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.