What is a witch, anyway? When I was a kid, I knew that witches wore black, had tall pointy hats, rode on brooms, and didn’t exist.
Later, I learned that there had been witch hunts, and that historically people had been convinced enough of the existence of witches to execute those who were convicted of such a thing. Incredibly, it seems that many of these accused witches were actually charged with healing, rather than harming. Later still, I learned that there are people, today, who are persecuted under accusations of witchcraft (or some translation thereof).
Sometime during high school, I read Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, and the witches that lived in my imagination have ever since been independent women living on the edge of society – but integrally a part of it – who practice “headology and herbology” on a daily basis, and deeper magic with discretion. No one to be trifled with, these nonetheless are good witches…at least, as good as any of us flawed human beings can be. When they do practice magic, they tend to stick to the practical and effective kind (eschewing the showier methods of wizards).
Historically, the title of “witch” has been something someone else called you, not a title you claimed for yourself. That’s changed, of course, and many folks – including some of my favorite bloggers – self-identify as witches, people who are brave enough to practice magic in a world that doesn’t really believe in it. I love the idea of taking a word once used as an insult and owning it, reforming it, and claiming it as one’s own. There’s a great book entitled A History of Witchcraft, that covers both historical and modern ideas of witchcraft. It notes, if memory serves, that modern, self-identified witches have no direct lineage relating to the medieval or colonial accused witch. Still, I would hazard to say that the word was chosen with good reason: Many accused witches were folks brave enough to buck the established rules of society, and even today, it takes guts to choose a different path in a culture that is dominated by the big three monotheistic religions and, otherwise, a steadfast lack of belief in the supernatural.
Now, I’m going to let history and current events do their own thing, and just tell you about a few of my favorite fictional witches.
Wee Free Men and the Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett
In the Discworld, witches are known for being independent, eccentric, observant, and for doing what needs to be done. Also, they do magic and ride on brooms. The thing with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that it’s wickedly funny, frighteningly insightful, and manages to take a foundation of satire and develop it into brilliant characters and well-crafted, moving stories. These are books that you can take on a miserable transatlantic flight and laugh through the whole thing, halfway through realize you’re being told a story that will live on in your imagination for years, and only half an hour after finishing the book realize that you’ve also been inspired to think about important concepts and maybe even learned a life lesson.
The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry
This story is not necessarily about a witch, as Barry walks the line between realistic fiction and magical realism. It does take place in Salem, and the book has a rich sense of place, with a consciousness both of the history of the town and its current reclamation of witchcraft (in part fueled by the tourist industry). The echos of witch hunts are haunting, and the book as a whole is a subtle, complex, beautifully-told story.
Under my Hat, short stories selected by Jonathan Strahan
I’m in the middle of reading this book right now. With a slew of witch-themed stories from writers like Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix, it was irresistible. So far, all the stories have been entertaining, with a few real keepers.
Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
Is Vienne a witch? I don’t recall if she’s ever referred to as such in the book. But she is certainly an independent woman who creates healing magic in the little town into which she wanders… The film of the same name is gorgeous, a feast for your eyes.
Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman has written multiple books with witches as characters, but this is the only one that I’ve read so far. While it’s not my favorite of Hoffman’s novels, it’s still a great read. I love Hoffman’s ability to make fairy tales hauntingly realistic, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The movie of the same name is a lot of fun, too.
Which brings me to movies and…unfortunately, other than the two mentioned above, I can’t think of any good movies with witches in them. I’m not a big horror fan and, anyway, characters like those in Season of the Witch (why, Nicolas Cage, why?) don’t have much to do with witches in my opinion. This is a great season for witch flicks, so please chime in with recommendations for good witchy films!
Q: What defines a witch to you?
Q: What are your favorite stories featuring a witch or witches?