Digging In: Fairy Tale
Witches- Part Two
by Jarad Johnson
Witchcraft and witches are a motif across many literary and cultural themes, so it’s only fitting that they appear in fairy tales as reflections of the culture they come from. Although the fantasy genre has many different variations on the witch, when they pop up in fairy tales, they’re usually up to no good. Baking and eating small children and handing out poison apples. But witches have changed a little over time. Let’s look at some of these stories from long ago and their modern counterparts to see what it tells us about culture and women’s roles and exactly how witches got to be so wicked - at least in the eyes of those who told these stories. (Remember, this is a look into how western culture came to portray witches as evil! It does not reflect the feelings of any of us at sacred chickens about the long history of herb women, witches, or anyone who currently professes paganism or practices holistic medicine.)
Last time we explored how Fairy Tale Witches got to be wicked. The evil witch in the fairy tale reflected how the surrounding culture felt about women, especially women with power or childless women. These conflicted feelings created the monstrous image of the anti-mother, a twisted reflection of the only role women could be conceived of having. The witch motif, like fairy tales themselves, has changed with onset of fairy tale retellings. In understanding the entire perspective of the witch motif, retellings provide a new facet in that area. The retellings this paper will cover are, “When the Clock Strikes,” and, “Snow, Glass Apples.” Each of these stories contain a witch, but unlike the traditional tale, the witch has depth of character and is an overall more rounded out character than she would usually be.
“When the Clock Strikes,” is a tale where everything that we know about fairy tales is turned on its head. There are actually two witches, and one of them is Cinderella, the other is her mother. They are committed to enacting revenge upon the king and his son, and they use the power they get from Satanas to do it. Cinderella’s, or Ashella as this tale calls her, mother dies, after their father discovers that they practice the black arts. The text says that the father begins to mistrust his daughter, who “professed no interest in marriage and none in clothes,” and instead she, “preferred to read in the garden” (Lee, p. 268). Her father cannot read, and though he has no idea what is in those books “yet somehow not liking them” (Lee, p. 268). Thus, we see that old trend of men fearing women with more knowledge than they subtly worked into this story.
This tale, unlike others who only hint at it, fully embraces the characterization of the Satanic witch. And not only that, in fairy tales like Baba Yaga, we are told by the narrator that she is a devil’s handmaid, but she never gives us that information directly. Here that is not the case, we see the woman and her daughter performing satanic rites and working with poppet dolls. It is laid out for the reader, no if ands or buts. We see more displays of power here also, as traditional tales with witches don’t actually see them use much magic. They cackle and eat the kid, and that’s pretty much it. here, we see they have genuine power, and a kind of independence that other fairy tale witches don’t. And, in a complete reversal of the traditional tale, the evil witch wins at the end of the story. She enacts her revenge on the prince and his father, the city they ruled over is sacked, and “is not now anything for a man to be proud of” (Lee, p. 278). There is no doubt that these witches are the fully realized ideals that the Middle Ages gave us about women with power, and is an interesting and entertaining take on an old motif.
"Snow, Glass, Apples,” also sees a role reversal, but this time the witch is the hero of the story, prince charming is a necrophiliac, and Snow White is a vampire. That doesn’t bode well for a happily ever after. The witch is still the stepmother to Snow White, and the king married her after he, “took all he wanted,” from her (Gaiman, p. 290). Snow White is also nothing like the original story; she’s a vampire here, after all.
The witch says that she had “always been scared of the little princess,” and shortly after this the princess feeds on her, causing her to bolt her doors at night (Gaiman, p. 291). Eventually, the princess kills her father by draining him of blood, and the witch is queen. She knows that Snow White is a vampire, so she has the child taken to the forest and her heart cut out. And she knew it was hers, “no sow’s heart or does would continue to beat and pulse after it had been cut out- as that one did” (Gaiman, p. 292). The witch talks about the tale we know of as snow white, revealing that the princess spread false rumors and lies to get the people on her side so she could take the throne. The witch says that, “it is her lie, not mine,” and that, “Lies and half-truths fall like snow, covering the things I remember,” (Gaiman, p. 292). The witch here is not an evil person, as she is in Lee’s story, but rather a good person overcome by an evil monster, Snow White. Although she does possess magic, she is not a handmaiden of the devil. The ethics and morals of the traditional tale are, in this story especially, subverted and reimagined.
However, unlike the original tales also, good does not win out in the end. The kingdom turns against the witch, and she is burned in a kiln, while the princess, “watched me, in my indignity, but she said nothing” (Gaiman, p. 299). Since the story is written from the witch’s perspective, the reader knows that she is constantly afraid, but “would not show fear,” and would not, “give them the satisfaction” (Gaiman, pp. 298-99). She is portrayed as human, with human flaws and human emotions, which is radically different from any other tale this paper has examined. And yet, she was not the one who triumphed here, and that must lead us to wonder what Gaiman has to say about the state of society.
Overall, witches in fairy tales have been around for as long as the tales themselves, though they have undergone some pretty serious changed. They started as goddesses and fairies, became handmaidens of Satan, and today they vary as much as the imagination of the teller weaving the tale. They have captured the imagination, frightened children, and challenged the power of men, if only metaphorically. It has been shown that traditional tales often did not put women in a favorable light, and while some of the modern retellings humanize them or make them complete villains, at least there is variation among them. No longer do we see women in extremes: as mothers or evildoers. They have complexity and are not always the shown as perfect or even as good people, but there is much more to the witches of today’s fairy tales than there has been previously. The reader, of course, will make of that what they will, but the tales of today are not as you have heard them before.
Jarad recently graduated from college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He is a fervent gardener and is fascinated by all related topics and has spent several years writing about this passion. He has been gardening for 6 years and believes that Nature is our greatest teacher. He majored in English with a concentration in literature and plans to pursue and master’s degree in Ecocriticism.
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