A Note on Witches

When reviewing stories for this project, I don’t often discuss about their cultural context. I am, as a general rule, woefully unqualified to do so. There’s the additional complexity in how I source my fairy tales – the books I use collected stories from various places and retold them in a certain way, at a certain time, and then I interpret them in my way through the process of writing an analysis, and with each step we move further from the original, if an original can even be determined within the vast variability of folklore.

That is, in a sense, the point; retellings and rediscoveries are how stories breathe. They adjust to time and place and teller, and I believe that’s a good thing, as long as the journey back is not being erased. However, it’s probably worth noting at this point there is some horrific cultural baggage around the term ‘witch’. It is a word that has spread itself out to cover so much ground that it could now mean almost anything, and frequently does, from Halloween costumes to fantasy novels to real-life belief systems to community scapegoats throughout history and into the present day. It is, honestly, a bottomless pit of a word, which is why I am choosing not to dive that deep. Discussing the variations on the word ‘witch’ and what that means in different parts of the world is a big enough subject for a completely different project that I am not writing.

Over the next couple of months, there are a few fairy tales coming up that are weighted with a complicated cultural context. There is an important ongoing conversation in storytelling circles about appropriation, and this is a thorny issue when discussing international fairy tales retold by a Western storyteller. While I use a variety of sources, my go-to is Ruth Manning-Sanders, an English folklorist. I am sure Manning-Sanders made her mistakes – to begin with, she used the terminology of her day, which can now be a deeply uncomfortable experience to read. Storytelling is, by its nature, an ever-changing game of words, and it is important to become aware of which ones will wound. I do my best in this regard, and hope to be corrected if I get it wrong.

For the sake of clarification, then: when I write about witches, I am talking about the witches of fairy tales, and when I write about fairy tales I am talking about what the Cambridge English Dictionary defines as ‘a traditional story written for children that usually involves imaginary creatures and magic’. When I talk about a fairy tale, I usually take it at face value, in much the same way I would with a novel. I’ll talk about the in-world norms and societal conventions that crop up, the impression that the story has left on me, and any connections I see within an existing framework of fairy tales. Serious academia this is not. I make jokes. I argue with the characters. I’m doing this for fun, and I do hope that comes across.

What’s incredibly valuable about Manning-Sanders’ work, in my opinion, is how stories from across the world become neighbours, connected by the themes of witch, wizard, princess, curse. It is the language of fairy tales, the language I love, which is why I’m using it in this project. I want there to be enough space at the table for every fairy tale, from every place, and that starts by talking about the ones in front of me. Each post in Year of the Witch starts from a point that I know, the source material I have, but I am always eager to hear alternate versions of these stories and recommendations of other sources are also very welcome!

All that said – onward to this Friday’s post.

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