I realised an odd thing today. I identify with the witch.
Or at least, I am drawn to witches more often than almost anything else (aside from possibly, uh, child sacrifice). I was reading a short story by George R.R Martin called In the Lost Lands, a lovely thing concerning werewolves and a woman who, although she is never named as such, is almost certainly a witch of a sort. It occurred to me that I liked it especially because Grey Alys was written with sympathy, and not entirely as a dirty ol’ monster.
When I think about it, I come back to witches again and again in all of my work. Bad Apple Bone is the most obvious example, as it concerns a great many witches, some of whom are bad, some of whom are good, and some, in the case of Noon, who are just tremendously lazy. Even if I don’t have a witch by name in my story, I will undoubtedly have a crazy old woman who is more than she appears to be, such as Moony Sue in A Boy of Blood and Clay, a woman who is possibly an elderly wise woman and just as possibly the River Thames. Bird and Tower, and Ink for Thieves both have examples, and in The Steel Walk I have returned to big ol’ groups of proper witches, with the Green Jenny Council- and there’s not a single good apple amongst that lot.
None of this was deliberate, so where has it come from? When I was a kid I was a big fan of the more gruesome fairytales, and most of those involved witches (Hansel and Gretel- when you really think about it, how deeply fucked up is that story? Love it). When it came to Disney films, I was always vaguely on the witchy side, and who can blame me? We had Marvellous Madam Mim, Ursula, Maleficent and the scary old bag from Snow White, all of whom were more interesting than the supposed heroes and heroines of the movies. And the Wicked Witch of the West had flying monkeys at her disposal! That’s pretty cool, if you ask me.
And when I went to college I spent a lot of time reading about folklore and fairy tales, even writing essays on it- I might have many issues with my time at art college, but I can’t complain about the freedom of the course; you could write about anything you wanted to, as long as you did it reasonably well. My dissertation was even about witches, in a way; I wrote about the evil mother figure that features as the enemy in so many stories, such as Coraline’s Other Mother, or Yubaba from Spirited away. That research was enormous fun.
But the biggest influence has to be, without a shadow of a doubt, the marvelous witches of the Discworld. I loved the witches novels the best I think, because it was always Pratchett writing at his best; about the conventions of folklore, and the strange and unfathomable ways of people. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg were instantly deeply familiar to me, through my own Nan, through my aunts, various school teachers and even the dinner lady everyone was scared of- I knew these ladies, and they both scared me and made me laugh. They may seem like odd examples, given the dark nature of many of my own witches (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg might have been fearsome, but they usually had your best interests at heart) but I believe that Pratchett’s witches showed me that witches were also people; capable of being good and bad, and therefore more realistic. And through that they became the characters I would be most excited to write about.
Go on, tell me. Which is your favourite witch?
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