January 11, 2011

Can Witches Be Good?

Angela Ackerman ran another of her terrific thesauruses, this one covering symbols considered evil (link below). Witches, of course, made the list. Because when you think of them, they're always nasty, right?

We all know the classic witches. The snaggle-toothed crone offering Snow White deadly fruit. The green-skinned hag coveting Dorothy’s ruby slippers. The withered beldam fattening up the children who nibbled at her house. Nothing nice about ‘em.

I don't have a problem with the label. It's a stereotype, sure, but therein lies the challenge. A well-crafted villainess is a delight to read; the trick is to give readers a flesh-and-blood character, one neither wholly bad nor absolutely pure. Something in-between Glinda’s saccharine sweetness and Elphaba’s deviltry. A few authors who have already done so:

Donna Jo Napoli tweaks one witch’s image in THE MAGIC CIRCLE. In this compassionate retelling of Hansel and Gretel’s tale, we meet the “Ugly One”, a devoted mother who loses her healing powers and battles demons that demand she eat flesh. Her resolve holds until two lovely, delicious children arrive at her candy-strewn cottage. It isn't Gretel’s ingenuity that saves the day, but the old woman's decision to sacrifice herself rather than give in to fiendish urges. A nice twist.

I know of only a couple other books that strive to show witches in a sympathetic light, including Gregory Maguire’s WICKED, which I’ve put off reading. Why? Because I saw a bit of the play on a TV show and thought it was ridiculous, some song about the Elphaba (the future Wicked Witch of the West) wanting to be popular. No, no, no. This is magical land of Oz we’re talking about, not high school.

It appears the newest remake is FAIREST OF ALL by Serena Valentino. Love the cover. Can’t wait to read it. I was terrified of the warty-nosed witch from Disney’s movie, and literally thought my 9-year-old heart would burst when I was on the Snow White ride at Disneyland and it broke down just as the black-cloaked cackler thrust a poisoned apple in my direction.

Of course, there’s a cultural bias against women who exert their prowess, particularly those who attune themselves to nature. Condemning them as consorts of the devil is an easy way to mask fear and ignorance. So, while a few books may attempt to mitigate the damage, I doubt there will ever be a time when we don’t associate witches with evil. The connection is too ingrained in our collective unconscious.

What do you think?



  1. Wicked the musical is really a very watered down version of the book. I enjoyed both but for very different reasons. The book is dark yet well written; I wouldn't be put off by the musical at all.

    P.S. Popular in the show was not sung by the Wicked Witch, but by the Good Witch.

  2. Haven't seen or heard any part of the musical Wicked, but the book was fabulous. Definitely worth your time.

    Prejudice is born of ignorance and combatted with education. Because so much of witch lore is ingrained in fairytales and folklore (tough to disprove), I'm sure you're right, there will always be a negative connotation to the word witch. It doesn't seem to matter that Baba Yaga has little in common with the Wiccan practitioner next door. Also, Wiccans are polytheistic. Not popular in our Judeo-Christian society.

  3. Oh yes, witches can be good. The witches in"The Golden Compass" are good, the witches in "The Circle of Five" are good. And if you don't believe me, I'll turn you into a nice green toady :)

  4. Stephanie: Will look for the book at my library. As for the song, it was interspersed between other scenes in "Ugly Betty", which I had on while I was doing other things. Guess I'm not as good at multi-tasking as I think.

    VR: If you and Stephanie both recommend the book, then I must read it! :)

    Yes, our perceptions of witches are shaped by folklore and religious tenets, unfortunately. Hard to fight, although a good teacher will be quick to point out the stereotype and look for alternatives (which are few and far between).

    Seems like only watered-down versions find widespread acceptance, as in "Bewitched", where the WASP witch achieved comical sitcom magic by wriggling her nose. Nothing threatening about that.

    Kate: It's been awhile since I read Pullman's books, so I didn't remember his good witches. Never heard of Dolores Riccio's books, but the one you mention got a good review from Booklist, so I'll look for it. Thanks!
    (A toad? Well, at least I'll have a nice garden to live in.) ;-)

  5. Dolores Riccio has a series involving these 'just housewives', they are all down to earth women with just a tad of magic woven in. I love the stories because they could be my neighbors. Like Vikings with horned helmets and humans living with dinosaurs, stereotypes persist. Witches will probably always be thought of as evil. Ever think it would be fun to start a stereotype (a nice one), begin an urban legend or start a local myth and see how far it got?

  6. Kate: I thought the horns on Viking helmets were hollow and used for drinking. ;-)
    Starting a new myth sounds like fun, but I wouldn't know where to begin.

  7. I don't read too many witch books. There are some titles coming out this year with witches that I look forward to. Last year I read Hex Hall, and witches could go either way in that novel. I read half of Wicked and enjoyed the character development in it.

  8. Medeia: Haven't seen HEX HALL at my library yet. Would love to know which new titles you're looking forward to, so I can keep an eye out for them as well.


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