[Guest Post] Five Witches from Children’s Literature
- As a nod to Halloween, here’s our longtime friend Libby of the wonderful TreasuryIslands blog – check out her previous posts for us. If you have a guest post a-brewing, email us on [email protected].
Representations of witches and witchcraft in literature and in popular culture generally are incredibly useful to us, providing a way of critiquing the situation of women under patriarchy that is both effective and accessible.
Children’s literature is particularly rife with such representations. From the wicked women of Grimm and Perrault and folkloric creations like Baba Yaga and Ceridwen, through C.S. Lewis’ Jadis and the maleficent creations of Mary de Morgan to 20th century inventions like TH White’s Madam Mim and the female students of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, lady sorcerers – both good and evil – have never been far from the pages of the books we have used to educate and entertain our children.
The witches of the classic fairytales and of the stories of the Victorian era are usually monstrous and spiteful, using their magic in service of the Devil – or worse, their own self-interest. They taunt because they can and have few, if any, redeeming characteristics.
In recent decades the image of the image of the witch in popular culture has undergone a transformation, in no small part due to the witches that have appeared in juvenile literature. Since the 1970s, the stories our children have read have overwhelmingly featured good witches (though the frequency with which they are presented as inept deserves some attention). These are my favourites of the modern circle.
Created when Jill Murphy was a teenager, The Worst Witch series follows the adventures of Mildred Hubble as she navigates the social and academic challenges of Miss Cackle’s Academy, a draughty old castle that perches atop a thickly forested mountain and ‘looks more like a prison than a school’.
It’s an uncomfortable enough environment for a youngster to be in, but Mildred has an added disadvantage, being marked as an outsider by her unkempt appearance and her tabby cat (given to her when the rest of the girls receive sleek black kitties).
She was one of those people who always seem to be in trouble. She didn’t exactly mean to break rules and annoy the teachers, but things just seemed to happen when Mildred was around.
– The Worst Witch
The young witch is thoroughly well-meaning and a little too clever for her own good, but she’s also bumbling and frequently wrangling with authority figures. Despite her perceived inadequacies, there’s an air of serendipity that follows her around; her failures and misdeeds inevitably lead to a positive outcome of much greater consequence than the proceeding mishap.
Perhaps this is why she is so well-loved by young readers and so fondly remembered by adults. Often we can see a little of ourselves in Mildred – from her practical incompetence to her trailing shoe laces, she’s a reminder that you don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.
The only work of historical fiction on my list, Celia Rees’ Witch Child is an overtly feminist text. The protagonist of the book (and its sequel, Sorceress) is Mary Newbury, an adolescent witch forced to flee to the New World following the violent death of her grandmother at the hands of
Caught between a desire to be true to herself and the hypocrisy of Puritanism, Mary is headstrong, smart, empathetic and brave. She exhibits a tolerance that is unusual for her era and generally makes herself an excellent role model for young readers.
For Mary, independence poses a threat – she lives in a time that fears capable women, and her agency and determination could lead her to the same fate as her grandmother. But still she forges onwards, using her wit and her alacrity to light the way and finding friendship and love among another marginalised group.
I should flee, get away. They will turn on me next unless I go. But where to? What am I to do? Lose myself. Die in the forest. I look around. Eyes, hard with hatred, slide from mine. Mouths twitch between leering and sneering. I will not run away into the forest, because that is what they want me to do.
– Witch Child
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is often lauded as feminist; he ridicules misogyny and satirises stereotypes, he writes Strong Female Characters. But there is an incongruency to Pratchett’s feminism which undermines his intended message and ultimately, Discworld is, whisper it, not that feminist.
Tiffany Aching is, to paraphrase her creator, the most feminist of the feminists that he does not have. A child savant, she begins her witching career at nine years old when she embarks upon a quest to save her brother from a sinister fairyland a la Labyrinth. She’s got common sense and amazing chutzpah. While remaining a completely believable pre-teen, she’s shrewd, smart and she will not be condescended to.
‘Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it?’
‘No, actually it isn’t,’ said Tiffany. ‘Patronising is a big word. Zoology is quite short.’
– The Wee Free Men
As Tiffany grows up (she is approaching 16 at the time of I Shall Wear Midnight) It becomes clear that she is the natural successor to Granny Weatherwax, the number one witch of the Discworld series, as she begins to display magical abilities rare in people of her age as well as exhibiting characteristics she shares with her mentor – gravitas, knowledge, a tendency towards literalism and the belief that a witch should remain single. Tiffany will ultimately become a better witch than Granny, and it is a pleasure to watch her get there.
McGonagall cares for her charges deeply, but not blindly. She is fair and ethical and has gained great respect within the Hogwarts hierarchy. She’s often sharp with students and teachers alike, she’s a keen believer in rules – without being mindlessly bound to them – and she’s a fan of order in her classroom.
With a witty remark or condescending quip never far from her thin lips, Minerva McGonagall is a force to be reckoned with.
‘Oh, I can’t wait to see McGonagall inspected,’ said Ron happily. ‘Umbridge won’t know what’s hit her.’
– Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Though she is a slight woman in her seventies, McGonagall is a fearless combatant in the battle that rages at the close of the series, directing the action and engaging directly with Voldemort in defence of the institution and the people that she loves.
There are many women in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series that display fine qualities – caring and protective Mrs Weasley; book-smart Hermione; fearless Tonks; even Delores Umbridge can be admired for her sheer bloodymindedness and determination. But McGonagall seems to embody all these qualities and then some.
Winnie the Witch
Winnie the Witch lived in a black house in the forest. The house was black on the outside and black on the inside. The carpets were black. The chairs were black. The bed was black and it had black sheets and black blankets. Even the bath was black.
Winnie lived in her black house with her cat, Wilbur. He was black too. And that is how the trouble began.
– Winnie the Witch
Created by Valerie Thomas and illustrated by Korky Paul, she’s a comical character by design, gangly and tall with an unruly mane of black hair and a reddened nose that I like to imagine comes from a fondness for gin. When we first meet her, she is the only colourful thing in a very dark world. A series of books for middle grade readers featuring Winnie is also available, written by Laura Owen.
But Winnie has no qualms over using her magic to amend the world around her to suit her own purposes without considering the consequences. Winnie is heedless and impulsive, with a catch-all cry of ‘ABRACADABRA’ that, predictably, gets her into scrapes.
She learns from her blunders, though, and she puts things right with grace and unerrring joy. Winnie the Witch lives a hedonistic life and she makes mistakes, but she’s always got a genuine smile on her face and that’s what makes her so refreshing.
Bonus Material: HERE IS THE ACTUAL MASTER READING WINNIE THE WITCH.
- Libby earned her feminist stripes interning for the Fawcett Society where she was horrified by most of the stories she heard. An accidental activist, she is a regular contributor to BCN. Her blog, TreasuryIslands, is the home of her other passion – children’s literature. Libby is very proud of her bad reputation.