by Margaret Kingsbury
In fairy tales, witches are often scary, though not always. They sometimes eat children, curse innocent bystanders, poison fair maidens. But sometimes witches are the arbiters of goodness. When two stepsisters approach a witch and one helps her and the other mocks her in “Diamonds and Toads,” for instance, the kind sister finds herself spitting diamonds, the mean one frogs. Neither sound like exactly great outcomes, but at least the kind one will be rich. When a soldier passes an old woman and gives her his last loaf of bread in “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” she tells him how he can win a wealthy bride. There are several stories in Italian Folktales collected by Italo Calvino that feature helpful witches who provide essential information to the protagonists, as long as they are kind.
It’s interesting that witches maintain some semblance of goodness in folklore, considering the witch hunts during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and America, exactly the time when many folklore collections were being compiled. Witches faced slander from the church and from the law, and it’s impressive that there are still many stories with good witches from the time period. Of course, the women being persecuted by the church and law were more likely to be older widows and healers than actual magic users flying on brooms. Editor Elaine G. Breslaw discusses in Witches of the Atlantic World how the move from community-based living to single households left many older widows without a means to live, and they often turned to begging from house to house to survive. They became a burden on their communities instead of respected elders, so when something went wrong—a lame cow or a stillbirth—it was easy enough to blame it on the burden and thus eliminate the ‘problem,’ particularly when the church was so eager to find such problems.
Women writers have been quick to show humanity in so-called witches, and have embraced the term as part of their feminism. One of the most powerful recurring quotes from protest signs in the 2017 women’s march pronounced: “We are the granddaughters of witches you weren’t able to burn.” The quote is attributed to Tish Thawer, who writes paranormal books. The Witches of BlackBrook is the first in her witch series, which I’ve unfortunately not read. Feminist and humorist Lindy West’s newest book is called The Witches are Coming (Nov. 5th) and tackles the patriarchal culture in the United States that led to Trump’s election, as well as the #MeToo movement and women’s rage. West’s voice is like listening to the best friend you wish you had, chatting in the car on the way to a protest.
Like many of my generation, my first encounter with a book about witches was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, a decidedly feminist, award-winning middle grade novel. I read my sister Katherine’s copy, and the front cover had nearly fallen off. It was read many times, by all three of us sisters. It showed me that witches were human, and the importance of befriending outcasts, a pursuit I embraced until I too became an outcast, just as Kit in the novel did.
In her Goodreads review of the book, writer Katherine Arden lists The Witch of Blackbird Pond as the book that made her fall in love with the historical fiction genre. It must’ve made her fall in love with witches, too. Katherine Arden would later go on to write one of my favorite historical fantasy series, the Winternight Trilogy, which begins with The Bear and the Nightingale. The series follows Vasilisa and her journey to becoming a witch and also finding independence and agency in a medieval Russian setting. She’s raised on equal parts folklore and snowy landscape, a perfect formula for witchhood, it seems. Her journey is full of adventure and magic and, to me, each book is better than the last. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Russian folklore gives us one of my favorite witches–Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga lives in a house with chicken legs, eats the bones of children, and rides in a mortar and wields a pestle. You don’t f*ck around with Baba Yaga. Lots of books feature her. The YA graphic novel Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll sets Baba Yaga in contemporary times. While pre-teen Masha struggles with her father remarrying, she remembers her grandmother’s wisdom and learns to apply it in her daily tasks as Baba Yaga’s assistant. Other YA novels with Baba Yaga are Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter and Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher. She also plays a significant part in the lyrical fantasy In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip, the metafictional Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, and the dark fantasy Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente.
I love that Baba Yaga always appears as old and crotchety, as she is in folklore. It’s more common for witches in contemporary Western European novels to be portrayed as young, but Baba Yaga is always a badass older woman. The Witches series by Terry Pratchett also portrays mostly older witches. The series is part of his larger Discworld series, and are my favorites from the world. These witches are hilarious and my role models for living. I first read Wyrd Sisters as a teenager and utterly fell for Granny Weatherwax’s snark. Pratchett embraces stereotypes of witches to create the feminist, sarcastic, clever, and delightful coven. The coven does include a younger witch in the Tiffany Aching series, which I didn’t read until I was an adult. I wish I’d read these as a young adult; I see so much of myself then in the young Tiffany Aching. But they’re excellent reads at any age.
Some novelists choose to tell the story from the perspective of specifically evil witches. In Greek myth, Circe changed Odysseus’ crew into swine and turned the nymph Scylla into a monster in a jealous rage. Madeline Miller humanizes her in her literary adaption of the myth (Circe), turning a lonely and gullible Circe–an unlikely candidate for a feminist–into a woman of depth who finds agency even within the confines of her imprisonment. Julie C. Dao takes the evil stepmother from “Snow White” and lets her tell her story in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, in what to me is the most powerful novel from an evil perspective I’ve read. Wicked by Gregory Maguire takes the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and turns her into a sympathetic human being, with noble goals. Both the book and the musical are equally good.
My initial list of the best witchy reads included over thirty books, only a fraction of which I’ve mentioned. I’d also like to highlight a few other books, with wonderfully feminist and fantastic witches:
- Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter
- The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy
- The Familiars by Stacey Hall
- A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan
- Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
- Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
- The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag
- Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
- These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling
- Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
- All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
- Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, and also the prequel Rules of Magic, which is historical fiction
Witches have become synonymous with feminism and general badassery, a trend I’m wholeheartedly for and find irresistible in fiction.