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.

Witch Week Day Four: An Appreciation of Oz

WITCH WEEK 2016-200At the center of Witch Week this year, I wanted to place a set of books that were central to the development of American fantasy: the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. They’ve also been important in my own reading life, as you can perhaps tell from the title of my blog.

I knew that Deb of The Book Stop was a fellow Oz fan (we were both using a picture of Ozma as our avatar at one point), so I asked her to share some thoughts about what these books mean to her. Her eloquent words express much of what I myself would say about Oz, and I hope will strike a chord with you as well — whether or not you have already fallen under the spell of that magical land.

For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.


An Appreciation of Oz

by Deb of The Book Stop

L. Frank Baum, 1905
L. Frank Baum, 1905

I was so happy to write about the Oz books for Witch Week, because those books literally changed the way I grew up, in much the same way Harry Potter has changed the lives of many young readers. The Oz books were published between 1900 and 1920, and just like Harry Potter, many young Americans of that time grew up anxiously awaiting their next Oz book.

It’s sad that so many people know only The Wizard of Oz, and then only the movie. There are 14 Oz books, with a huge cast of characters, and they featured some of the strongest female characters to be seen in fantasy literature. In Oz the women aren’t just witches, they are rulers, explorers, and sorceresses. When I was growing up, I found few fantasy books where women and girls played such a leading role. Dorothy, Ozma, and Glinda (and Betsy and Trot and the Patchwork Girl) were my heroes.

Lyman Frank Baum was born in 1856 in upstate New York. He was born with a weak heart and spent much of his time as a child reading, growing up with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. As an adult, he tried many different careers, from managing an opera house, to opening a department store, to editing a newspaper. After a series of failed ventures, in 1891 he began to write down the nursery rhymes he had invented for his children. His first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, was published in 1897, and he published Father Goose: His Book, in 1899. In 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.

Illustration by WW Denslow from The Wizard of Oz
Illustration by WW Denslow from The Wizard of Oz

Baum meant for The Wizard of Oz to change our perception of fairy tales, from horrible and moralistic to something more positive. Baum set out to create a fantasy world full of adventure but with less fear. Most of his characters can’t die or feel pain (although elements of these books are genuinely scary) and the books are written in a light-hearted, often humorous tone. One of the first fantasy books to be set in the United States, Oz is grounded in America’s spirit of individualism. The characters in Oz are unique, and a frequent theme in these books is the importance of accepting others’ differences and seeing what makes them uniquely valuable.

Significantly, Baum challenged the perception of witches from the Grimm and Andersen fairy tales as horrible, ugly, wicked women.

“Oh, gracious!” cried Dorothy; “are you a real witch?”

“Yes, indeed;” answered the little woman. “But I’m a good witch, and the people love me. I am not as powerful as the Wicked Witch was who ruled here, or I should have set the people free myself.”

“But I thought all witches were wicked,” said the girl, who was half frightened at facing a real witch.

“Oh, no; that is a great mistake. There were only four witches in all the Land of Oz, and two of them, those who live in the North and South, are good witches. I know this is true, for I am one of them myself, and cannot be mistaken.”

Glinda, the good witch of the South, helps Dorothy find her way home, and becomes the reigning Good Witch of the series. The second book, The Land of Oz, introduces Ozma as the ruler of Oz and establishes Glinda as her benevolent guide.

Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

Baum believed that women are powerful, and his witches exemplify the notion that magic isn’t inherently bad or good, but depends on the person using it. He was heavily influenced by his educated wife and her mother, Matilda Gage, who was an intellectual, a political radical, and a feminist. Gage published a book in 1893 on women’s oppression by Christianity, in which she discusses the persecution of women as witches, and it was Gage who encouraged Baum to write children’s stories. Baum’s stories feature strong, wise, magical women, although he has plenty of characters (male and female) who are wicked and foolish. The Wizard, for example, is a humbug who controls the people of Oz through fear. He hides in the Emerald City because, he explains to Dorothy, “while I had no magical powers at all I soon found out that the witches were really able to do wonderful things.”

Magic in the Oz books comes from knowledge and tools more often than inherent ability, and a magical artifact can be evil in the hands of one character but used for good by another. In Baum’s world, magic doesn’t just happen; it requires learning and effort, and power brings responsibility. Glinda doesn’t just use magic, she studies her Magic Book, and the Wizard learns the art of real magic from her. Dr. Pipt in The Patchwork Girl of Oz follows a meticulous recipe and spends six years stirring four kettles with both feet and both hands, just to produce a tiny amount of the Powder of Life.

The Oz books wouldn’t be much fun if Ozma and Glinda were all-powerful. In several of the books they face serious challenges to their magical abilities. In Ozma of Oz, Ozma and her friends are turned into ornaments, doomed to decorate the Nome King’s shelves for ever. In The Lost Princess of Oz, Ozma is kidnapped and hidden away, and in Glinda of Oz, Dorothy and Ozma are trapped under water in a city under a dome. Those are some of my favorites in the series, for exactly that reason. When magic is easy, it’s not nearly as interesting.

Map of the Land of Oz
Map of the Land of Oz

Why is Oz important to me? I can’t say for sure if it began with my family’s annual viewing of the movie, or if it began with the books themselves. Whichever came first, once I began reading I couldn’t stop until I’d absorbed every one, and while I liked some better than others, they still felt like home to me. Like Dorothy, Oz became the place I escaped to, the place where magic came to life. His stories and characters are relevant to me every day, from the exuberant spirit of the Patchwork Girl, to the Woozy who thinks he has a terrifying growl (but it’s really just a squeak), to the Bunny King who wants to live free of responsibilities, but is afraid to give up his material possessions.

glinda-bookThere are theories about what Baum meant when he wrote The Wizard of Oz, and I don’t subscribe to most of them, nor do most Baum scholars. I don’t think he’s writing about the gold standard or Communism, although he clearly has views about politics. His books are about being kind, and honest, and working together, and being yourself. And if Baum didn’t set out to teach any lessons in his books, he did anyway. For me the greatest one was this: if you keep your eyes open, you never know what world you might stumble into.

And I think the best fantasy children’s books are about exactly that. It’s the door to the wardrobe, the rabbit-hole, the cyclone on the prairie. Children’s fantasy is about discovering you’re stronger and more powerful than you thought you were, and that the world is a more magical place than you believed it to be. For me, Oz was the perfect place to start that journey.