Carabosse from “The Sleeping Beauty,” performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1989
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
(Anne Sexton, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960)
The inductees for this week’s celebration of witch-kind include, but dare not be limited to
Baba Yaga, Mother Gothel, Maleficent, Carabosse, Queen Grimhilde, Frau Holle, Mother Hulda, Morgan Le Fey, Circe, Hecate, Mother Goose, Broom Hilda, Frau Totenkinder, the Snow Queen, the White Witch of Narnia, Minerva McGonagall, Doloros Umbridge, Bellatrix Lestrange, Sybill Trelawny, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Samantha and Tabitha Stevens, Endora, Cousin Sabrina, Nanny McPhee, Mary Poppins, Eglantine Price, Wendy the Good Little Witch, La Llorona, Yuki Onna, Strega Nona, Serafina Pekkala, Melisandre, Sycorax, Ursula, Angelique Bouchard, Lolly Willowes, the Witch of Endor, the Bell Witch, Princess Makemnoit, Watho, Mombi, Glinda the Good, the Wicked Witches of East and West, Mortitia and Grandmama Addams, MacBeth’s Weird Sisters, the witchy woman from that song by the Eagles, and any character that I risk offending by failure to send invitation by screech owl, summoning spell, or seance.
Despite length, the above list does not take into account any of the confessed and condemned witches in history. It does not include Marie Leveau or other practitioners of Voodoo (or Voudoun). Male witches, or wizards, are also excluded. No Merlin. No Dumbledore. No Severus Snape. You’re probably generating a list of all the other oversights that could render me vulnerable to curse.
For this particular lesson, I will limit myself to examining a selection of these archetypal females, these hags, femme fatales, and wise women, who appear to test, advise, or torment protagonists in fairy tales.
Many of these characters fail to register proper names and, therefore, may be known only as crones, beldames, lamias, cunning women, fairy godmothers, loathly ladies, oracles, mediums, herbal healers, soothsayers, fortune tellers, palm readers, alchemists, sorcerers, and necromancers.
Perhaps, their power acquires more potency when their true names cannot be used in counter spells. We don’t see the gingerbread witch of “Hansel and Gretel” cackling over her true name while hopping, like Rumpelstiltskin, around a campfire. And what about all those extra enchantresses who trick princes into frog and other beast forms before disappearing without so much as a smoky poof? As magic workers, many fairy godmothers might be counted as nameless members of this coven of popular culture.
While many of these stock characters possess personalities without complexities, without fenny snakes or newt eyes to season the brew, more modern villainesses come equipped with enough insecurities and traumas to allow revisionists to plead extenuating circumstances, rather like defense attorneys at sentencing.
Some of these other witches sprout aliases like skink tails or hydra heads. One case in point is her narcissistic highness of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Most people know her as “Wicked Queen,” but various online sources identify the character’s forename (notice I did not say Christian name) as Grimhilde.
In the titular story of Tanith Lee’s revisionist collection Red as Blood by the Sisters Grimmer, the Witch Queen is a devout Catholic. When she discovers that her husband’s daughter is actually a vampire, this stepmother does not want to eat the girl’s heart; nor does she want to put a stake through it. Instead, she sacrifices her own youth to allow Bianca to be reborn, to be rid of the sinfulness represented by her condition.
Gregory Maguire’s 2003 novel, Mirror Mirror, offers a historical spin of the wheel by relocating the plot to sixteenth-century Italy where Lucrezia Borgia subjects her ward, another Bianca, to mercury poisoning because brother Cesare is paying too much attention to the younger female.
You may also be familiar with the romantic comedy by the same title, which starred Julia Roberts as Queen Clementianna. Her motives have more to do with money than with vanity. That film was released in 2012 as was Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron as Ravenna. That character’s obsession with her mirror-self is determined by the terms of the spell that assures her immortality. Ravenna dies if anyone surpasses her in fairness. Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Lady Claudia in Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997) is more sympathetic. Lilli, the stepdaughter in that film, is rather a brat. The girl’s deliberate attempts to create discord within the household contribute to Lady Claudia’s delivery of a stillborn child. Further complications result in infertility. Grief turns to madness and, thus, Lady Claudia becomes the witch the viewer expects her to be.
Occasionally, villainesses undergo more radical transformations. We saw Disney’s Maleficent recast as a misunderstood fairy victimized by a power-hungry human. She turns villainess for revenge only to transform into loving godmother, despite herself. In the Shrek franchise, the character known as Fairy Godmother proves far more conniving than her counterpart in Disney’s Cinderella. Even though Princess Fiona has already fallen in love with the titular ogre, this godmother plays malicious match-maker between Fiona and her own son, who is Charming in name only.
“What do witches want?,” you wonder. A similar question (“What do women want?”) is posed to the Loathly Lady from Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Her response: “Sovereignty over their husbands.” Witches don’t limit their will to dominate to spouses; however, the desire for power is often a driving force behind much of the antagonistic spell-casting in fairy tale. Some witches want revenge, often for public shaming. If the malice of the proverbial woman scorned is hellacious, then, one can only shudder at the potential for mayhem when that woman is gifted with magic that allows her to actively prosecute and persecute.
One of the more common forms of witch-snubbing involves failure to invite, especially to christenings. A witch may be subjected to uninvitedness for a number of reasons. Her age, class, and/or politics may render her invisible without the need for a magic cloak. Like Madeleine in Theodora Goss’s “Sleeping Beauty” variant, “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” she may teach herself magic from a mail-order manual after being dropped by a royal lover. As Anne Sexton’s poem at the beginning of this lesson suggests, some women find themselves cast as witches merely because they have failed to fit into a societal mold. Her kind might be lonely, moody, bawdy.
She might even be a genius misunderstood like one of the Faustian females of George MacDonald’s fairy tales, “The Light Princess” (1864) and “The History of Photogen and Nycteris: The Day Boy and Night Girl” (1882). In the former story, Princess Makemnoit (Princess Make-them-know-it) is physiognomically hideous. Her abnormally large forehead gives her an alien appearance, while also suggesting degeneracy. Her skin is preternaturally wrinkled as the result of constant grimacing. However, these characteristics appear to be predicated upon the witch-princess’s cleverness. When she is not invited to her niece’s christening, she curses the child with lightness of mind and body. You might think her parents would approve of such mental vacuity in offspring, given that Makemnoit is shunned by both her father and brother for manifesting a challenging temperament. The light-minded princess does not argue with anyone. She’s way too busy giggling, even when circumstances should merit sadness or solemnity.
Nycteris, the female protagonist of Macdonald’s other story, is more ideal in temperament, her education having been limited to music and children’s books, whereas Watho, the antagonist, is depicted as a witchy scientist, whose experiments combine behavioral conditioning with imaginationism (i.e. maternal impressions). Motivated by the same kind of curious ambition that drove Victor Frankenstein to construct a creature without contemplating future consequences, Watho manipulates two pregnant women into visiting during their periods of confinement. One woman dies in childbirth; the other is informed that her child did not survive. After the latter woman leaves to reunite with her husband, Watho is left to treat the boy and girl as experimental objects. The boy is raised to know only daylight, while the girl knows only nightlight. Watho controls diet as well as activities. Even during gestational development, the fetuses are influenced by controlled environments. The day boy’s mother carries him to term in a brightly lit aerie at the top of the castle, while the night girl’s blind mother is housed in an underground tomb, albeit one of comfortable, even luxurious design.
The act of separating a mother from her child is intended to be interpreted as evidence of Watho’s unnatural nature. Combined with the occasional lapse into a weird trance that might be diagnosed as epileptic seizure, Watho”s character is clearly designed to demonstrate the abnormality that education of the wrong kind was supposed to have on the impressionable female mind, according to socio-medical authorities of the Victorian era.
When Photogen experiences illness during adolescence, Watho becomes so enraged she turns sadistic, torturing the teenager with his own arrow. She later attempts to kill Nycteris, considering the double experiment as evidence of failure. Such ambition is especially pathological, unnatural, and evil when manifested in feminine form, or, thus is the implied message in MacDonald’s fairy tale.
Indeed, Watho’s intellectuality is describes as a “wolf in her mind” early in the narrative. “She cared for nothing in itself—only for knowing it,” we’re told. “She was not naturally cruel but the wolf had made her cruel.” MacDonald might have been writing with polemics, similar to those of anti-feminist Eliza Lynn Linton, in mind. In Linton’s essays in the journal Nineteenth Century, she warned of dire consequences resulting from suffragists’ advocacy of “lawlessness and licence.” In an essay called “The Wild Women as Social Insurgents” (1891), Linton expressed horror at the idea of women nursing babies with hands bloodied from slaughtering oxen and lambs. Although MacDonald’s feminist does not operate with a scalpel or poleaxe, she does become a werewolf by the story’s end. She employs an ointment to effect the physiological transformation, but the psychological devolution (or reverse evolution) has been underway for some time.
Anne Bachelier from “Belle fin d’année”
Like so many archetypes, witches are often cast as equivocal figures. In Disney’s recent rehabilitation of Maleficent, the fairy rules over the spirits of the Moors, the more natural realm beyond the borders of the human kingdom. In Angelina Jolie’s incarnation, this character contains capacities for good and evil. Such is often the case for witch figures affiliated with nature in fairy tale. Baba Yaga, encountered as a cannibalistic hag in last week’s lesson, often rewards protagonists who prove their merit. She is, like Frau Holle or Mother Hulda of the “Diamonds and Toads” variants, likely to punish one or more antagonists while blessing a benevolent, obedient, and diligent protagonist. In “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” Baba Yaga is linked with the day’s diurnal passage, represented by riders of dawn, noon, and night. Both Frau Holle and Mother Hulda are associated with weather events. Snow falls, for example, when the protagonist assists the old woman in shaking out feather-bedding.
For this week’s discussion, I would like you to consider the way in which revisions are influenced by the anxieties and agendas of their milieu. What does the rehabilitation of a villainness suggest about changing mores?
What do you make of controversies involving the Harry Potter novels/films or other witch-inhabited children’s works that have been accused of promoting Satanism? One of my students in a university class devoted to the study of children’s literature, once observed that “we could not allow children to read the Harry Potter books because that would lead to the need to burn witches again.” She had never studied the history of witchcraft trials in the United States or elsewhere, had never even heard of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In another class, a student announced that she would never read a Harry Potter novel, even as an adult, because she had heard that they promoted evil. In the very next meeting, she raved about her favorite television program: True Blood. She did not see a contradiction. Perhaps books have a greater potential for corruption than HBO programming?
You can find links to a number of fictions in the above lesson. Since I began this lesson with a poem and shared the cover illustration for Becoming the Villainess, I thought I would also add a few links to poetic revisions of classic fairy tales.
A number of samples from Jeannine Hall Gailey’s fairy tale poetry can be found on her website.
1. Some of the characters in the above lesson may be totally new acquaintances for you. Some you may have met, but forgot. You could make up for that slight if you like in your short story for the week. Allow your text to rehabilitate a despised figure or to malign a loved one. Example: if you are a Chronicles of Narnia fan, you might salvage the reputation of Jadis, The Witch Witch. Or, if you grew up reading Harvey comics, you might trash Wendy the Good Little Witch.
2. Draw inspiration from images located at the website maintained by the artists featured above: Riita Ikonen’s and Karoline Hjorth’s “Eyes as Big as Plates” series; Anne Bachelier’s blog; Miwa Yanagi’s “Fairytale.”
3. Turn a historical witch trial into a fairy tale. Give magical powers to someone who was accused of possessing such powers. What would have happened if the accusations were true? (You can find transcripts of actual trials on line.)
4. Write a story that contains magical formulas or spells. Theodora Goss’s “The Rose in Twelve Petals” begins as her witch-wanna-be follows instructions from a mail-order Compendium Magicarum. I suspect that some of the success for J.K. Rowling’s novels rested on her detailed imagining of Hogwarts’ classes and magical objects. Many of the earlier witch-oriented children’s books had been vaguer when it came to recounting rituals. You might look at herbal compendiums for inspiration. You may also find some studies of magic that contain spells attributed to historical cunning folk.
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