Witches (a Question of Character
& a Fiction Round-up)

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?

Lord of the Rings as Chick Lit

I proclaimed my geekdom (again) by “liking” LotR, The Hobbit, and Peter Jackson on Facebook.  Plus, I got all teary when I watched a video from the set of The Hobbit.

My one gripe with Tolkein – and it’s not a unique one – is the lack of chicks in these stories.  Here he created a vast mythology, encompassing multiple ages, cultures, and peoples – but his women seem to be an afterthought.  It’s as though he figured that in any medieval setting, we’d just assume the women were stuck inside embroidering while the world ended.  What gives, J.R.R.?

Samuel Beckett (stay with me now) strenuously objected to casting women as Vladmir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.  The justification I’ve heard for this is that he wanted the play to be about a human situation and – like it or not* – in our society the default human is male.  That is to say, Lord of the Rings isn’t just about “warrior-bonds** between men,” it’s also about a human struggle to maintain hope in the face of despair.  It follows that women don’t need to limit themselves to identifying with Eowyn – we’ve also got the full company of the Fellowship.  Which is nice, really – they get more screen time.

It seems like people often limit themselves to identifying with characters of the same gender.  I wonder why?  I like Eowyn because she, as a woman, takes the risk of fighting in the guise of a man, but I also like Boromir because he struggles with knowing which is the right course of action.  I know at least two men who love Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, which have a female protagonist – so I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in being able to identify with opposite-gender characters.  I still believe that it’s important to have strong female role models in literature (and film and theatre), but after all, Tolkein created a vast mythology, encompassing multiple ages, cultures, and peoples.  Maybe I should give him a break.  Maybe it’s enough that he created strong human characters.

*I don’t.
**Genuine or parodied.

Puck, Pennsic, and the Man of la Mancha (A Frivolous, Festive Friday)

This cartoon, from xkcd, always cracks me up.  For being both green-related and creative, it’s earned it’s place this Frivolous Friday.  Here’s to the Man of la Mancha: I will always get teary watching that film, no matter how much of a sap it makes me.

It is, perhaps, not a non sequitur to segue from Don Quixote into announcing that I’m now 99% sure I’m going to visit Pennsic this year.  (What’s Pennsic?  This is Pennsic.)  That’s right, I will be reporting from on the ground at Cooper’s Lake, though with a several-day delay because, my friends, I am leaving my Glowing Rectangle safe at home.  This is some festive news, which makes this a Festive Friday, too.

A (somewhat belated) Happy Midsummer to all.  Here, we celebrated a laid-back St. John’s Eve with a fire in the firepit and fresh strawberries with cocoa scones.  Now, goodnight and a puckish weekend to you.

Robin Hood (2010): Movie Review

The new rendition of Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, is not about Robin Hood, Marion, Friar Tuck, or any other of the Merry Men.  It is a slick, swashbuckling, lotta-fun popcorn flick with characters of those same names.  Fans of the period genre are advised to go in a lighthearted mood and enjoy the inside jokes (e.g. a Princess Bride reference), plus a hodgepodge of cliched plot devices including traumatic childhood flashbacks (First Knight), uniting the country against a common enemy (Braveheart, The Patriot), and little lost boys in the woods (Peter Pan).  Also, try not to get too hung up on historical details.  Russell Crowe is winning, and you can’t beat Cate Blanchett as a more-worldly-than-usual Marion.  Several of the supporting characters are intriguing, but could be better developed.  Go for fun, but don’t hold your breath for any merry men living in the woods; we might see more of that in the sequel the producers have set themselves up for.

A Knight in Moderation

Several years ago, my sister asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  It was summer – too early for the question – and we were walking down a sunlit street.  “A knight in shining armor,” I said.

Obviously, I wasn’t serious.  As I remember it, I wasn’t even keeping my eye out for romance at the time.  I just thought I was being cute.

Six months later, I unwrapped the lad in the photo.  I loved him, of course:  I’ve always had a thing for miniatures (in moderation), and this fellow is so steadfast.  He’s sits on my windowsill with Ganesh and Happy Buddha, and together they are part of my home-in-a-pocket kit whenever I travel.

Thank goodness, though, that he stays faithfully on that windowsill, and doesn’t butt in too much.  Knights In Shining Armor can save the day, but they can also have some exhaustingly high expectations of themselves and of you.  As my sister said when I unwrapped him, it’s much better to carry your own Knight with you, so you don’t have to go looking for him in other people.

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca

Shop Indie BookstoresThis website is most concerned with the character of the gypsy, the bohemian, the wanderer. But for a contemporary portrait of the Romani – the group most often labeled as ‘Gypsies’ –  this tome, in which Isabel Fonseca describes the four years she spent with Romani from Albania to Poland, listening to their stories, deciphering their taboos, and befriending their matriarchs, activists, and child prostitutes – is fascinating. Don’t go to this book for any lyrical generalizations: Bury Me Standing draws its strength from its detailed, specific portraits of diverse Romani individuals. Fonseca’s writing is articulate and interesting, but be prepared: The contextual material (mainly involving the political upheavals in Eastern Europe during the latter 20th century) makes for a dense read.

(Click on the cover image to buy this book from an independent bookseller.)