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Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron Hardcover – August 28, 2012
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Anthology Authors' Favorite Witches
The contributors and editor of the witchy anthology Under My Hat make their cases for their favorite witches from literature and film.
Diana Peterfreund: Serafina Pekkala
I'm partial to Serafina Pekkala of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books. Not only does she have one of the most awesome names in all of literature, but she's also an amazing character. Fierce and noble and strong, she'd be an alien and intimidating figure indeed if you didn't see her softer, more human side in her beloved daemon, the gray goose Kaisa, or hear of her history with her lover Farder Coram. Serafina Pekkala, who is almost always called by both names (because honestly, who wouldn't with a name that kick-ass?), leads her tribe of witches, riding the air alongside their bird-shaped daemons on branches of cloud pine like Valkyries of legend. I think everyone who meets Serafina falls in love with her, and I was no exception.
Frances Hardinge: The Wicked Witch of the West
I must admit, I still have a soft spot for the Wicked Witch of the West as portrayed in the classic 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz, just for her sheer glee and gusto. Other witches may be wicked, but she leaps headlong into wickedness, shrieking with unrepentant laughter as she goes.
Why does she have a bucket of water in her castle if it can destroy her? For that matter, why does she risk flying around Oz, when she might melt in the first unexpected shower? And why does she surround herself with guards who are just waiting to dance on her grave? Who cares? I certainly don't while I'm watching her in action.
Needless to say, I also covet her flock of flying monkeys. Who wouldn't?
Garth Nix: Miss Croot, Miss Hooting, and Miss Eaves
Miss Croot and the other witches appear in various Armitage Family stories by Joan Aiken, happily all collected in one volume called The Serial Garden, published in 2008 by Big Mouth House. There are lots of witches in the Armitage stories; in fact, the village where the family lives seems to be infested with them, though the other villagers cautiously refer to them as Retired Fairy Ladies.
Miss Croot appears in the story "Broomsticks and Sardines," and is described as "an exceedingly tall lady with teeth like fence-posts and a great many bangles." She is the Armitage children's schoolteacher, but Mark and Harriet learn witchcraft rather than the usual curriculum . . . at least until Miss Croot flies off on the family's Persian carpet to take up a new post as an instructress to the King of Siam.
Miss Hooting appears in two stories, "Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home" and "Miss Hooting's Legacy," and is rather more inimical than Miss Croot, turning the Armitage parents into ladybirds at one point, and in the second story arranging a curious resurrection for herself with the help of two mechanical helots and a magic mirror.
Miss Eaves is a journalist who writes a garden column for a Sunday newspaper but is also a witch, can turn into a ginger cat, and attempts to steal a quince tree from Mark and Harriet's grandmother in order to re-create the made-up garden she writes about.
There are many other witches in the Armitage stories, and indeed in other short stories by Joan Aiken, all of which are wonderfully inventive and original, while at the same time deeply interwoven with myth and legend. Her witches are often funny, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating—and though Aiken wrote many stories, I wish there were many more.
Jane Yolen: Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga, hands down! She is not just a witch, but the iconic witch, a force for both good and evil. She enjoys (and not in a culinary way) feisty young girls—like Vasilissa, like I was once. However, she will quickly eat with gusto, and with her iron teeth, any child or adult who annoys her with whimpers, whinges, or whines, or one who does not simply Get on with It. Mary Poppins with a kink, perhaps. Baba Yaga is in touch with the old gods, the old ways, the old numinosity. She probably lives in a gated community with Cthulhu, Anansi, Loki, and Coyote. The originator of the concept of tough love, she nonetheless keeps her sentimental heart intact. Fear her or love her, you cannot ignore her. And oh, I so want a ride in her mortar and get a turn steering it with the pestle, and bedding down for an unquiet night in her house on chicken legs.
Tim Pratt: Granny Weatherwax
My favorite witch in literature—and one of my favorite characters, period—is Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax, featured in many of the Discworld novels. She's a classic wicked witch who, by sheer force of will, chooses instead to use her powers for good. She is one of the most badass figures in fantasy literature, though she almost never resorts to physical violence to get her way. She's adept at being indescribably nasty, for all the best reasons—and her occasional moments of weakness, humanity, or sympathy are all the more affecting in the context of her vast curmudgeonliness.
M. Rickert: Mrs. Fischer
Mrs. Fischer was my neighbor, and people said she was a witch. The day I decided to meet her I stood at the foot of the concrete stairs leading up the hill to her house. "I need to find out for myself," I said to my baby doll in the buggy. She taught me how to eat ground cherries, peeling the papery skin off the gold fruit that grew in the wild meadow of her backyard, and she told me stories. Sitting in the rocking chair in her parlor, she told me about the piano-playing girl who once lived in my house, and she told me about murder. On Halloween she left her porch light off because, she said, she'd forgotten the date entirely and had no treats to give. Children took advantage of the dark to write mean words in chalk on her sidewalk. Someone decided she was too old to live by herself. I stayed in the parlor with her, though I didn't know what to say as she cried while everything she owned, including her house, was auctioned off. I never saw her again.
Ellen Klages: Maleficent
My favorite witch is, obviously, Maleficent. But a close second is the Wicked Witch of the West. Every December my family had a picnic on the living room floor, and I squirmed with anticipation through the black-and-white part until we finally got to Oz and the witch. Despite my parents' urgings that Glinda was the good witch, I liked her counterpart. Glinda was pink and wussy, and the WWotW had attitude and an awesome castle—and flying monkeys!
When I was around eight, Margaret Hamilton was in a summer-stock tour that came to my hometown. She turned out to be an old friend of one of my dad's buddies, so I got to go backstage and meet her. She was, by then, a tall, patrician-looking woman in her late fifties, dressed in a robe. "You're not green!" I blurted. She looked down at me with a tired, mildly amused smile, and said, "No, dear. I'm not."
Ellen Kushner: Lolly and Froniga
I have a lot of favorite witches—Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax, for instance, makes me think while I'm laughing, which is the best of all worlds. But the witches who define witchiness for me are the creations of two writers who, though very popular in their day, have been largely forgotten: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elizabeth Goudge. Both were English, both wrote in the troubled years following global wars, both wrote about the place of women in a restrictive society. Both created witches whom Granny Weatherwax would have recognized and approved of.
Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, published in 1925, is the story of a woman who prefers the country to the city, animals and trees to people, and solitude to the eternal demands of her family. After her beloved father's death, she avoids her family's attempts to move her to London and marry her off by escaping to a town in remotest Buckinghamshire, where she becomes a witch. Warner makes it clear that Lolly is a witch long before she sells her soul to the actual Devil (in the shape of a jobbing gardener); she is a tramper in the woods, a tender of plants and animals, as steady as a rock and about as sentimental as one. Lolly—or Laura, to use her proper name, the one that means who she is rather than the obedient aunt and sister her family sees her as—is very much Granny Weatherwax's sister. She is a witch not so much because of the magic she can do, but because she is absolutely and exactly herself.
Romantic witchdom (also love and sex, which Laura can't be having with) I learned from Elizabeth Goudge, whose historical The White Witch was published in 1958. Froniga is a half-gypsy who has put aside her green gown for the gray and white of the Puritans, whose armies are overrunning her quiet corner of England. It's a very complicated book, and I haven't read it recently, but what I retain is the image of a woman who is respected by her neighbors even while they fear her for what Goudge calls her "unordinary powers," whose true religion is the natural world and whose sense of responsibility is for the people she loves. She's a figure of romance, an object of desire, but fully a subject in her own right—nobody's property but her own.
That's what I love most about these literary witches. They are answerable only to their own moral sense—which is strong, if not conventional. Existing on the fringes of society, they live under a constant threat of persecution, petty in Laura's time, mortal in Froniga's, when witches were still burned. Both are women who would rather pay the price of living free than bow their heads to any rule imposed by society or custom. Laura will sleep in the woods if she pleases, and Froniga will wear her green gown and live among the gorgio, though both her cultures judge her for it. That's my kind of witch. That's my kind of woman.
Jonathan Strahan: Tiffany Aching
It doesn't seem fair to pick just one favorite witch. There are so many different kinds of witch, and each has her charms. The wise but curmudgeonly Granny Weatherwax, the gleefully wicked Wicked Witch of the West, brave young Kiki with her delivery service—any one of them could serve as favorite. But the one who inspired me to go looking under witches' hats was Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching. She's young, she's tough-minded, and she's practical. When she was just nine, fairies tried to kidnap her younger brother and she knew to whack them with an iron skillet. When she was thirteen, she accidentally danced with a winter spirit and affected the seasons. And by the time she gets to the end of I Shall Wear Midnight, she's grown into a mature, clearheaded, fair, and really quite amazing young woman. In many ways, she's every kind of witch—okay, except for the old kind—you could possibly imagine.
This 18-story anthology, featuring such notable authors as Garth Nix, Ellen Klager, Margo Lanagan, and Patricia McKillip, offers up an enjoyable witches’ brew of tales. In Charles de Lint’s “Barrio Girls,” two teen fans of vamp fiction find the genre’s glamour diminishes upon meeting a nasty, real-life brujá. Neil Gaiman’s eloquently and evocatively written “Witch Work” explores the power of witchery, emotions, and nature. Jane Yolen’s “Andersen’s Witch” interweaves elements of the iconic author’s life and writings into an inventive meta-tale. These mature, edgy stories feature supernatural elements and also deal with resonating themes, from bullying to self-discovery and self-determination. The mainly young adult protagonists, whether they encounter, become, or already are witches, find their lives transformed—and sometimes transform the lives of others—in diversely magical ways. Editor Strahan’s introduction provides background and context for witches and witch types (and also touches upon the origins of the infamous pointy hat). Lively author biographies are appended. Grades 9-12. --Shelle Rosenfeld
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Plus...I'd read the back of a fertilizer bag if Peter Beagle wrote it.
I read anthologies in search of new authors and this bewitching collection sent me on a lovely path of exploration. I enjoyed it and will be back to reread my favorites.
The stories take a wide variety of viewpoints on the "witch" theme, from witchcraft academies to Wiccan festivals. Some are set very "real world" while others are clearly not. With some the point is never fully settled.
Thanks, Jim and Jonathan, for your parts in putting me on to a lot of good settings and writers.