is never a single story to be told, no matter how powerful, charming, persuasive, appealing or unanimous are the voices insisting upon it, no matter how worthy or unworthy the purpose or motivation behind it. Witch hunts are frequently no more than dissenter hunts. What better way to silence dissent or disarm a challenge than to taint the dissenter with the brush of demonisation, with accusations of evil or malicious intent? What more effective way to dismiss the voice of complaint or criticism?

Then again, what magic lies in stories, what power to create change, that fundamental principle binding us to life and death. Stories cast spells upon us and transform our reality as effectively as any potion or incantation might do.

“Tell a story about Old Witch,” said Amy. “Make it bad, but not too bad. Have it begin bad, but end good. All right, begin. One day, Old Witch…”