The Witch’s Familiar

It is difficult to think of too many words in the English language with such differing perceptions than ‘witch’. Although they may be creations of mere fantasy, witches are commonly portrayed and depicted as evil villains with quirky, though sinister powers, while in some literary cases they are treated with a greater degree of warmth and reverence.

Let’s begin first by comparing the words ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’. On first inspection, these would be nothing more than male and female equivalents, but wizards have traditionally been viewed as wise, sage-like individuals with maybe a hint of a mischievous streak. They predominantly use their power for good, and their portrayal in literature and in the media throughout the centuries has made them appear like amiable men who just happen to possess magical powers.

With witches come plenty more baggage. They have regularly been stereotyped to be middle-aged women who own cats, take broomsticks out for a joy ride, and contain powers of unearthly proportions. They are treated with the utmost suspicion and wariness, perhaps inspired by their supposed persecution in medieval times.

‘Witch’ is a word commonly used to describe an unreasonable or disagreeable woman, whereas calling somebody a ‘wizard’ suggests that they are gifted at a particular subject or activity; or possess some kind of unique quality.

Such usage is further extended in artistic works as notable as The Wizard Of Oz. The eponymous wizard is described as a wonderful ‘wiz of a wiz’, who lives in the glitzy emerald city. Meanwhile, the story also contains the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East, the primary antagonists who have evil character traits and so don’t compare well.

The use of witches for the purposes of fictional villainy continue in another classic 20th century work; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The arch-nemesis on this occasion is the White Witch, who, while rarely displaying an array of special powers, creates a miserable, despotic landscape and is intent on permanent rule.

This all stems from old-fashioned beliefs and practices, but doesn’t explain why wizards have not been subjected to the same unflattering treatment of their female counterparts. Here is a background of how attitudes towards sorcery have developed and manifested themselves during bygone eras:

Fear of so-called witches was rife during a period of history where figures in authority were innately suspicious of any signs of abnormality. The very notion of magical powers was feared greatly, leading to those accused of being witches facing capital punishment, often through drowning, or being burned at the stake.

The desperation of historical communities to eliminate ‘witches’ was such that hundreds of innocent women were put to death. This reached its peak in the 17th century during the bizarre reign of Matthew Hopkins, where a range of peculiar tests were carried out to theoretically uncover the true nature of unfortunate victims.

Hopkins christened himself as England’s very own Witch-finder General, an unofficial title to pronounce his supposed aptitude for tracking down ‘witches’ and bringing them to justice. A man of fairly humble origin, Hopkins gained nationwide recognition during the English Civil War, making a career through his hypothesis that any woman that floats on water *must* be a witch.

This entire campaign embodies the attitudes surrounding witchcraft during that era, but perhaps recent literature might also have been a factor. A little over 30 years previously, William Shakespeare had produced his darkest and most thought-provoking of plays, where witches feature prominently.

The three witches portrayed in Macbeth are both mysterious and powerful in equal measure. They have the capability to see into the future, and ultimately ensure that a violent series of events driven by temptation and a fierce yearning for power, plays out with typically tragic consequences.

They appear in the opening scene, visualising their next meeting, where Macbeth is also present. After the witches pronounce that he will shortly take the title of Thane of Cawdor and eventually become king of Scotland, Macbeth becomes intrigued by their powers, and they act as a driving force behind his gory actions during the rest of the play.

The portrayal of the witches throughout Macbeth is open to interpretation, but they are shown to be creatures that spread death and danger through their ability to prey upon fundamental human flaws. It is mixed with terrifying imagery such as the cauldron scene, where a clear distinction is made between the witches and the human characters.

It is a triumph for Shakespeare’s vivid imagination, but as the centuries have passed and witches have become recognised as as solely supernatural beings, their presence in formal adult literature has disappeared and they now reign supreme in children’s books, and other media.

Many of most renowned children’s authors of recent years have involved witches in their stories, and in most instances they are considerably more benign, yet some familiar traits remain. They still ride broomsticks; they still have creepy abilities to conjure harmful apparitions, and they are still treated with more suspicion than wizards.

Yet they are primarily characters of fun, as Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson proved with The Worst Witch and Room on the Broom respectively. However, one giant of children’s literature treated us to his own, entirely different interpretation.

The characterisation and features of The Witches in Roald Dahl’s award-winning book of the same name differs enormously from all that had gone before it. Dahl doesn’t hide from the fact that all witches are women, while he also creates a level of suspense which is rarely so prevalent in novels aimed towards an audience of children aged 13 and under.

Maybe that’s why the characterisation is so distinctive. Dahl’s witches share a hatred of children, and plot to neutralise them by any means possible. They use elaborate accessories to disguise their bald heads; clawed fingers, and square feet, and answer to the Grand High Witch.

The Grand High Witch personifies all the negative connotations surrounding witches. She is deceptive and ruthless, and possibly Dahl’s darkest creation. When she removes her mask to reveal a disembodied face, it represents another departure from the stereotypes.

However, at no point does Dahl discriminate between witch and wizard, and shows that the portrayal of such beings is open to interpretation. Now that it’s generally accepted that witches were not at large during the English Civil War and the preceding years, they have no clear definition. That many fictional witches have similar traits is simply a reinforcement of traditional inspirations.

We even see that in the world of video-gaming, where the primary antagonist in the Banjo-Kazooie series is a green-skinned witch called Gruntilda. At the opposite end of the spectrum alongside the likes of Dahl, we have dramatic portrayals in films like The Witches of Eastwick, who are three apparently normal women who discover underlying powers.

Sitting almost slap bang in the middle is the most notorious series of novels in recent times, the Harry Potter books. Author J.K. Rowling has created her own world, with its own unique and clearly defined identity, which has permanently altered the thinking behind how witches and wizards can be depicted in literature.

Aside from The Wizard of Oz, this is the only example within this article that offers the chance of direct comparison between the male and female characters. And on the whole, witches and wizards in Harry Potter are treated predominantly as equals.

Both witches and wizards practice in the Dark Arts; they both have equal rights to an education, and are shown to be just as gifted as each other. Even Quidditch is a level playing field, as teams are made up by both men and women.

The only slight disparity is the lack of women in the top jobs, such as at the Ministry of Magic, but on the whole, the fact that Hogwarts itself is shown to be founded by an equal number of witches and wizards (two each) states the parity that exists. Indeed, discrimination in Harry Potter is largely limited to bloodline, and prejudice towards magical creatures.

One line that sums up the amelioration of the word ‘witch’ appears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While escaping the campsite at the Quidditch World Cup, Harry and his friends run into Draco Malfoy, who informs them slyly that Hermione Granger may be at risk from the Death Eaters, who are in the act of persecuting Muggles.

‘Hermione’s a witch’, snarls Harry in response.

This may seem like a very unremarkable, average piece of dialogue; after all it is only three words long and may seem as though Harry is just stating a fact. However, the implication of this line shows that the state of being a witch is a good thing, something to be proud of.

To illustrate the point, to refer to somebody as a witch in most forms of literature and other media suggests that that character is evil and/or untrustworthy. As Harry and Hermione are clearly protagonists in this particular series, we know immediately that Harry’s remark is far from disparaging; indeed it is meant as a compliment.

And that sums up the journey that fictional witches have embarked on over time, as historic and medieval beliefs towards their supposed existence have become gradually more obsolete. The stereotypes still remain, and they are used for the purpose of entertainment and extravagance, but the wider range of depictions now in evidence provides a belief that they can obtain something close to equal footing with fictional wizards.

Fantastic Beasts

For all fans of the Harry Potter series, both fanatical and casual, the announcement from J.K. Rowling that the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie franchise is likely to span the course of five films has had us rejoicing. In a year which has also seen a groundbreaking West End play, the thought of another treasure trove of insight to the Harry Potter universe leaves us feeling rather spoilt.

Starring among others, Academy Award winning actor Eddie Redmayne as the titular book’s magizoologist author Newt Scamander, the first film in the series is to be released on November 17. As is the case for many other people, I am eagerly anticipating seeing it on the big screen; J.K. Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting, but it may turn out slightly differently to what we are expecting.

While it may be set in the Harry Potter universe, this movie is set some 70 years before the events of the books, in New York. So we can brace ourselves for a sampling of the Roaring Twenties at its heart, where Scamander encounters many of the creatures he would later describe in such vivid detail in a textbook that would come in useful to Hogwarts students across several different disciplines, including Care of Magical Creatures; Defence Against the Dark Arts; Herbology, and Potions.

Unless a young Dumbledore makes a surprise appearance, that means there will no familiar faces within this series of films. There’s a whole host of new characters to get used to, identify with and be inspired by. Can Redmayne’s Scamander emerge as a heroic or cult figure like Harry? Or will he be forever in Harry’s looming shadow? If we know Rowling, his personality and indeed loyalties may have us gripped as the franchise proceeds.

Despite the unfamiliar aspects of the plot, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in the best possible hands. Supervised by Warner Bros. and produced by the enduring David Heyman, it is directed by the man in charge of the final four Harry Potter films, David Yates. Harry, Ron and Hermione may not be around, but this quintet of motion pictures is a massive cause for excitement.



The Casual Vacancy Analysis Part One

Having read each of the Harry Potter books on numerous occasions to the extent that I developed an eternal adoration for the series, it is something of a surprise that it took me over three years after the publication of The Casual Vacancy to buy J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel.

I began reading it in March, and as I opened the book to glance the first page I was filled with an inevitable sense of anticipation; intrigued to see what this one-of-a-kind storyteller had in store with a story set firmly in the muggle world, about a local election that takes place within what appears to be the peaceful, genteel parish village of Pagford, but turns out to be a place rife with dishonesty and social divisions.

J.K. Rowling’s writing style and syntax is evident from the start, but the language of the novel cannot be coarser than that of Harry Potter. It is language of the worst kind, as she takes on the subjects of marital infidelity, drug use, sex, pornography, child abuse and self-harm, to name just a few. I have to admit that seeing such regular usage of a diverse range of expletives with varying degrees of severity took some acclimatising to.

Some of it left me feeling uncomfortable, and the book does take in a number of tragic incidents as events spiral a little out of control towards the end as heartbreaking stories of deprivation and a volatile political landscape culminate in death and instability. All in all it is an excellent novel from an author whose ability will never go down in my estimation. It is certainly not perfect and not altogether polished, but when the benchmark has been set so high it is easy to pick holes here and there.

Despite its rather edgy plotline, The Casual Vacancy is a comedy in some places. There are certainly some passages that made me laugh out loud. It is also a paradise for anyone who loves similes and metaphors, an area where Rowling seems to have gone into overdrive. Sometimes she gets a little carried away, but a few of her comparisons are breathtakingly masterful, so much so that I paused to examine them.

At the beginning it is all about trying to get used to all of the characters and what their personal circumstances are. There are a huge array of different personalities in Pagford who Rowling covers on an almost rotational basis over the space of a week following the death of local councillor Barry Fairbrother in the opening chapter. In fact, very few of these characters are likeable, but at the same time most of them make very interesting reading.

The themes explored are right at the heart of it, and sometimes overtakes the election in terms of coverage. All of the characters are eventually forced to take desperate measures in a bid to ease their own problems, while the novel’s content also required research on areas such as online hacking and religious practices.

One of the families portrayed are adherents of Sikhism, which had the potential to be divisive. For me there are some questionable elements, but generally it is handled very well and with a sense of maturity. As for online hacking, Rowling does not describe it in great detail and can be vague in places, but it emerges as a key plot point as the revelations exposed by The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother indirectly lead to the events that leave Pagford in virtual social ruin by the end.

There is plenty to analyse within The Casual Vacancy and I hope to do so in real detail. A local election is a great idea for a novel as it lends itself to all kinds of possibilities, but the social issues represent what lies firmly at the heart of the novel. Some work, and others don’t.

Tying the Loose Ends

I have decided to begin by referring to my favourite collection of books, which like a lot of other people is the Harry Potter series. I would say I am a huge fan without being a so-called superfan – in other words those who would go to the extraordinary lengths of habitually dressing up as their favourite characters or becoming awestruck to the point of nearly passing out when they run into Rupert Grint or Tom Felton at Comic-Con.

Even for the people who are not as enchanted with the series, one would be hard pressed to deny that J.K. Rowling is one of literature’s great storytellers, and one who understands how to fill her readers with an unrelenting sense of intrigue, so much so that every word of the seven Harry Potter novels has been disected and scrutinised via online forums and the like.

Such forensic examination has led to some inconsistencies being exposed as to what are in truth minor details within the books, and Rowling herself has admitted that maths in particular is not her strong point, particularly with regards to the rather cloudy subject of how many students attend Hogwarts, for example.

But all in all, she does a great job of preventing the reader from being in any doubt about the outcome of, or reason behind any of the major plot points. This is at its best in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where the complexity is there right from the start and all of what ensues is wrapped up with almost breathtaking excellence during a lengthy recital towards the end of the book.

Of course, in any book let alone a world-famous and much-loved series such as this, any loose end must be resolved in a satisfactory manner. If not, the audience would feel pretty short-changed at having their enjoyment – and arguably intelligence – undermined by a badly reasoned explanation of an important part of the plot.

This is a fairly common mistake for more inexperienced writers, who can sometimes be guilty of not thinking things through in sufficient depth, while others can find themselves creating too many loose ends that the audience are left fighting a battle to keep up with the author and may end up getting a little lost amid all the strands.

The latter has been an increasingly common trait for TV dramas over recent years and although the format of an ongoing storyline can build tension and spark debate among audiences, the decision to take an idea in this direction requires everything to be tied up appropriately, which takes consummate writing ability.

But sometimes there is the odd occasion where one talking point is sacrificed for the central plotline. The example that stands out in my mind is conscious decision that was taken by George Lucas as he penned the script for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which was meant to provide a reason for why the planet Kamino had been removed from the Jedi archives in the previous movie, Attack of the Clones.

He did this in order to devote more time to telling the story of Anakin Skywalker’s defection to the dark side, which on the one hand is fair enough, but on the other it was a mystery that was never going to go unnoticed by fans of the franchise. Maybe sometimes items have to be cut for the good of the story, but a faithful audience always wants to know more, and then they savour that new information.

For the record, that loose end was resolved to an extent when Kamino’s fate was explained in a book dedicated to Star Wars, but Lucas took a big risk with his omission and I’m not sure if it paid off. Tying up loose ends is never a straightforward task, but any top author or screenwriter should know that any new plot point they create – however minor – must be considered and well thought through, and be resolved in a way that doesn’t leave audiences shaking their heads. To help with this, it would be worth hiring a astute editor!