Wickedness and Wisdom: A Year of Witches

Trigger warning: discussion of domestic abuse

Witch is a word with serious baggage. It is the cackling caricature beside a gingerbread house in a children’s picture book. It’s a tradition of the fantasy genre, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is a perennial Halloween costume, complete with broomstick and pointy hat. It is an insult that gets thrown at female politicians and a dangerous accusation once levelled against peasants and queens alike. It’s a word that could get you killed in many times and many places. Witch brings with it the ducking stool and the stake. Witch is storybook and power fantasy and belief and crime and slur.

Witches are an integral part of the fairy tale world. My earliest associations with fairy tales are tied to the imagery of witches and it has had a pull on me ever since. When I started this blog seven years ago – a very folkloric number – my first big project was Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which explored fairy tales from around the world. It was a wonderful way to rediscover my favourites and an excellent excuse to read more that were new to me. The Year of the Witch allowed me to return to that format. I started this project with two rules: I could not review any story that I had written about during Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which knocked out a lot of low-hanging fruit, and I could only write about stories that featured at least one character specifically labelled a witch by the narrative.

The latter point is worth thinking about. There are plenty of stories which feature women who use magic. Fairies, sorceresses, enchantresses, ogresses – there are also heroines with no explanation for their magical tendencies, such as the princess from ‘The Goose Girl’ who can call up a convenient breeze when she needs one or the titular powerhouse from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’ who I am convinced can do anything she pleases from sheer force of will. All of these types of characters are different from a witch. Their stories are weighted in different places. They don’t curse the same way, or hold the same grudges.

No one dies quite like a witch.

I: The Witch as Victim

A witch is a villain you can kill off and walk away whistling.

In the well-known German fairy tale ‘Snow White’, the murderous stepmother is both witch and queen. At the end of the story, she is forced to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes – which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a very gruesome way to go, but unfortunately it is pretty much par for the course. In ‘Sweetheart Roland’, another Grimm brothers’ story, the witch is tricked into a hedge of thorns and, like the unfortunate queen, is compelled to dance to death. In ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’, the king has the witch stoned then torn apart; in ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, another king condemns a witch mother and daughter to execution in a barrel full of nails. Two of the witches from ‘Johnny and the Witch-Maidens’ are thrown into a river and drowned. The witch from ‘Katchen the Cat’ dies much the same way, while the witch from ‘Foundling’ is held underwater by a homicidal shapeshifting child. ‘The Chinese Princess’ burns its witch to death in an oven, as does ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and the witch in ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’ comes very close to the same end. Even Baba Yaga, who is on the whole fairly indestructible, meets a fiery death in ‘Baba Yaga’.

So what is the point of this litany of misery? Fairy tale justice is notoriously hardline and its executions tend to be memorable. The villain of ‘The Goose Girl’ also dies by barrel of nails, with no accusation of witchcraft at her door. What’s more, the witches named above are nearly all killed by those who would have been their victims or by those they have deceived – they arguably bring their deaths upon themselves.

And yet. There is such an unapologetic brutality to the deaths of these women that it reminds you, inevitably, while these stories were being told by the fire, ‘witches’ were being tied to the stake. Purely from a narrative perspective, there is a warping effect. Can you build a happy ending like a castle of legend, on foundations of blood and bone? Can you still call Snow White the heroine of the story when she stood by watching her stepmother burn? Is the Goose Girl really the victim after her nemesis is condemned to that barrel?

There is an interesting contrast in the story of ‘Martin and the Lions’. The witch is a sadistic piece of work; she abducts an entire royal court as vengeance for an insult and even then is not satisfied, trying to hire a thug to help brutalise her captives. The hero of the story, Martin, is pushed into confronting the witch in order to save everyone else. So far, fairly unremarkable in terms of fairy tale stakes. What makes Martin stand out from the crowd is his conscience. He does not want to kill the witch; he does it because he can see no other option. He looks at the witch and he sees an old woman, whose death matters. It feels strange to give cookies to a character for acknowledging the personhood of the woman he’s about to kill, but it’s a striking enough deviation from the norm to be worth noting.

II: The Witch as Politician

There is often a twisted domesticity to the lives of witches in fairy tales: a little cottage in the wood, travel by broomstick or a mortar and pestle. The axe in the woodpile. The oven. But on the other side of the equation, there are the witches who take their powers and aim high.

A popular career path is to seduce a royal. In ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’, the witch’s daughter literally pushes her stepsister out of a moving carriage in order to get a shot at the throne; in ‘The Witch and the Swan-Maiden’ and ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’, the witches manoeuvre the respective queens out of the way – one via a long game of court intrigue, the other with straight-up identity theft. The witch from ‘The Queen and her Children’ steals away the royal heirs then uses the king and his council as accomplices to rid herself of the queen, so that her daughter can take her place.

Marriage is one way for a witch to access kingdom-scale power; abduction is another. In ‘Katchen and the Cat’, the witch locks up the king’s children and weighs up their value in ransom money against how good they’d taste in a stewpot. The witch from ‘The White Dove’ not only keeps a princess enchanted as a dove, she corners two princes into bargaining away their unborn baby brother to be her servant.

Most intriguing of the political witches, from my perspective, is the witch from ‘King Fox’. A princess disappears and her father offers half a kingdom in exchange for her return. This is usually when a plucky youngest son steps in, but instead a witch presents herself, offering to bring back the princess – whose disappearance, please note, has nothing to do with her – if the king will give her the role of his most trusted advisor. It is a scrupulously fair arrangement. And if it has nothing to with the princess’s own wishes, well, the youngest sons would hardly have stopped to consult her either. The only reason that the witch becomes a villain in this story is because she is a witch, a clever and resourceful woman who very nearly gets what she was promised. Who knows what she would have done with it? Perhaps she would have drained the kingdom’s resources to serve her own interests. Perhaps she would have been the instigator of change, forcing the court to see the world from a new perspective.

But she is a witch, and thus a villain, and is torn to pieces by animals instead.

III: The Witch as Abuser

Let’s return to the theme of domesticity in fairy tales. Witches take on familial roles – mother, stepmother, the courtesy title of ‘grandmother’ – and become predators within the home. Motivated by ambition, jealousy, hunger or a combination thereof, they plot the captivity or death of children in their care and deceive husbands who vanish conveniently from the narrative, taking no accountability for their own oversights or absences until the very end, when they may take on the role of second-tier hero by driving the witch from the family home. In ‘The Witch’, the stepmother is abusing her husband’s children for some time before sending them off to be eaten in the woods, and there is no in-narrative reaction from him until the twins come running home after a very narrow escape from death. In ‘Vasilissa’, the titular heroine turns to a doll for help instead of her own father. In the case of Snow White, there is an entire royal court that should have noted her absence, if not the attempted assassination. Once the witch in the equation is removed from the family unit, of course, it’s a short smooth ride to the happy ending…in theory.

There is a certain amount of overlap here with the political witches, who are likewise removed one way or another to make way for a true queen. Interestingly, the wronged queens from ‘The Witch and the Swan-Maiden’, ‘The Witch in the Stone Boat’ and ‘The Queen and her Children’ are all maternal figures, as if to increase the contrast between themselves and the witches who seek to supplant them.

There are also the murky depths of witch mother-daughter relationships to be considered. ‘The Queen and her Children’ and ‘The White Bride and the Black Bride’ both feature a witch trying to take her stepdaughter off the throne and put her own daughter there instead. Though the stepmother in ‘Cinderella’ does not resort to magical means, there is a similar blunt force ambition at work that allows little room for sentiment. On the other side of the spectrum is the witch’s daughter from ‘The Riddle’, who actively sabotages her mother’s plans, and Vasilissa from ‘Baba Yaga’, who rebels in order to rescue her new friend. Then there’s Benvenuto from ‘Prunella’, the witch’s son who takes every opportunity to rescue the heroine of the story from his mother’s malice. Somewhere in the middle, I think, is the witch’s daughter from ‘Jankyn and the Witch’, who vanishes from her husband’s house without so much as a goodbye but rescues him from the murderous machinations of her family.

Dysfunctional as these family dynamics may be, they have nothing on the witch princesses I want to talk about next.

IV: The Witch as Devourer

A witch is always hungry.

This is a consistent trend throughout the fairy tales in this project. Feminine hunger seems to attract a peculiar revulsion in shared storytelling consciousness and the witch archetype would hardly be complete without all the trappings of a savage feast. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ features the infamous gingerbread house; ‘Snow White’ has its poisoned apple. The image of the oven shows up time and time again: in ‘The Old Witch’, ‘The Chinese Princess’, ‘Old Witch Boneyleg’. Cannibalism is a staple trope in witch fairy tales. From ‘Uletka’ to ‘Katchen the Cat’, Baba Yaga to ‘Moti-kata and the Water Witch’, there is a tendency for witches to literally eat their problems.

In some stories the hunger goes deeper than that. ‘The Red King and the Witch’ begins with a baby who takes on monstrous form to sate an unnatural hunger; ‘The Witch and the Sister of the Sun’ is about a princess who literally devours her kingdom and shows no sign of stopping, even at the end of the story.

There are connections to be made here with the fairy tale ogre, who is also linked to monstrous appetite, but there is also, I think, something different about the framing of a witch’s hunger in the narrative. An ogre’s role is that of monster, no questions asked. But suppose you are in the woods and you lose your way, and there is a little cottage warm with the glow of its oven, and a woman on the threshold who beckons you inside to share a meal. It takes the traditionally feminine responsibility of homemaker and housekeeper and turns it into something treacherous.

Grandmama, what big teeth you have.

There are, I think, two main aspects to a witch’s role as villain. The first is domesticity gone wrong – the abandoned or mistreated child in a home that becomes a death trap. The second aspect is about consumption: a creature that can never be satisfied, leaving a wasteland in its wake. Fairy tale witches represent an intimate and terrifying abuse, a betrayed trust; they also represent a deep-rooted resentment of social expectations and an ambitious, impassioned hunger for everything that the narrative does not want to give them. A witch knows that the crown is never going to be handed to her. Whatever she wants, she will have to fight for with tooth and claw.

V: The Witch as Mentor

The witch is the villain. Everyone knows that. Except, you know, for the times when she’s not.

In ‘The Whirlwind’s Castle’, the witch stages an intervention to ensure that the right prince succeeds in his quest and makes it home in safety. In ‘The Giant on the Mount’, the witch’s role is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief, rewarding the hero of the story for his kindness with the gift of a magic ring (inverse to the witch in ‘Katchen the Cat’, who uses her ring of power to manipulate and abuse). My personal favourite story in this vein is ‘The King’s Beard’, in which three gloomy witches more or less adopt a young girl after she makes them laugh and come to the rescue when her marriage goes perilously awry.

Most intriguing of all is the unpredictable Baba Yaga, who alternates between cannibalistic antagonism and grudging mentorship depending on the story. In ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’, she positions herself firmly on Team Ivan (though this is a rare case when her support does not indicate the clear victor). She takes on a similar role in ‘The Three Ivans’. After sending the three young men to face what she believes to be their death, she relents and warns them of danger on the road ahead. In ‘Vanooshka’, the stakes are more personal. The hero is searching for his wife, who as it turns out is Baba Yaga’s great-niece and is in the clutches of Baba Yaga’s arch-nemesis Queen Glafyra. Vanooshka continues on his quest with Baba Yaga’s advice to guide him.

A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest, Granny Weatherwax had once told her, because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.” – Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Witch is bigger than fairy tales these days. Witch means Hermione Granger and Serafina Pekkala, Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching, Elphaba, Jadis. Call a girl a witch and she might wear it on a T-shirt. Stories change; the witches changed with them, and are changing still.

So after a year of writing and talking and thinking about witches, what does that word mean to me? When I was a child, it was witches I loved best. I loved the picture book illustrations of a gingerbread cottage, dressed up in black skirts and a pointed hat. What could be better than a morally ambiguous woman raising hell with a cat at her side and a chicken-legged house to come home to? As an adult I own a mortar and pestle more because of the associations with Baba Yaga than because they are useful to me and as a storyteller, I find myself returning to witches time and again. Witch means villain and hero and concerned third party who is probably sipping on herbal tea and judging royalty on Twitter while she waits for yet another youngest son to roll on through her forest. It means a character who might do anything, be anything at all. Beautiful girl out to steal your eyes for her weird serial killer collection? Check. Exasperated grandmother figures helping to sort out your relationship? Check. Raucous coven off to dance with the devil and screw over royalty? Check. The woman of the woods, who can help or harm as she chooses, who can transform herself a hundred times over? Oh, yes.

Witch means you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And I love it still.

Year of the Witch: Katchen the Cat

This German story is the last witch of the year and, fittingly, it comes from a Ruth Manning-Sanders anthology called A Book of Cats and Creatures. It wastes no time in getting to the point; the opening line declares ‘Well, now, here’s a terrible old witch for you – and my word, a hideous one too!’, as if there’s anything wrong with green spectacles and having shark-like teeth. This witch is a storm-raiser, bringing down rain or hail depending on her mood, and she wears a ruby ring that can turn her invisible. It also allows her to enchant whosoever she pleases to do her will. The witch has made much use of her ring, to transform people into animals that she can sell and to force-feed prisoners until they are fat enough for the pot. So she is certainly hideous in personality.

One day, as she is out and about masquerading as a kindly old lady, she stumbles across the very best haul of her life. The king’s young children, a boy and a girl, have slipped away from their minders and lost themselves in the woods. The witch quickly ingratiates herself with the frightened children, promising to lead them home. Instead she takes them to a little house made of birch branches, her home, where she immediately strips them of all valuables, including their expensive clothes, and locks them up in the dark with nothing but sacks to wear.

As for what she means to do with them, well, the witch can’t quite decide whether she’s in it for reward money or a royal dinner – but she’s leaning more towards dinner. The princess is sobbing her heart out, the prince is hammering at the door of their prison and trying to threaten the witch with his father’s rage, but she has neither sympathy nor fear and all the children can do is huddle together while they wait for whatever she does next.

There is, however, someone else living in the cottage. During her travels the witch encountered a young flower-seller called Katchen and, showing a really mean sense of humour, turned the girl into a tabby cat, who now serves her as a familiar. The witch believes Katchen to be entirely under her control. That, however, is never a safe assumption to make where cats or children are concerned, and Katchen has secretly been learning magic. Now, with two captives in the house and a chance to save them, Katchen decides it is time to act.

She rises very early and blows out a breath across her bed. “Bed, bed, I conjure thee,” she commands, “take my voice and speak for me.” Then she carefully picks her way down the stairs, giving the same order to each step in turn. “Hearth, should the witch enquire,” she tells the fireplace, “say that Katchen lights the fire.” Last she comes to the locked room where the children are imprisoned, and she demands the door open itself.

When the witch wakes, she screams at Katchen to get up and light the fire. The bed calls down a soothing answer, but the witch is not the type to be soothed; she is soon screaming at Katchen again to find out what she’s doing. She gradually realises that though she can hear Katchen’s voice, she can hear no other sounds of activity in the kitchen and leaps up to find out what’s going on. It is immediately apparent that Katchen has taken the royal children and fled into the woods.

So the witch mentally adds her familiar to the cooking pot and heads after the runaways. She is very quick, quick enough to start catching up despite their headstart. Katchen desperately calls out to the stag leading a passing herd of deer, begging that two of his hinds carry the children to safety. The stag goes one better and brings over a third hind to carry Katchen herself. These three gallop away while the rest of the herd fade into the woodland and the stag lies in wait for the witch. As soon as she comes into sight, he charges, lifting her onto his antlers.

In her struggles to get free, the witch’s ring slides off her finger and onto an antler. The deer feels its power as a massive increase in his already impressive strength; he powers towards the king’s castle, unstoppable, while the witch flails in vain. The stag sees a lake in the castle grounds and plunges straight into it. He soon emerges on the other side, but the witch sinks to the bottom of the lake, and so does her ring.

The death of the witch breaks her spells. By the time Katchen arrives at the palace, she’s a human girl again. The king adopts her on the spot and throws out a decree banning the hunting of deer in the royal forest. And so Katchen the witch’s servant becomes Katchen the princess, safe and adored in the arms of her new family.

I have been going on and on about rights for witches’ servants throughout this project so it seems fitting to end on the story of a rebellious familiar who ends up living her dreams. The witch in this fairy tale is a genuinely nasty piece of work, a cannibalistic opportunist who exploits anyone and everyone she meets. While her powers do have a very Tolkien flavour – right down to the manner of her death, I’d watch out for that ring in years to come – she is also a decent strategist, though her plans have a counterbalance in witchy hedonism. She’s a good villain, and Katchen – who is a better strategist, playacting subservience while she squirrels away spells – is a delightful heroine. If it down to picking a side between the witch and the cat, no prizes for guessing whose side I’m on.

Thank you to everyone who has read along and commented through the year! I will be posting a wrap-up next Friday, looking back on a year of witches, and this project would not have been nearly as fun without you.

Year of the Witch: The Bird of Truth

This Spanish fairy tale comes from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales from Around the World and begins with a poor fisherman who is out casting his nets one day when he finds a cradle made of crystal and two babies smiling adorably inside. He takes them home, where his wife points out that they are already struggling to feed eight children. But somehow they make things stretch a bit further, and both the fisherman and his wife are genuinely fond of the twins they have adopted. Unfortunately their older sons do not feel the same way. As they grow up, the twins take to escaping down to the river, where they can play in peace and feed the birds. The children spend so much time with the birds, in fact, that they learn to speak their language, which is quite a skill.

One day the eldest of the fisherman’s sons lashes out at the twins, claiming that they have no real father or mother but are instead the river’s children. “Like the toads and the frogs,” he sneers. That, as far as the twins are concerned, is the last straw. They slip out of the house early the next morning and start following the river, ready to seek their fortunes. After a long time walking they come to a hut and approach hopefully, but it is all closed up. The only thing to do is make the best of it and rest on the bench outside.

As the children slump together there, they overhear the chatter of two swallows in the eaves. It’s a little passive-aggressive at first; one swallow has recently returned to claim her parents’ nest after years living in the city and is trying to talk to a rather sullen old acquaintance. They soon bond over bad-mouthing the other birds in the neighbourhood. Then the city swallow settles in to share a juicy bit of gossip from her part of the world. The king, she informs her audience, fell in love with a tailor’s daughter and married her against the wishes of his court, but the nobility plotted against them. When the king went away to war and the queen gave birth to twins, the children were stolen away and the queen was called mad, shut away in a tower in the mountains. “At night the chamberlain came down and put them in a cradle of crystal,” the swallow continues, “which he carried to the river.” The listening children look at one another in shock and joy. Who can the swallow be talking about but themselves?

And when the children are grown up,” cry the listening birds, clearly invested by this point, “they can return to their father and set their mother free.” The swallow points out that this will be no easy task. “They will have to prove that they are the king’s children,” she says, “and also that their mother never went mad at all.” But she has heard of a creature called the Bird of Truth who is immortal and can expose any wickedness. She lives in a castle guarded by an insomniac giant, and the location of this castle is the great secret of a witch who, since she can’t kill her, has hidden her away where nobody can hear her speak. The only other living creature who can find the bird is an owl, whose only word in the human language is ‘cross’. Not the world’s best guide.

When the swallow wraps up her story and flies away, the children leap up to chase after her. They come to the king’s city and manage to charm their way into a night’s lodging. The children decide to repay their hostess with lots of little domestic tasks and she likes them so much that she asks them to live with her. The brother is happy to find a place where his sister can stay in comfort, but he’s been bitten by the quest bug and sets off to find the witch.

He’s not all that successful at first. After wandering for three days with no sign of the witch’s tower, he throws himself miserably under the tree. Looking up, he spots a dove and tries his luck with bird language. “Tell me, I pray you, where is the castle of Come-and-never-go?” he asks. The dove tells him to follow the wind, which is sound advice, because the boy soon finds himself in a bare rocky landscape and among the rocks he finds the witch’s tower.

The boy, who is apparently fearless and caution-free, knocks boldly at the door. A woman described as hideous answers the door, accompanied by a throng of creepy-crawlies like courtiers to her queen. “Who are you who dare to knock at my door and wake me?” she demands, squinting from behind her candle, and that is fair, I would probably be threatening under those circumstances as well. The boy explains that he needs to find the castle of Come-and-never-go. The witch tries to invite him in for the night but he does not accept so she instead offers him a jar. He is to fill it with many-coloured water from Come-and-never-go – if he fails, she will turn him into a lizard. So that’s where the entourage came from, then.

The witch summons a dog to act as the boy’s guide. She instructs the animal, ominously, to ‘take care that you warn my friend of his arrival’. Two hours later the dog is leading the boy towards a big black castle. Unsure whether the giant is really sleeping or not, the boy hesitates and happens to overhear a cry of ‘cross, cross’ from the branches of a nearby olive tree. The boy realises that it is the owl the swallow spoke of and eagerly implores it for help. The owl, probably relieved to meet a quester who actually speaks its language for once, is happy to oblige.

It advises the boy to fill the jar from a spring within the castle courtyard instead of the fountain of many-coloured water. Then he must enter an aviary full of beautiful murderous birds and ignore their many loud claims to be the Bird of Truth. The real thing is a small white bird hidden away in a corner. One more thing – the boy is on the clock, because the giant has literally just fallen asleep.

The boy bolts. He fills the jar at top speed then hurries to the aviary. It is a riot of voices – ravens, magpies, peacocks – the birds of Bad Faith, each screaming that it is the Bird of Truth. In the corner, tramelled by crows, the boy finds the small white bird he was sent for and he escapes with it. He runs all the way back to the witch’s tower and gives her the water. “Become a parrot!” she commands, throwing the water over him. But it’s not the right water, and instead just makes him…a spectacularly handsome human. The crowd of lizards and insects scurry to the drips of water and when it touches them, their humanity is restored. Seeing how completely her plan has backfired, the witch leaps on a broom and takes off.

The boy returns to his sister, but somehow – very possibly from the witch herself – word has spread that the Bird of Truth is on the loose and the plotting courtiers are desperate to prevent it reaching the king. Birds of prey are sent to hunt her, cages are built to trap her. They even claim that the white plumage is a facade over black feathers, presumably to indicate that this is the wrong bird? It’s also very possibly racism. But all these plans backfire as spectacularly as the witch’s, because by trying to convince the king that he will not be seeing the real Bird of Truth, he becomes very curious indeed and sends out a proclamation that it should be brought to him.

The children come to the palace, where the courtiers block their way, insisting that the king is sleeping and must not be woken. The question is settled by the Bird of Truth herself, who flies through the king’s open window and tells him what his courtiers are doing. The king sends one of his own people to fetch the children and once they arrive, the Bird of Truth explains exactly what was done to the royal family by the very people who have surrounded the king for years. Devastated, he embraces his children and leaves immediately for the mountains to free his wife. Her skin is bleached white by years of living in darkness but the sight of her husband and children brings the colour back to her and they return home together to bring justice down upon the royal court. The traitors are beheaded, their property seized.. The fisherman and his wife are rewarded for their kindness and, the story concludes that they ‘were loved and cherished to the end of their lives’. So the twins ended up with two sets of parents who wanted them, and a would-be adoptive mother, as well as several not-so-great older brothers – and as fairy tale families go, that’s not too bad.

There is an allegory in this fairy tale that strikes rather close to the bone. The Bird of Truth being a small, persecuted creature, caged and abused, in parallel to the imprisoned and abandoned queen; the traitorous courtiers doing all they can to discredit both the bird and the children, just as the Birds of Bad Faith tried over and over to murder the Bird of Truth. There is a streak of shocking cruelty running through this fairy tale, but it is also fiercely hopeful. The truth is not just out there – it is immortal, and it will get loose in the end whatever you do.

This is the penultimate fairy tale in the Year of the Witch! Next week will be the last story in the project, and the week after that (November 22nd) will be a wrap-up post looking back over the year.