Tuesday 14 July 2009

The Bad Witch's Guide to Bad Witches

I might call myself a bad witch, but I’m hardly in the league of The Blair Witch, made famous in the movie The Blair Witch Project, which is ten years old this month.

No, I’m not an evil witch. I don’t cast curses or turn people to stone, but I do enjoy stirring the cauldron of controversy from time to time - like sticking up for the bad witches of books and movies. They had a poor press and its time to take another look.

So here are some of my favourite fictional bad witches – and why I think they aren’t really so bad after all:

The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz
The Wicked Witch of the West has often been used in the media to represent some force of evil or another. For many, she is the archetypal bad witch.

In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West wants the magical slippers that previously belonged to the Wicked Witch of the East, but get taken by Dorothy after she accidentally crushes her. To get them back, the Wicked Witch seems willing to stop at nothing - even threatening murder.

But we got another view of the Wicked Witch in Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In the book, the Wicked Witch, who is given the name Elphaba, is the protagonist who rebels against an oppressive dictator, the Wizard of Oz.

Maguire's story became a Broadway musical, Wicked, in 2003, which is currently running in London. I haven’t seen the musical yet – an omission I fully intend to rectify. I think it should be standard viewing for any Bad Witch

The Weird Sisters from Macbeth
The Three Witches, also called the Weird Sisters, in Shakespeare's play Macbeth, are often thought to be evil because they entice the Scottish thane Macbeth with their prophecies of power, but ultimately lead him to his own doom. Well, how typical of a man to want all the glory and then, when he messes everything up, blame women for giving him poor advice?

No, they aren't the evil ones - it is Macbeth who commits murder, even if he does need his wife to back him up. The three witches are just canny crones, letting a would-be tyrant bring about his own downfall through greed and stupidity.

The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Jadis of Charn - the White Witch in C S Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - is the ice queen who freezes Narnia in a hundred-year winter and turns to stone anyone who crosses her.
That certainly seems to back up any claims that she is outright evil.

But let's look at the character Lewis based her on - H Rider Haggard's She. In a review of Haggard's novel, Lewis claims to have been fascinated with the story of She but disliked the female character the book was named after - this powerful and beautiful woman, with occult knowledge and immortal life yet no disregard for Christian morality.

Let's face it, Lewis was a sexist and a prude and his Narnia books, although highly entertaining, are his vehicle for saying that Christianity is good, paganism is bad and women ought to know their place. Personally, I'll go with Haggard's version.

The Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a traditional fairy tale, the version that always comes to my mind is the 1937 Disney cartoon.

The first time I saw this was when I was taken to see it with a friend by their mum when I was a kid. Naturally, I knew the story already. I knew Snow White was the heroine, the Queen was the villain, Prince Charming would save the day and they would all live happily ever after.

So, initially, I was shocked when my friend's mum - a glamorous and intelligent woman who I very much looked up to - said: "Isn't the Queen magnificent? Why would anyone want that simpering Snow White when they could have her?"

Gradually, I realised she was right. Snow White might be pretty, but she is she's also pretty stupid. She never seems to be able to do anything to get herself out of trouble - she always has to be helped by men. Her idea of happiness is doing housework for a bunch of guys named after their personality disorders; that certainly wouldn't be anything I would fancy. She is even stupid enough to be taken in by a door-to-door salesperson. Then, at the end, she goes off with Prince Charming, who we all know is two-timing her with Cinderella.

So, at quiet a young age, I decided I'd much rather have the powerful, beautiful, smart and knowledgeable Queen as a role model than silly Snow White.

The Blair Witch
I have to admit that the witch from the movie The Blair Witch Project scores pretty highly on the evil scale. She is the frightening old hag who lives in the woods and eats children, pretty much along the same lines as the witch in Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga from Slavic folk tales.

Yet even these bad witches, though scary and dangerous, can have valuable lessons to teach - apart from staying out of their way, of course. Baba Yaga is extremely wise and can be sought out for her knowledge, but she will only help those who are extremely polite, pure in purpose and well prepared. One would have to say that the hapless film-makers who fall foul of The Blair Witch are none of those things.

These are, of course, just a few bad witches. Books, films, comics, folk tales and, of course, myth and legend, offer many more examples. If you encounter a genuine bad witch (unlike me, who isn't really that bad at all), the advice I would give is, don't take them at face value, don't underestimate them - and be very, very polite.

The picture shows the Blair Witch Project movie poster, which is available through Amazon

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked:_The_Life_and_Times_of_the_Wicked_Witch_of_the_West http://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/
The Blair Witch Project [DVD] [1999]
Movies Posters: Blair Witch Project - White Poster - 100 x 150 cm
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia)
She (Oxford World's Classics)


Jenny said...

Please read Maguire's "Wicked" before you see the theatrical production. The musical is great, engaging music, wonderful visuals...but the book is one of my favorites of all time. There is a depth of character, the tragic heroine Ephelba...she will haunt you long after you read the book. The mysteries of her skin, her odd family, her relationship with Glinda, and her perspective on the Dorothy events...Well written, familiar yet eye-opening-ly fresh... I cant say enough!

Ishtari said...

Hear, hear! I completely agree with all that you've said.

I think I'll have to add both She and Maguire's Wicked to my summer reading.

Unknown said...

Well writ! A fine collection of gals! Applauding your distinctions and spotlight for these archetypes. Brava.

Badwitch said...

Thank you!

the wandering broom said...

Another favorite of mine are the 3 "witches" in the children's book The Black Cauldron (well, series of books atually) by Lloyd Alexander. They were depicted as three really ugly, nasty sisters with extraordinary powers and the uncanny ability to see what was and what will be. Until the last book, which hinted to the idea they were actually beautiful maidens and more in line with what we might think of as "the Fates" and/or the weavers than evil witches.

Badwitch said...

I shall have to look out for that. It sounds interesting.