Witch Week: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

Please head over to Calmgrove for the annual celebration of Witch Week, cohosted by Lizzie Ross. I’m so glad these blogging friends have taken up this event, which I initiated in my first year of blogging. so the fun can continue!

The theme this year is “Villains,” and it makes me think of the line above (from the MGM movie of The Wizard of Oz). Spoken by Glinda to Dorothy after her house has crushed the Wicked Witch of the East, it confuses the girl — who was carried away by a cyclone and never meant to kill anybody.

But it points to an important fact of modern life: as we come unmoored from societal norms and constraints, as religion and conventional morality have less and less hold over humanity as a whole, we are challenged to look within and decide for ourselves whether we are on the side of good or evil, and what that means. We all carry our own “magic”; we all have the power to heal and bless, or wound and destroy, through our words, our impulses and desires, our very thoughts. We might want to deny that power, to say with Dorothy, “I’m not a witch at all!” — but we then run the risk of unacknowledged forces taking us over and using us without our knowledge.

Dorothy encounters parts of herself she didn’t know were there: her courage to pursue a goal, her compassion for the distress of others, her ability to break through illusions and reveal the truth. Though she never casts a spell, her quest becomes the focus that enables her friends to find their heart’s desire. That is the magic of the “good witch,” who is both fully herself and fully at the service of others.

Witches are also central to Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a comic mashup of various Shakespeare plays, whose exuberant silliness is underlaid by a formidable intelligence. (Just unraveling all the literary references could be a job for a graduate student.) Power is the theme again, with the malignant forces of Macbeth replaced by a more benign trio of Discworld witches — the crucial difference being that these “wyrd sisters” know that if they start to go down the road of controlling other human beings, they’re likely to end up…cackling.

It’s tempting to mess around with destiny when people are too foolish to see what’s best for them, though, and so when an evil Duke usurps the throne of Lancre by murdering the King, the witches become more involved than their own wisdom might advise. When missing heirs, ghosts, a troop of traveling players, and a storm to beat all storms converge, with DEATH himself waiting in the wings, there’s drama aplenty — and more laughs than your average Shakespearean bloodbath.

While Pratchett bedecks his witches with various occult trappings that poke fun at both ancient superstitions and modern New Age trends, they are also gloriously human, capable of being as vain, jealous, petty or misguided as any other mortal. But though not averse to inspiring some healthy respect in their countryfolk, they are not wicked. That persuasion is represented by the Duke and his horrible wife, who demonstrate the polarity of evil: emptiness of soul, and being over-full of oneself.

Between these extremes fall most of us regular people, who struggle to know ourselves and to forge healthy relationships with others, walking a tightrope between selfishness and loss of self. The hero of this story is, appropriately enough, the Fool — the overlooked, unknown, and misunderstood element, who must look into his own heart and take up what calls to be manifested there, the good that lies hidden amidst the confusion and deception of the world.

This is the moral aspect that makes Pratchett a serious writer, in spite of his skill at jokes and pratfalls. Without dictating, without prescribing, he wants to teach us something. And teaching through laughter, through the levity we gain by recognizing the wisdom hidden in foolishness, is maybe the best way of all.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones gives us a darker shade of comedy, verging on the macabre. Because of its more realistic setting, and its situation founded in the author’s own life, its horrors seem all too possible. There are funny parts, but also the underlying sadness that often goes with comedy (also touched on by Pratchett in his Fool’s tragic upbringing).

“There’s been an accident!” she thought. “Something’s wrong!” With these words, the story begins: an unnamed, disembodied person finds herself wandering the scenes of her former life, and has to try to figure out whether she is really a ghost, what happened to make her like this, and who she is, anyway. Slowly, along with her, we get to know the family of four sisters she’s sure she belongs to, daughters of the couple that runs School House in a big boys’ boarding school (this is the part that is uncannily similar to Jones’s own upbringing).

Among other things, this is a clever narrative device, that sidesteps the problem of exposition by making it a necessary part of the storytelling. Instead of clumsy sections where our hero thinks back on this or that incident in his life, or contemplates and inwardly describes a scene, we see things from the point of view of someone who, like the reader, is also looking for orientation and meaning amidst a jumble of impressions. The ghost’s sometimes erroneous conclusions add to the feeling of disorientation that is the fundamental mood of the novel.

We also get a detailed and thoughtful exploration of what it would be like to be a ghost: aware on levels that humans aren’t, yet frustratingly unable to get through to most of them or to affect the course of events without their help, and sometimes carried away helplessly by forces beyond her control.

Alternately amusing and terrifying, this point of view parallels that of a person who is trying to work through the disorientation caused by an abusive upbringing, especially abuse by a parent. And not very far beneath the comic antics of the four eccentric sisters is the confused rage of the child who has been neglected and hurt by the person who should have cared for her. The ghost’s very dislocation helps her to penetrate through some of her own illusions; as she sees herself from outside and witnesses her own blind, numb submission to a power of evil that the girls had unwittingly invoked, she gains the strength to wrest herself free and possess herself, at last.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch? Do you seek the knowledge that brings illumination and freedom, the self made whole? Or do you cling to the power that preserves the divided self, in a a state of domination and slavery?

In so many stories, so many situations of our lives, this question lies hidden. As you consider the theme of “villains,” you may find yourself contemplating it, as well.

13 thoughts on “Witch Week: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

  1. Thanks, Lori, for this thoughtful post. What a great tie-in with this year’s Witch Week celebration. I’ve been slow to jump on the Pratchett train (so MANY cars!), but Wyrd Sisters looks like a good next choice.
    Your analysis of The Time of the Ghost made me think of The Lovely Bones. I wonder if Alice Sebold was aware of DWJ’s book.
    As for the business of good witch vs bad witch, don’t forget Oz’s comment when discovered and Dorothy accuses him of being a bad man: “Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man, but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.” The trick, of course, is being able to recognize in others and (more challenging) in oneself, the difference. Oz knew it, Dorothy came to see it, but how many of us are still struggling to understand that the dichotomy even exists?


    1. Good point with that line from the Wizard, which brings in another shade of meaning — he’s not morally bad, but he’s bad at being a wizard — i.e. he’s a fraud. When we get roped into playing roles that other people want us to play, or that bring us power or security, there’s a layer of falseness and deception that is the dangerous side of magic. It can be useful, in the sense of “art is a lie through which we see the truth,” but it can go too far.

      Looking forward to more WW posts!


  2. Such insightful and pertinent points here, Lory, which I keep returning to and rereading because they fill my head with new thoughts, connections and examples. Not least is the reminder that there there are so many Pratchett novels I’ve yet to enjoy, despite promising myself not to neglect him for so long. And thank you for remembering this year’s Witch Week to your bookish followers.

    Incidentally, the mention of Time of the Ghost — which I really must reread and review — reminded me of a Rhiannon Lassiter YA novel (reviewed here https://wp.me/s2oNj1-chance) which, given that she’s a fan of DWJ, must really have been hugely influenced by the earlier novel.


  3. A great post, Lory, leaving us much to think about. All these authors I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t yet. Sigh! I do have a DWJ book out from the library, so perhaps I’ll dig into it in the next few days. Have a fabulous Witch Week!


    1. Pratchett and Jones are good to fill in between more weighty tomes … they provide easy, fun reading, but it’s definitely intelligent entertainment. Hope you take the plunge one day!


  4. What a wonderful post, Lory! You are always so insightful. It’s been a long time since I read Wyrd Sisters, but it’s the book that introduced me to and hooked me on Pratchett. Should really read it again…


    1. Thank you Jean, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been recommending Wyrd Sisters as a start to Discworld to some readers, so it’s good to know it worked for you! (Mine was The Truth.)


  5. Great post! Several of Pratchett’s best books stand out for their memorable villains: _Small Gods,_ _Guards, Guards_ and um, the one with Lily Weatherwax, I can’t remember the title. The Time of the Ghost sounds really interesting.


    1. Pratchett’s Lord Vetinari is also a fascinating study in a kind of villainy that actually turns out to be good in many ways. And he’s given to taking story elements that are supposed to be evil (witches, werewolves, etc.) and giving them a human side. Lots more material for reflection there.


      1. Absolutely! And I just remembered, _Witches Abroad_ is the one I was thinking of, where the villain warps reality around her version of fairy tales.


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