The witch and I
The witch and I
Here is a list of associations that come up at the mention of a witch: Inconceivable ugliness, a long nose with a wart on the end of it, a pointed hat, an enchanted broom, an evil laugh, a cat and / or a raven (black of course) as her companions.
Practically speaking, witches tend to connive, to incite and inflame, to disguise themselves and to turn people into animals (frogs and mice are a favorable choice).
This addition, as if were not enough, witches are often considered cynical, cruel and distrustful creatures.
Given the above, it is quite obvious that witches should evoke strong feelings of repulsion and resentment. However their appearance in fairly tales is extremely popular. The appearance even exceeds the story line and reaches an iconic figure, when the witch sometimes becomes the center of attention.
Why should it happen? Why do we accept and favor stories that focus on witches?
Why do we want to reencounter them, when who they are and what they represent is so horrendous? And most important – why do we continue with it, even after we grow up and allow our children to enjoy such dubious amusement?
An essential part of the “witch culture” has developed from the need to protect young children from dangerous environments. This need can be understood in the context of the original Goldilocks and the three bears1. This version illustrates all too well how petrified the young girl is at the encounter with the bear family: she wakes up startled due to their irritated growls, escapes quickly through the open window and runs for her life from the young bear that wants to bite her (and continues to run after her up to the middle of the forest).
Seemingly, it is difficult to understand what such a frightening ending has to do with a story oriented for children: Are threats and scary legends the recommended tales before bedtime?
Apparently yes. It is a historical fact the many villages in Europe were built in close proximity to forests, which were occupied by dangerous animals and questionable personalities. In order to thwart any possibility of dangerously wandering off in those areas, adults told children horror stories about bears, wolves and witches who eat children who get lost in the woods. This is meant to create fear that would keep children away from danger.
A witch, under these circumstances, was a code name, a key word for those from whom we should be protected.
However, the witch is unique due to the power she gains throughout the story: she is not another figure in a long representation of fearsome creatures but an independent character, with an individual identity that materializes in various manifestations. Not only does her appearance fade away, but it gets more prominent as the narrative progresses.
It is possible that the attraction is very much like “eating the forbidden fruit”. The forbidden is tempting and is often obtained in stories by using doubtful characters. Such does the little mermaid when she goes to the sea-witch, Ursula. Such does Faust with the greatest warlock of all – Satan. What the evil enables – no good power will ever allow. But man still desires it, and therefore he turns to the dark forces to gets his wish.
Another important explanation is the fact that a witch is a fearful figure and fear has an appealing effect. It is not accidental that terror and wickedness are many times the driving force that generates the twists in the story2. A good fairy could not solve setbacks unless there was be a witch who originated them in the first place. It is the witch’s essence, to defy and object serenity. In the real world, tranquility can be considered a virtue. In stories, however, it is a death sentence.
Witches and magicians master the secrets of sorcery: they use spell, poisons and even a magic wand occasionally. But it is the witch that seems more intriguing, a fact that can justify the numerous stories about her, as opposed to the somewhat anemic and “one time performance” of the good magician. It is a splendid performance, but lacks depth or distinguished characterization. When the work is completed and the mission is accomplished, so ends the role of the good magician, who disappears, like magic, into thin air.
Despite this classification, witches are not always immoral and iniquitous. The “witch” title had expanded further from the boundaries of the circumstances and necessity that inspired and created the concept in the first place. An interesting example of this is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1890): in order to maintain the parallelism between The Wicked Witch of the East and The Wicked Witch of the West, Baum situated in contrast The Good Witch of the North and The Good Witch of the South. The role of the good witches in the story is rather narrow and is designed to protect Dorothy from the deeds of the Wicked Witch of the West. However, all four witches serve Dorothy on her journey and contribute (eventually) to her return home3.
The usage of the title “Witch”, in reference to the four cardinal directions, spreads witchcraft all over Oz when its center – the Emerald City is also the dwelling of the great Wizard, the ruler of the kingdom. This position situates the land of Oz as a magical and miraculous realm, that does not discriminate right from wrong by their title, only by their actions.
This double–repetition of Good Witch – Wicked Witch can be found in the classical comedy Bewitched4. Samantha is a good hearted and kind person, a devoted wife and mother and a very beautiful woman. She has none of the characteristic of the Wicked Witch (unlike her mother and her cousin Serena) but she is a witch nevertheless. She does not try to help people in need, but to live a normal life with her normal and ordinary husband and her two not-so-ordinary children. She does not practice witchcraft as a profession, but she uses them as creative solutions to solve the problems her family faces daily. Unlike the harsh and morbid consequences of other witch’s spells, Samantha’s magic usually ends up with a funny incident. However, although they never inflict real damage, there is always an inconvenience about them that corresponds with the deeds of a witch, not a good fairy godmother5.
Charmed6 took the matter one step further when it presented an alternative situation where witches are the guardians of the world. The three sisters at the heart of the television series are young, normal and compassionate witches who try their best to save other people from evil forces (the same evil forces that once generated witches).
Even though they help others, Prue, Piper, Phoebe (and later Paige) are loyal to their historical inheritance, starting from the book of spells in the attic (that helps them solve problems, not create them) to the traditional black cat. This alleged contradiction between their long established identity and their actual conducts does not refute their status as witches. On the contrary – it validates it: we expect witches to fight, and fight “dirty”, for what they want (unlike other bright and pretty creatures, who only wave their magic wand and disappear). Thus, abusing the helpless turns to helping the defenseless. The “dirty fight” transforms into an acceptable action. Conclusion: magical powers together with an honorable behavior equal a friendly and upgraded good witch.
The modern witch reincarnates herself in various characters, like the bishop in Ladyhawke7. The bishop is not a warlock by definition8 but a warlock nonetheless. The duality between his holy position and his actual deeds is the source that steers the plot onwards: the bishop longs for the beautiful Isabeau d’Anjou, but Isabeau does not return his love. Her heart is with another man – Captain Etienne Navarre. Thus, in his fury, the bishop uses his powers to place a curse upon the two lovers: Navarre is condemned to become a wolf during the night and a man by day while Isabeau is doomed to transform into a hawk by day and resume her womanly figure at night. The bishop’s spell is meant to break Navarre and Isabeau’s love and manipulate them according to his whim: if he cannot have Isabeau, no-one else will.
Horror and terror are distinctive traits in a witch’s representation. Not only because of the interest they arouse, but also thanks to the identity struggle they provoke between the wicked character and the hero – a child or an adolescent, for the most parts. Hocus Pocus9 depicts the struggle of a little girl and two teenagers against three witches who wish to gain immortal life via “one last magic”. The movie uses all the common features to build a humorous and unthreatening atmosphere but at the same time works in close proximity to its genre: the witches are ugly and conniving. They abuse, manipulate and intimidate, but eventually they are also defeated.
The witch’s bad end clarifies that evil can never stay forever and that any attempt to defeat it has to result from a powerful and persistent struggle. The legend must end when the correct order of things is restored, but this victory cannot and should not be taken for granted.
Nanny Mcphee10 also personifies a witch who is the complete opposite of the legendary Mary Poppins: a governess with a wart on her nose, black hat and a magic wand who casts a spell every time anyone refuses to obey her. The children of the Brown’s family try their best to fight Nanny Mcphee and to expel her from their house and from their life. But it is this very struggle that enables the children and later their father to understand what exactly was missing in the Brown’s household. This insight leads to a revolutionary change in their life and illustrates that Nanny Mcphee was actually the good godmother – a good witch – all along11.
The children who fight the witches from Hocus Pocus do so out of resistance to the evilness the witches represent and wish to inflict upon the world.
The children who dislike Nanny Mcphee do so due to their unfounded suspicion that by entering into their lives, the new nanny will inevitably jeopardize their family. But since Nanny Mcphee is not a real witch, there is no real need to be protected from her. It was not the struggle against an outside evil force but a struggle against their own inner fears.
Unlike these examples, most of the battles against witches maintain a serious and frightening tone: Stardust12portrays Tristan Thorn, who faces great dangers inflicted upon him by two terrifying witches – Lamia and Ditchwater Sal. The battles shape Tristan’s character and transform him from a simple shop boy into a well deserved hero and eventually a king in his own right.
This is also the case with Domino13. Even the witch it depicts seems to be a normal woman who does not do anything out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, the price she charges, as does every witch, is dangerously high. Eliana, a young girl, arrives at a witch’s house and asks her to correct a mistake she (Eliana) had done. The witch accedes but clarifies that what Eliana wants is merely an illusion and that her heart is longing for something else, far more profound. In order to fulfill this true desire, the witch charges an overpriced fee: Eliana’s life, if Eliana fails. Eliana agrees and from moment on she goes on a journey that crosses boundaries of time, life and death in order to regain her true sweetheart and stay alive. This journey is a struggle between the powers of faith vs. the dark pessimism of the witch, fear vs. daring (which eventually pays off) and love vs. disappointment. It is a fight between life, as it manifested in the young girl, and the misery of death for the aging witch.
But it seems that the most potent illustration of the witch’s cruelty is presented in the book The Witches14and the movie based on it15. The queen of witches draws up a witch convention in order to turn all children of the world into mice. Only one can stop her – a young English boy, an orphan, who turns into a mouse himself.
This boy is the opposite representation of the powerful hero: he is neither big, nor skilled nor devious. Most of the time he is not even human. But despite it all, he succeeds; the witch’s conspiracy fails and the world remains safe and protected.
Why this boy? What is there about him, as well as in Tristan and Eliana, that distinguishes him from the rest and crowns him victorious?
The answer lies in another hero’s victory – Perseus: the Gorgon Medusa, a monster which turns he who looks at her into stone, is invincible. Only Preseus the Greek succeeds to cut off her head, because he does not consider himself a hero but a man with shortcomings and vulnerability.
The human who defeats a witch will always be small and weak. This struggle can be resolved only from self recognition of inner disadvantages and finding the courage, the resourcefulness and the emotional strength which are embodied within him. Since he is lacking magical powers, the man is required to create that which is indeed from within. For this reason, the witch is such a fascinating character: confronting her is confronting ourselves, our inadequacies and our boundaries. The victory is not gained by spells or sorcery. It is a triumph of clear mind, courage, determination and good heart, which is always the most powerful virtue.
Therefore, the more extreme the witch the greater the victory of the human.
The negative character of the witch brings out the positive elements in the everyday and ordinary hero – the hero who represents us, viewers and readers alike.
As the witch grew apart from her primordial representation and became more complex and versatile, she did not lose the magic of witchcraft. This remains her essence and her great appeal.
The character of a witch is still needed in the imagery world. The modern is as every bit interesting as the mythological witch, because she also wanders back and forth from the traditional to the contemporary, from the conservative to the innovative. These two poles serve one meaningful purpose: they represent us. Therefore, the way in which we treat witches indicates who we are, the battles we wage and the fears that nest in our soul.
Once the witch was a lighthouse, designed to warn of potential dangers, lurking in the darkest corners of the world. The disappearance of this need has left an idea that facilitates man to recognize and evaluate his strength and to establish his human “self” through a struggle with what seemed to be beyond his capabilities.
In a world without magic, witches are a quest after the “I”.
Therefore, the more horrid and vivid the witch, the more significant and meaningful the journey, that would reveal, at its end, the rightful hero.
The human hero.