Sunday 18 August 2019

From Baba Yaga to Hermione Granger: why we're spellbound by 'witcherature'

Vengeful, seductive, feminist, misogynist ... witches have appeared in many forms in literature. Now a new generation of novelists are falling under their spell

A witch is a woman who has too much power. Or, to quote the novelist Madeline Miller, a woman with “more power than men have felt comfortable with”. History teaches us that witches are dangerous and must be brought down, punished and silenced. Their wisdom and their force must be neutralised through interrogation, torture and execution. Yet these attitudes aren’t merely historical; women continue to be persecuted for witchcraft in the world today. There has been a perennial literary fascination with witches; they are, as Marion Gibson, professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at Exeter University says, “a shorthand symbol for persecution and resistance – misogyny and feminism in particular”. In a #MeToo world, where Donald Trump – a fan of the term “witch-hunt” – is US president, it is really no surprise that female writers are examining the role of the witch in new ways.

Since Trump’s election, which inspired mass spell-casting by thousands of “resistance witches” (the selection of judge Brett Kavanaugh for the supreme court also led to a mass “hex-in”), there has been a slew of novels, poetry collections and anthologies with witchcraft as their theme. Things haven’t felt so witchy since the 1990s, when there was a glut of TV programmes such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and books and films on the subject. It makes sense: the women of my generation were girls then, and now we have come of age, and are shaping our own narratives, joining other female writers in grappling with perennial questions of power and agency.
 Circe (The Enchantress) by Edmund Dulac (1911). Illustration: De Agostini Picture Library/De Agostini via Getty Images

This year alone we have seen Lucie McKnight Hardy’s Shirley Jackson-esque novel Water Shall Refuse Them; Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other, a dark, obsessive coming-of‑age novella; WITCH by Rebecca Tamás; The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (a rare look at male witch trials, set in Iceland). Then last year there was Circe, Miller’s reimagining of the story of the witch from the Odyssey. Shortlisted for the Women’s prize and soon to become an HBO series, the novel sees Circe, a victim of rape, turn men into pigs in a spell that Miller reframed as self-defence.

In the opening of the fearless, transgressive poetry collection WITCH, readers are greeted with a “penis hex”. Later there are “spells” for exile, for online porn, for UN resolutions, all written in a voice that is radical in its freedom, evoking sensual imagery of earth, blood, sex and body as a way of unravelling femininity and its history. Tamás explores how an affinity with nature and a talent for herbal remedies were cast as something dark and evil, and how women resisted. In the poem “WITCH TRIALS”, we catch a glimpse of what underpins the desire, or need, for magic: “the witch tries to think about how it started /maybe it was when a girl came home late at / night with half her clothes missing / maybe it was when the witch made beds in the cellar / for everyone coming to abort their unwanted babies.”

 At their best, witches are symbols of resistance against patriarchy and the harnessing of feminine power
“I wanted to write a book of a poetry that would somehow interrogate or sound out silenced and repressed female history – the thousands of years of lived experience that we have almost no record of,” says Tamás. “For me, the witch represents all of that repressed agency … which constantly bubbles up to the surface [in] an unsettling vision of female power, female sexuality, female independence.”

Of course, the literary witch is nothing new. She has existed since storytelling began, from Circe, the first witch in western literature, to Hecate, Morgan le Fay, Baba Yaga, the Weird Sisters, the Wicked Witch of the West and Hermione Granger. At their worst, literary witches are stereotypical and derivative; at their best they are symbols of resistance against patriarchy and the harnessing of feminine power.

Rereading Jane Eyre recently, I was struck by how witchy it is. Not only is Jane referred to as such by Rochester (“How well you read me, you witch!” he says to her, also calling her an “imp”, a “sorceress”, a “sprite” and someone who “has the look of another world”), but she also has visions and premonitory dreams, consults what she thinks is a fortune teller, and paints strange symbolic paintings. These are fitting allusions when considering Charlotte Brontë’s depiction of the subtle power dynamics between Jane and Rochester. Jane is defiant and resisting of male control even in childhood, and as the novel develops, the balance of power shifts in her favour.
 Resistance witches at a protest. Photograph: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Another famous literary portrayal of witchcraft, this time by a male novelist, is John Updike’s 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick, written in part as a response to accusations regarding Updike’s male chauvinist depiction of women. Readers still don’t seem to agree as to whether it is feminist or, as it has been called, a “great misogynist novel”. Rather satirically, Updike’s witches, who can fly through the air and perform hexes, only gain their power when they get divorced, though that doesn’t mean that they have lost interest in men: they are witches as seductresses, their power is carnal. They are also dangerous. “If you’re wired heterosexually,” the author once told Margaret Atwood, “women can be strange, elusive, and frightening to a degree.”

In an interview not long before his death, Updike reflected on his inspiration for writing the novel: “The era in which I wrote it was full of feminism and talk about how women should be in charge of the world. There would be no war. There would be nothing unpleasant, in fact, if women were in charge of the world. So I tried to write this book about women who, in achieving freedom of a sort, acquired power, the power that witches would have if there were witches. And they use it to kill another witch. So they behave no better with their power than men do. That was my chauvinistic thought.”

It seems rather feminist to me, at least more so than the witches I grew up with on television. “Updike wrote his witches as quite ambiguous figures, partly inspiring and partly villainous,” says professor Gibson. “But the 1987 film of the book presented them as much more glamorous, empowering women, part of a trend of young, sexy witches which continued throughout the 90s.”

Thankfully, portrayals of witches are now nuanced again. In Water Shall Refuse Them, Lucie McKnight Hardy gives us the teenage Nif, who in the stifling summer of 1976 performs strange rituals as she grieves for her dead sister. McKnight Hardy, who is from Wales, tells me she was inspired by a local chapel minister’s autobiography in which he wrote about women in the local area who were performing witchcraft. “This really struck a chord with me: we don’t often think of witchcraft as being something of the present day – we tend to consign it to history – so the idea that there were still women practising black magic in the area where I grew up was deliciously intriguing.”

There is a sense of the present in the work of Elle Nash, a founding editor of Witch Craft magazine, too. Though she was fascinated by the witches in Macbeth and cites Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an influence on her writing, her novel has more contemporary concerns, examining as it does a fraught relationship between a satanic tattoo artist and his girlfriend. She “drew influence from Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible and the Nine Satanic Statements”, she says, “and wanted to see how they might apply in real time to a person who is just beginning to understand and explore herself in the face of the desires and needs of others.”

The modern witch is anything but stereotypical, something a flourishing indie publishing scene has no doubt contributed to. “Now we often get witch-figures that are more complex: good and bad, female and male, straight, gay, non-binary and so on,” says Gibson. Tamás’s shifting approach to gender in her collection is a case in point.

“Right now, witches feel especially relevant because we are in a moment of refiguring the possibilities of what a woman might be, in the wake of #MeToo and much else,” says Tamás, who also co-edited the anthology Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry. “Witches give us an image of virulent, unapologetic female power that escapes gender binaries and rigid structures.” That power is subversive, fluid and confronting, and it wants to put a spell on you.

(Source: The Guardian)

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