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THE WITCH IN FICTION
To those who deny the existence of the witch in fact, any mention of the witch in fiction as a separate entity may seem superfluous. Nevertheless even the enlightened must admit a distinction between the witch as she appeared to Bodin or Pierre de Lancre and the "very repulsive-looking old witch whose underlip hung down to her chin" of Hans Andersen's "Tinderbox." Indeed, this latter can scarcely be considered a witch at all in the true sense of the word, seeing that despite her underlip she seems to have had no occult powers of her own, except, indeed, that her checked apron had the faculty of quieting savage dogs. For the rest, though, she seems to have been entirely dependent upon the old tinder-box left by her grandmother underground, and of which she sent the soldier in search. The only detail, indeed, wherein she resembled the more orthodox witch of history was that when the soldier cut off her head without any provocation whatever, he not only incurred no blame, but even thereby paved his way to marrying a king's daughter — a moral such as would certainly have appealed to Mathew Hopkins. Again, the wicked stepmother of "Snowwhite" in Grimm's story of that name, although regarded as a witch and in the end suffering appropriate punishment for her crimes, has no more claim to take her place beside Circe or Mother Damnable in the pages of history than is due to the apparently fortuitous possession of a magic looking-glass and some knowledge of toxicology.
The witch in fiction might serve a more serious purpose than does the heroine of a problem novel, for not only has the perusal of her incredible pranks served to enlighten many a weary hour; she is also a standing proof of the bond fides of the real personage upon whom she is based. Just as in fiction, dealing with less recondite characters, we find that their doings are for the most part exaggerated caricatures of the happenings of every-day life in the real world, and that their potentialities of action are limited, not by hard fact, but only by the furthest bounds of the novelist's imagination, so the witch of fiction caricatures her historical prototype to the point of verging on the incredible. For your real witch, whether she be Diana or Mother Demdyke, Joan of Arc, or the Witch of Endor, has always — like less gifted human beings — conformed to one of several types, varying from them only in the degree proper to human nature. Whether young and beautiful, or old and repulsive, whether hag or heroine, goddess or gude-wife, she remains constant to her type, and has done so from the beginning of things. The witch of fiction, on the other hand, like the problematic heroine, doth as her creator wishes in defiance of all laws of possibility. As any inquisitor could tell you, in a court of justice, once a witch always a witch; in the pages of Grimm a witch is quite as likely to be a fairy godmother or a benevolent old lady, with a magic golden apple, or, for that matter, a benevolent old lady pure and simple. Sometimes, it is true, as with characters in a realistic novel, the witch of fiction may pass for an impressionistic study of the real witch. Thus in the famous story of Hansel and Gretel she is so far realistic as to desire the capture of small children. But, instead of acting thus in the service and for the honour of her master the Devil, she is moved by no nobler impulse than the desire to eat them, and thus shows herself not a witch at all — for your true witch is always altruistic — nothing better, indeed, than a greedy old cannibal. Her methods, again, however creditable to their inventor, are by no means such as would have commended themselves to the economical tastes of her Satanic employer. The real witch was never yet provided with the capital necessary to build herself houses of "sugar and spice and all that's nice" either as residence or decoy. She lived notoriously in hovels — unless, indeed, she had private means — and the profits of her infernal bargain, even when she received them, were never sufficient to provide her with more than the barest living. Grimm's cannibal, with her roof of chocolate and walls of marzipan, might have been a sorceress; she certainly was no witch.
More realistic, and thus all the more misleading, are the weird sisters in Macbeth. Did we take them as representative types of witchdom, we should be as much deceived as were he who, reading nothing but newspapers, believed that English life was made up of murders, divorces, political speeches and judicial witticisms. They give us, indeed, an excellent impressionist idea of the witch as she appeared in the public eye, some valuable recipes for potions, apt illustrations of divinatory methods and so forth, but no suggestion whatever of that quiet home life wherein the witch, like the British public, passed most of her existence. No doubt she occasionally took part in social reunions, in caverns or on blasted heaths, with Hecate as the guest of the evening; no doubt she there interchanged ideas as to the surest means of drowning sailors or ruining kingdoms. But these were only paragraphs in the story of her life, very much as being tried for murder or presented at Court are outstanding incidents in the life-story of the average Briton. For the most part, she spent her time in the quiet seclusion of her hovel, adding to her stock of every-day poisons or giving interviews to the local peasantry. Of this Shakespeare tells us nothing; to judge from the witches in Macbeth they might have spent the whole of their time waiting about on Scottish moorlands on the chance of making history.
Much nearer to the truth are the lives of Mother Demdyke, Mother Chattox, and the rest of the "Lancashire Witches," as portrayed for us by Harrison Ainsworth. It is true that for purposes of dramatic effect the author exaggerates their characteristics; but such is the privilege of the historical novelist. Nobody supposes — or is expected to suppose — that the Queen Elizabeth of "The Faerie Queene" or the Richelieu of "Les Trois Mousquetaires" corresponds in every respect to the historical personages for whom they stand. In real life Queen Elizabeth was probably insufferable, vain, ugly, with the bad temper that comes from biliousness founded on a regime of beer and beefsteak for breakfast; Richelieu an imposing figure only because he was successful. But nobody would think of blaming Spenser or Dumas for having built up an heroic edifice upon a mediocre foundation; had they told us no more than the bare truth, they would certainly have been accused of falsifying history, and, with more justice, of lack of literary artistry. The mission of the historical novelist, as generally understood, at any rate, is, like that of the scene-painter, to provide us with the appropriate setting for figures bathed in conventional limelight. If he draws things as they were he fails in his duty towards people as they are. So it is with the Mother Demdyke of Ainsworth's imagining. The limelight is upon her all the time. She is condemned to be theatrical, if she is to be real; her destinies must be interwoven with those of dispossessed abbots, of aristocratic heroes, and of beautiful ill-used heroines. When composing a curse, she must never forget what is expected of her by the world beyond the footlights; when she interviews her master the Devil, such an interview must always be melodramatic. In actual fact, we know that when the Devil had occasion to visit Lancashire in order to discuss business projects with Mother Demdyke, he did so briefly and without waste of words, for the Devil is above all else a man of business. We know, too, that the real Mother Demdyke was never able to do mischief on such an heroic scale as her bioscopic reflection in the novel. At least, if we make full allowance for her creator's necessities, we may admit that he has given us a sufficiently fair picture, if not of Mother Demdyke as she was, at least of what she was supposed to be.
Of a different order of realism is the witch-world described for us by Goethe. Here, again, had we no further knowlege of witchdom, we should be sadly led astray, though naturally and inevitably. For Goethe, though he gives us some vivid sketches of witch-life, uses them only incidentally. His witches have no greater purpose than to form a background against which the figures of Mephistopheles and Faust may be the better shown up — nay, more, his witches are but part of that background, phantasmagorically confused with Menelaus, Paris, Oberon, Ariel, Titania, and a hundred other figures of mythology or fairy-lore. It is true that by moments he gives us studies of the witch as a personal entity, as, for instance, when Faust and his mentor visit the Witch Kitchen, there to interview not only a very witch, but with her a miscellaneous collection of her familiars, cats, kittens, and the like. It may be noted as a subtle touch of realism that the witch does not at first recognise her master owing to his temporary lack of a cloven hoof and attendant ravens, cursing him roundly before she realises the mistake. But in this the poet overdoes his realism, seeing that in real life the witch had so many opportunities of meeting Satan in unexpected forms, as a tree-trunk, a brazen bull, or a greyhound, that any minor modification of his anatomy would certainly not have caused any such mystification. Even in the original, then, we have to make great allowances for poetical or other licence before we can admit that the witches of Faust are at all true to life. When we come to the acting editions of the play as performed in England by ambitious actor-managers, we find that the unfortunate witch becomes little more than a caricature. On the Brocken she is elbowed out of place by miscellaneous mythologicals, so that the audience gains no truer idea of an ordinary Sabbath than does the visitor of London who only sees it on a Bank-holiday. In the Witch-kitchen scene again, not only is she quite lost in a world of red fire and scenic effects, but she is represented as resembling rather the pantaloon in a pantomime than a junior partner of the Devil. At least the witch has so much cause of gratitude to the poet, that he and his imitators have given her a new, even if rather meretricious, popularity at a period when it is badly needed.
Properly to appreciate the difference between the witch of fiction and her prototype in real life, we must seek her in what is, after all, her stronghold, the fairy-story. It would seem, indeed, as if, having been driven to take refuge in the nursery, she has there caught something of the vitality of its more familiar occupants. For just as we find that the real witch has more than one seeming, so the witch of fiction may belong to any of many types — if not to several of them at once. As already noticed, she makes a habit of exceeding the bounds of possibility; she is also as frequently as not a dual personality. In real life the witch is always the witch first, the queen, or duchess, or gude-wife only incidentally. Were it not for her occult powers she would cease to exist, would be degraded, indeed, to the ordinary level of queen or beldame. But in fiction, and especially in fairy fiction, this does not hold good; that is to say, there are certain ranks and positions which carry with them almost of right the being considered a witch. Thus if you happen to marry a king, who has a beautiful daughter, or a particularly eligible son, it is almost a foregone conclusion that you are a witch; this, not because widowed monarchs are particularly given to making bad marriages, but rather, it would seem, on some such principle as that by which the wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh became a goddess by marriage. It is true that to be a witch in fairyland, you need not have entered into any agreement with the Devil, nor possess any supernatural power whatever. As in the already quoted story of the Tinder-box, the possession of any magic article sufficiently bewitched to do mischief is all that you require. You need not have bewitched it yourself, in many cases you have inherited, in others purchased it, in others had it thrust upon you. You need not, again, be ugly; in most cases you cannot be, for no one can suppose that a royal widower would feel himself called upon to mate with a hag en secondes noces. Sometimes, of course, you may only assume an attractive appearance for the purpose of catching your monarch, but this is rare. The stepmother witch in "Snow-white," for example, we know to have been beautiful on the authority of her magic mirror, for did it not in reply to her queries tell her before the irruption of Snow-white that she was the fairest woman in the world? Nor have we any cause to doubt that the mirror was truthful, seeing that it sacrificed both expediency and politeness to veracity by maintaining later that "Snow-white is fairest now, I ween."
It is impossible not to feel a certain sympathy with this unfortunate royal lady in her subsequent fate, that of being condemned to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes; seeing that the sin of envy, for which she suffered, was entailed upon her by all the conventions of stepmother-hood, and that, had she failed in it, the story could never have been written.
That the stepmother witch might and frequently did possess magical powers on her own account we may learn from the story of "The Wild Swans," as related by Hans Andersen. In that instance the wicked queen, by merely making a pass in the air, is able to turn her eleven stepsons into wild swans as easily as Circe herself turned the companions of Ulysses into swine. Strictly following earthly precedent again, we find that her spells sometimes fail, as when she bids her familiars, three toads, place themselves upon Eliza's head, forehead, and heart, so that she may become as stupid, as ugly, and as evilly inclined as themselves. In this they fail altogether, being unable to make headway against the virtuous innocence of Eliza, very much, as upon earth, all evil spells were rendered impotent when confronted with holy words or the sign of the cross. She does not, it may be noted, disdain such more commonplace methods of annoyance, as anointing her stepdaughter's face with walnut-juice and driving her from home. Yet another point in which the story of "The Wild Swans" shows itself in accordance with the traditions of the real witch-world is where the good princess, now become queen, being accused of consorting with witches in a churchyard, is herself accused of witchcraft by the local archbishop, and would inevitably have been burnt but for the timely intervention of her brothers. It was fortunate for her that she lived in fairy-land and not under the jurisdiction of Innocent VIII. or James I., when it is much to be feared that a whole army of brothers would not have sufficed to save her — as a matter of fact they would probably have been among her warmest accusers. This the more so, that she was attended in prison by three familiars in the shape of mice, who would certainly have provided damning evidence in the eyes of any self-respecting inquisitor.
In seeking for the witch in fairy-land, we must often look for her under some other name — as a fairy, for instance, and especially as a fairy-godmother. One of the most embarrassing attributes of the fairy-godmother is that if you offend her she at once changes into a witch, without giving you any warning whatever. She may have officiated as godmother to half a dozen of your children, treating them always as a real fairy should. But should you once offend her, and especially should you forget to invite her to a christening, she at once becomes a witch of the utmost malignancy. This is a curious perversion from the habits of the real witch, whose interests are entirely against the baptising of children under any circumstances. It may be supposed that, having for the nonce laid aside her evil doing, and adopted the civilised veneer of fairyism, she is quick to take offence at any implied non-recognition thereof, very much as might a black man if anyone said to him, "I suppose you don't wear trousers at home?" A famous example of the beneficent fairy godmother occurs, of course, in "Cinderella"; a cynic might, indeed, argue that her beneficence towards Cinderella, her provision of fine dresses, six-horse coaches, and glass slippers, were induced rather by the desire to spite the ugly sisters than out of any actual love of Cinderella herself. Another common type of the double-edged godmother occurs in the story of Prince Hazel and Prince Fair. With characteristic perversity, while pretending that each prince will have an equal chance, she yet makes everything smooth for the one, while placing irresistible temptation in the path of the other, basing her action upon her preconceived idea of their disposition.
The witch-fairy need not be a godmother. In the "Sleeping Beauty," for instance, her sole cause of irritation is at not receiving an invitation to the christening. In consequence, as every child knows, she condemns the future Beauty to prick her finger at the age of fifteen and thereafter to fall asleep — she and all her entourage — until a casual prince shall have sufficient curiosity to make his way through the surrounding thorn-thickets. It may be noted in this connection that the every-day inhabitants of fairy-land have never shown themselves able to learn from experience. Scarcely a royal christening could take place without some important witch-fairy being forgotten, always with disastrous results, yet no steps seem ever to have been taken to guard against the recurrence of such disastrous negligence.
The witch-princess differs from the witch-queen stepmother in that she is usually herself under a spell, which, being removed, usually by the intervention of some adventurous lover, she at once resumes all the lovable qualities inherent to beautiful princesses. Thus, in "The Travelling Companion," the princess is at first made to appear in the most unamiable light possible, though her beauty and her mantle of butterflies' wings none the less turn the heads of the wooers whose skulls are destined to adorn her garden — a phenomenon not unknown on solid earth. Nevertheless, when a suitor arrives with the necessary qualifications to overcome the spell, she settles down to a life of the domestic virtues, perhaps on the principle that the reformed rake makes the best husband. The witch-princess, be it noted, is so far of earthly origin as to be directly descended from that unhappy heroine, Medea.
I have hitherto refrained from reference to what are perhaps the most vividly convincing characters in witch-fiction: "Sidonia the Sorceress" and "The Amber Witch," the creations of the German Lutheran clergyman, Wilhelm Meinhold. They can, however, more especially the "Amber Witch," scarcely be regarded as absolute fiction, seeing that they provide not imaginary portraits, but actual photographs of the witch as she was supposed to live. So carefully did the author collate his facts, so exact to truth were the details of the trial, tribulations, and final escape of the unhappy girl suspected of witchcraft, that at the time of its publication in 1843, "The Amber Witch" was generally accepted as an actual record of a witchcraft trial in the time of the Thirty Years' War. Perhaps, indeed, Maria Schweidler deserves a better fate than to be included as a witch under any heading whatever, seeing that not only was her innocence finally made manifest, but that the accusation was originally aroused against her for no better cause than her own kindness of heart and practical benevolence. It is true that many of the names enshrined in the annals of witchcraft would never have been there if guilt or malevolence were the sole rightful claims to this form of immortality.
As might be expected, the wizard, no less than the witch, has appealed to the picturesque imagination of the romancist in many times and countries. What is more, he has, if anything, been taken more seriously. This is perhaps due to the fact that his creator has generally conformed more closely to his original. The great alchemists of history have been pressed into the service of many writers, much as have the Rosicrucians, the Cabalists, and other members of magico-secret societies. Even when we find the wizard, magician, or sorcerer in his purely romantic guise, he conforms more closely to his original than does the witch. In the "Arabian Nights," for example, are many magicians, to say nothing of djinns, but there is scarcely one among them who transcends the powers of his real-life prototype. Merlin, again, despite his ambiguous origins, wherever he appears, whether in Arthurian legend or Maeterlinckian variation, is always recognisable and true to type. Prospero, in the "Tempest," is a magician of no mean power, but he is none the less a man with human affections and human aims, taking the side of good in the age-long struggle against evil, as represented by Caliban. No one meeting Prospero in the society of, let us say, Albertus Magnus, need have found anything to cavil at in his verisimilitude. Even when you find a magician in fairy-lore, as in the already quoted story of "The Travelling Companion," he is, if unamiable, not unreal, unless, indeed, in his preference for cushions made of live mice, eating each others' tails.
Thus in fiction, as in fact, we find the caste distinction between the witch and the wizard rigidly observed, the one approached with something like reverence, the other regarded with dislike and half-contemptuous fear. This may be largely due in both worlds to the fact that there are "to ten thousand witches but one wizard," and that familiarity breeds contempt. Nevertheless, it should serve but as another claim upon our sympathy for the much-abused witch, even while it exemplifies the truth of the proverb that nothing succeeds like success. The magician, after having led the Devil by the nose throughout a long and ill-spent life, not only succeeds nine times out of ten in cheating him in the end, but also preserves to a remarkable degree the sympathies of mankind, whether as devotee or novel-reader.
The unfortunate witch, having devoted her industrious days to carrying out faithfully the terms of her bargain, is condemned to the flames both in this world and the next amid universal execration. Truly he does not always bear the palm who best merits it.