The presence of witches in literature is a long and winding road. Going back to the dawn of time, witchcraft and sorcery is found in some form in almost every culture across the globe. Nestled among the other literary characters found in urban fantasy, witches offer a different experience than our other favourites such as the vampire or werewolf. Honing a gift that is controlled by themselves, the power of witches and the ability to wield their craft harnesses an intensity that captivates and pulls us in. Sure we know that potions and spells are part of the mystery, but indeed, the magic goes much deeper.
Witches in literature have undergone many face lifts, evolving with time and audience. When we look at the witches we know so well from our childhood, specifically those that were embedded in fairy tales, we see some interesting differences that divided them. Some witches, such as the one in Hansel and Gretel, are very one dimensional characters. In this case, she is very much a part of the early literary archetype of the witch—old, ugly and mean. There isn’t much explored around the character, other than what is given. But that isn’t true for all of the witches that we see in fairy tales. Others were more complex characters, using their powers of sorcery to attain something that we would think to be unattainable. Take, for example, Dame Gothel from Rapunzel. Catching her neighbour in her garden, she exchanges her silence about the theft for the thief’s firstborn child. Although a ridiculous and preposterous bargain, the neighbour agrees. It is the same in The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson. The Little Mermaid comes to the Sea Witch and asks what can be done regarding her desire to become human. The Sea Witch offers what seems like an unbelievable solution (the Little Mermaid losing her tongue and gaining legs that give her searing pain), and the Little Mermaid agrees to the exchange. Not only do Dame Gothel and the Sea Witch give the neighbour and the Little Mermaid a choice to do what is right, they both choose the road less travelled: the more painful option with very high consequences.
Fast forward to the witches in modern day literature, and we see something even more interesting. We see magicians — strong women that are no longer the villain but powerful leads that push through boundaries. Hermione Granger, although perhaps a bit annoying sometimes, uses her knowledge and wit to get her friends out of dangerous situations on more than one occasion. Not to mention Alice Quinn (The Magicians, by Lev Grossman), a reserved and intricate character that has an amazing natural ability to understand and manipulate the world around her. Furthermore, we see men enter the profession in a seamless and endearing way. From Harry Potter to Quintin Coldwater, the witch, or more notably now, the magician, is making a comeback.
They are the masters of their own destiny, controlling and unleashing their powers for good (and sometimes bad), but always managing to maintain a level of dignity among the other characters and their readership. We like them and can identify with them. No longer are they the old women that hide in the forest, waiting for little children to stumble upon their house. Instead they walk in the light, hoping to do what is right and just. They have become people with thoughts and feelings, desires and yearnings to grow and expand their knowledge, offering us, the very ordinary reader, a little chance for some hocus pocus.