RIP: Witches

I don’t know what I was expecting from Mist Over Pendle, but it certainly wasn’t a story that was quite so…safe and happy. Whilst on one level this is a tale of witches running amok in a 17th century community, it is primarily a coming-of-age story for the heroine, Margery Whitaker, from whose perspective it is recounted. We first see Margery as the persecuted youngest child of a family of puritans. Pretty, wilful and flirtatious, Margery seems unable to tow the family line of disciplined self-sacrifice, and when the time comes for her to make her way in the world, she is dispatched to a distant cousin in Lancashire.

She falls on her feet, for Roger Nowell turns out to be the Squire of the Pendle area, a Justice of the peace, a rich and powerful man. But just as importantly, he is similar to Margery in looks and character, and he takes to her at once. The bonds of love and loyalty are quick to grow between them, and will never be troubled in this narrative. Instead, Margery comes into her own, using her quick wits to help Roger in the local strife between different religious factions. On the one side are the puritans, whose ways Margery knows already, on the other, the forbidden papists, and somewhere uncertainly in between, the marginalized lawless who cause trouble and call it witchcraft.

When Margery arrives in the region, several suspicious deaths have already occurred, and more will follow. Two families of witches are rumoured to be the cause with their hexing, but Roger will not convict without proof, nor will he submit to the brutal puritan ways of extracting such proof by torture or dunking. At Roger’s side throughout the investigation, Margery must use her skills of wit and diplomacy, discerning friend from foe, and finding ways to draw the net tighter around the evil in their midst. Nothing really dreadful happens, the main characters are at no point placed at risk; instead the underlying tone of the narrative is expansive, as Margery finds her place in the community, falls in love, develops her talents. Seriously, you could read this one alone on a dark and windy night during a power cut and still sleep easy. It’s good, enjoyable genre reading.

I was intrigued to note that the witchcraft in this novel tends on the whole to shun the paranormal. A useful knowledge of poisonous herbs is more to blame than the summoning of psychic energy, although there are suggestions that making clay dolls and hexing in the form of ‘sitting on a spirit’ are effective ways of doing harm. Furthermore, for the most part, the witches belong to the poorest element of society, pitiful, deformed figures forced into begging and prostitution. I expect there’s historical truth to that, but it does bypass what seems to me the most compelling part of witchcraft, the high ritual magic conducted secretly as an alternative and powerful form of knowledge.

Witchcraft developed in the spaces left behind by rational explanation; it was a way of explaining why unexpected things happened, and a way of transcending normal experience through rituals that were transgressive or shocking, elevating the practitioner to a different level of spiritual awareness. Ordinary religion does much the same thing, only power here is assigned to the divine being. In witchcraft that power to make things happen is possessed by the witch, who has learned the secret ways that mind and matter are linked. Usurping the power of the gods has pretty much always been seen as a reckless and dangerous endeavour. But it also taps into the sort of animistic thinking (or magical thinking) that dominates a child’s mentality and into which we can backslide at any challenging time of life. Children often feel that it is their own power (often negative, as rage or hatred) that causes disaster, whilst as adults we tend to believe that we can influence events through ‘luck’. Far fewer people would gamble on the lottery, for instance, if they were guessing numbers that had already been chosen, rather than predicting numbers yet to be selected. But animistic thinking is more complicated than that and can involve all sorts of half-beliefs or simultaneous beliefs; the knowledge that someone has died does not prevent us from expecting their appearance through the door at any moment.

There’s another dimension to witchcraft that’s intriguing and that is the way it affects language. The casting of the spell brings an extra dimension of power to the speech act, often using arcane or unusual words to arouse awe and terror. Altogether then, witchcraft seeks to challenge accepted conventions and realities, forging new, invisible connections between events, tapping into an extra power in language, bestowing superior abilities of extrasensory perception on those who practised it. Easy to see in centuries past why it was the friend of the conventionally powerless – women and the poor. I suppose I had expected Mist Over Pendle to buy into this sort of magic chicanery, but it held to a far more pragmatic line.  That’s okay! I enjoyed it just as it was, and it would probably make a pleasant change for readers well versed in paranormal fiction.

[Not enough magic in this blog to get it to the shortlist stage at BBAW, alas. But many congratulations to all those who go through.]



12 thoughts on “RIP: Witches

  1. Interesting point about witchcraft and women and the poor — I’m not sure I ever thought of it that way before. All kinds of reasons, then, for people to feel threatened by witches, in a patriarchal, religious society. I like your point about the speech act — what a wonderful fantasy of words having that much power! Silly BBAW. What, exactly, were they thinking??

  2. Great review. You talked about a lot of interesting things without spoiling the book. Always a good thing. I don’t mind a “safe and happy” book now and then, especially if it is set in a genre that isn’t necessarily full of safe and happy stories. Glad you were able to enjoy it despite it not being what you expected.

  3. I too love the insight about the use of language. Just thinking about the way certain words carry political freight adds so much weight to what you are saying (e.g., “entitlements” instead of “support” or “whore” instead of “women who are used by men” or “welfare mother” instead of “abandoned and destitute single mom.”) All very witchy indeed!

  4. What a very interesting review. When it comes to witchcraft i have two souls in me, the one who loves all the misconceptions and the one who is interested in the real thing and loves to anayze the misconceptions.
    A lot of so-called witches were probabaly only women who knew a lot about plants and healing.
    I did a lot of research on the topic. For my Master and for my aborted PhD. Both dealt with religion in other societies and times. African soceties strongly believe in witchcraft. And it is very different from our idea. And then there is Wicca, of course, modern-day witchcraft, which I find highly interesting as well. All in all I hardly ever found it to be all that paranormal. There is a lot of down-to-earth knowledge in witchcraft.
    With all this said, i must admit, I wouldn’t have expected this to be a safe and happy tale. At first I was somewhat disappointed but now I’m actually quite curious.

  5. Witches were my favorite scary characters when I was a kid. My mother took us to see Snow White when I was about 5 or 6. During the movie, the evil-queen-turned-witch holds out a poison apple to Snow White. The camera zoomed in on a close-up of the witch’s face. I screamed, jumped up and ran out of the theater. They found me in the ladies room hiding behind a commode. To this day, it’s my favorite scary memory. I bought the movie when my children were small and still love that part. After that, all I ever wanted to be at Halloween was a witch. Powerful wicked!

  6. Dorothy – what a dear, loyal friend you are! And I love all that stuff about power and language. I find it quite fascinating, which makes me think I ought to read more Foucault…. I’m sure I could pick up what he’s saying from genre books about witchcraft though, don’t you think? 😉

    Stefanie – hugs to you, my friend. I am now completely satisfied! And I do love a book that won’t give me nightmares. I don’t dare approach the really scary stuff!

    Carl – I am quite a sucker for books turning out to be different to my expectations. I feel that I see them then with clearer vision. And I really did enjoy this; it’s pacy and fun with a delightfully olde worlde feel to it. I do my best to avoid spoilers because I know some people hate them, and for irrational reasons, I dislike typing *spoiler!* all over my reviews.

    kailana – that is so kind of you, thank you! Do look out for this book if you like witchcraft stories. It’s a good, fun read.

    rhapsody in books – loving your examples there! And love your moniker too – what a great one.

    Caroline – this is a good read and I think it aims for some historical accuracy within a tale that would satisfy skeptical modern day readers. I just happened across an essay on witchcraft the other day that spent a long time reviewing a book (that you probably know) ‘Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft’ by T. M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist who spent a year among modern day witches in London. It sounded so interesting I nearly bought a copy, but I think I can probably find it at the university library. It is a fascinating topic and I can quite understand what compelled you to research it.

    Grad – I think it’s really intriguing that ‘wicked’ is one of those words that has gained an alternative and polar opposite meaning of ‘fantastic’. But there is something really powerful and oddly pleasing in those shrieky-scary moments. The kids all love them, don’t they?

  7. Hmmm…I can never decide if I want more to read about paranormal, mythologized witches or Wiccans. Witches are one of the few “scary creatures” we have who have a weird basis in reality (if that makes sense. I know what I mean, but it’s hard to articulate it). I find both paranormal witches and Wiccans fascinating, especially since i’ve thought a lot about that whole witch and the patriarchy thing. Accusing women of being witches was a great way to keep women fearful (especially strong women) and, thus, in their place, and a good distraction from the sorts of real dangers and problems that abounded in a place like the colony of Salem, MA in a New World. The book sounds interesting but one to read when I’m not in the chills-seeking mood I’m in right now. I’d love to read a great, scary, paranormal witch story right now, but they’re quite hard to find, I think.

    You definitely belong on the BBAW short list in my book! Sorry to hear not everyone is as discerning as I.

  8. I much prefer the reality of witches, than the magical version since studying European witchcraft. It’s hard for me to get beyond a feeling that the realities of powerlessness, opression and violence are being paperd over by an instistance that witches had real magic. Still, there’s lots of stuff I read before I studied that part of history which includes real witches that I still enjoy. But it sounds like you know a thing or two about the area of witchcraft we never really explored – a small pocket of people who really took to witchcraft and Satanism, the ones who really believed in all that performative ritual and played around with it (rather than the majority who were getting accussed falsely for any number of reasons). I’d love it if you had more to share (or knew accessible sources I could explore myself).

  9. This sounds like a good read even if it wasn’t quite as edgy as you were expecting–usually there is some sort of turmoil in books like this even if it is only of the romantic sort. Still, a safe comfy read is not at all a bad thing. I’ve always wondered what it is about children and their ability (or so books and movies would have it) to ‘channel’ (for lack of a better word) supernatural sorts of things–because they are so pure and open? Sorry about the BBAW list–if you didn’t make it I sort of question the whole process–I looked over the list of blogs and only recognized a very few, tho. Maybe I should get out more? Alas I think I am just fine in my own little niche.

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