Witches from Fiction, Witches from History

Having read Sam’s post on The Emergence of the Sympathetic Witch in Twentieth-Century Culture, I was pleased to see one of my favourite online groups, A Mighty Girl, posting about a book called History’s Witches: An Illustrated Guide (2013) by Lisa Graves. The book follows the misadventures of thirteen women who are accused of witchcraft and what happens to them as a consequence of these accusations. Though this text is not exactly a sympathetic representation of witches in the same way as Bewitched (1964-1972) it reflects the changing opinions on the witchcraft trials and the use of feminist scholarship regarding this period of time.

It also got me thinking about other young adult and children’s literature which feature witches. The success of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch (1974)  proved the possibility of opening up the figure of the witch to younger children and the novel has gone on to spawn a number of sequels as well as a television series of the same name. Though the text moves away from historical and folkloric representations of the witch these do re-emerge in texts aimed at older children and young adults. Perhaps due to the violent aspects of these accounts and that they deal with real-life cases of torture, death and scape-goating, more historically accurate representations of witches tend to be suited to YA texts.

Both Celia Ree’s Witch Child (2000) and Marcus Sedgwick’s The Ghosts of Heaven (2014) focus on young women who are treated first as outcasts and before they are ultimately accused of witch craft. The stories include accounts of witchcraft on boths sides of the Atlantic showing the effect of paranoia and the fear of difference or the Other which is at the centre of these accusations. The mechanisms at work which allow the fear and violence to escalate have been replicated throughout history leading to some of the most bloody occurrences in humanity’s past. These novels allow the reader to experience the sense of isolation that is felt by the protagonists and gain insight into how difference is created and maintained.

A few days ago I was also lucky enough to listen to Liz Lochead’s Malificeum (2001), a radio drama based on historical accounts of witch trials. The parallels between this dramatisation and Ree’s and Sedgwick’s work are striking. If you are interested in learning more about witchcraft in Europe during the Middle Ages, I would also recommend reading my colleague, Jon Kaneko-James’ blog on the subject. His work is minutely researched and is very good at bringing to life the mind set of the Middle Ages.

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