Journal 6- Something Wicked This Way Comes

With Halloween coming up it is not hard to conjure an image of a cackling, green woman, one with a pointy hat and warts on her nose. There is also the beautiful enchantress, tall and strong, her magic seduces the handsome hero and distracts him from his obligations. And it would be remiss to forget the ugly, old hag who kills the young maiden for the magic of youth or beauty.  A witch, wicked or otherwise, is a common figure in literature. Though her appearances are many, her characterization has not changed all that much, and with very few exceptions she is always a woman. Modern authors, such as Phillip Pullman, have expanded the image of the witch in literature.


Witches first appeared in Greek and Roman epics, though they were referred to as a sorceress or enchantress. The quintessential ancient sorceress is Circe. Circe appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Odyssey. Circe changes her victim’s form; in the Metamorphoses she turns her lover’s new love into a rock and Odysseus’s men become pigs under her magic. Generally ancient witches are depicted as seductive, immoral creatures; they selfishly use their magic to delay or keep the hero from his quest. However, the ugly hag also appears in mythology. For example, the Graeae, a prophetic trio, are depicted as withering, ragged creatures with only one eye between them. One thing the enchantress and the hag have in common in mythology is there lack of backstory. It is interesting that though the name Circe remains in literature, she is never a full character.


This pattern of witches without reason for their actions is repeated well into the modern era. It is as if the wicked witch does not need a story, she simply needs to be wicked. Fairy tale witches (in the traditional sense, not the Disney imagined characters) have no real motivation for their evil deeds. Rapunzel’s witch is merely angry with people stealing from her garden. Even Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, appear out of nowhere. Though they normally provide the conflict, and often drive the action of the story, witches in early literature serve no other purpose and disappear like magic.


The characterization of the witch has progressed much since then. Nathaniel Hawthorne in Young Goodman Brown made us believe that witches were not otherworldly creatures, but our neighbors and family. L. Frank Baum showed us that they were not all wicked. J.K. Rowling made children long to be witches (and wizards). Gregory Maguire revealed that not all wicked things were evil; perhaps they were just misunderstood and heartbroken. Gradually modern authors are fleshing out witches. They are expanding upon the traditional trope, playing with it, and at times turning it inside out.


In The Golden Compass Pullman toys with our understanding of good and evil. None of his characters can be clearly defined and the lines are drawn rather blurrily. When Lee Scoresby asks Serafina Pekkala what side he is on she simply replies that they are on Lyra’s side. Interestingly, Pullman shies away from describing the witches as good or evil. Each clan has their own individual interests and their own reasons for fighting in this war. Which side they are on-Lyra’s, Bolvangar’s, the Magisterium’s-are a product of their own free will. Pullman continues to expound on the witch’s character, adding to the ancient descriptions and making them more than their literary tradition.

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