Wednesday, 12 May 2010

By the pricking of my thumbs

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?


  1. I love witches, both good and bad, great powerful women who are classified often now as witches, like Cerridwen and her cauldron. She's my favorite witch. I also love Morgan Le Fey.

    This post rocks. We have so much in common. We need to meet in the middle of the ocean and have beers!

  2. I was also fascinated by witches as a child. In fact, in 6th grade, I was one of the three witches in Macbeth. And I can still remember all of my lines from the scene we acted out.

    My fascination with witches has never dwindled. Of course, my interest was frowned upon because my parents thought witchcraft was the "devil's work." They only knew what the Church taught them.

    Now that I'm older, and they've met some self-professed witches, they are more accepting.

    Oh, and I have to say, my favorite witches are the ones in The Mayfair Witch books by Anne Rice. I wanted to be Rowan for the longest time.

    I also have a novel in the works that features some very magically-inclined women.

  3. I've always been a bit sympathetic to witches, myself, mostly, like Nicole, due to a connection with Macbeth -- when I was about 4 years old my mother performed regularly at a local Renaissance festival made up as a witch, reciting the witches' dialogue from Macbeth while lighting small fireworks. I'd get to run around in peasant burlap as her familiar Greymalkin (a slight reinterpretation from it being a cat, I realize) and collect coins from the audience. :)

    Pratchett does an EXCELLENT job with the witches in his books and has clearly done quite a bit of research about witches over the years - though I noticed he has to up the ante every time he uses them, if only because Granny Weatherwax is one of his most formidable characters and it takes more and more to challenge her. Not that that's a bad thing.

    I've always liked the old Russian Baba Yaga stories, myself. It was always a bit of a mystery as to exactly what kind of being she was -- a crone, a dryad, a sphinx-like being or something else entirely. The stories varied quite a bit and always made me curious as to their origin.

    Excellent entry!

  4. I love the trio of witches in Terry Pratchett's Diskworld series. Those were some witches you could count on to get the job done, and I alway thought he had a really good grasp of how witchcraft was supposed to work.

  5. I'm with you 100% on feeling the connection to witches... I think a lot of it comes from them being - good or bad - strong female characters. They always seem to be deeper and more intricately drawn characters... as if making a woman a witch gives the creator permission to explore facets of character they might not with their heroine. As for my favorites, I was going to say I couldn't pick... but I think I have to say that my favorite witches are the Witches of Eastwick. I love the naturalness of their magic, and their eventual overcoming of adversity through their connection.

  6. I was always quiet fond of The Witch, from 'Simon and the Witch'.

    I suspect I may have missed the point.

  7. Wow! Thanks for all the excellent comments guys! I decided to talk about witches simply because they’re on my mind a lot lately with the book I’m currently working on, but your thoughts on the subject have really made me think about it. I suppose that the nasty old witch might actually be the very first strong female character you are exposed to as a kid; sure, you have your princesses but they spend most of their time being in peril, and there are the children who are quite adept at shoving old women in ovens, but it’s the witch who has the real power in those stories. I mean, she eats children! That pretty much tells you who’s the boss. Especially when you are small and edible yourself.

    (Red Riding Hood might be the only other strong girl, and that all depends on which version you hear as a kid. Note to self: If I have children, make sure they get the version where Red does something really dreadful, like slices old wolfie open to let Grandmama out)

    The witch has a lot of qualities that would have looked at least fascinating, if not downright attractive to the young Jen- she’s powerful, sneaky, clever, old, has a house made of sweets (sometimes), is an outsider, holds secret knowledge… As you get older and read more variedly, you also find stories of the witch as seducer, as a woman in charge of her own sexuality. I suppose it sometimes feels like we’re in dire need of some strong female characters in our modern stories, but the truth is we’ve had a secret one around all along..

    Gawd, I’m starting to sound like one of my art college lectures. ;)

    @Jenny Beans – You’re right, beers must be had at some point! We will toast witches and have a cackle, in their honour.

    @Nicole Ireland & Jim Ryan – Macbeth has some fabulous witches. I enjoyed reading it at school very much, but my memories of it were soured somewhat by getting stuck as the scenery painter for our school production. It would have been quite exciting if my art teacher hadn’t decided to go for a modern interpretation where we got a load of old furniture and painted it white. Yep. Painting stuff white is only fun for about the length of time it gets you out of PE. After that it’s quite tedious.

    @drewbeatty – couldn’t agree more. The fact that much of their “witchcraft” is actually plain old psychology pleases me the most.

    @Morgan – Glad to hear I’m not alone! I must get round to reading the Witches of Eastwick one day. I know we have a copy of the Witches of Chiswick somewhere, but I believe that may be somewhat different.

    @c64Glen – Ah, now, I used to like that a lot. I always got annoyed at her for being a bit of a dope though. Still loads better than Johnny Briggs.