Something wicked this way comes: Halloween’s almost here, and the witching season is at hand! While the trick-or-treating masses still play up the nastiest of stereotypes—green skin, black robes, obsession with people’s pretties—literature offers up any number of wonderful (and wonderfully bad) witches, many of whom don’t always fit the mystical mold. Here are just a few of the leading ladies you’ll find circling a cauldron, with or without a sassy black cat. Let them put a spell on you:
You don’t really have to take it from me. It says right there in the Harry Potter texts that Hermione’s the “brightest witch of her age.” There exists no problem too big or small for Hermione to tackle, except maybe her worst fear—expulsion. (And that one time with the troll, but she was young and the boys had thrown her off her game.) What we’re saying is, if Hermione, Minerva McGonagall, and Molly Weasley had been calling the shots the whole time, we could’ve dispensed with Voldemort, saved Hogwarts, and efficiently completed all N.E.W.T. and O.W.L. testing in four books instead of seven. Oh, and by the way, it’s Levi-oh-sa, not Levios-ah.
Roald Dahl’s witches are great because they’re so practical. Gone are the great black pointy hats and broomstick transport. Instead, they hide in plain sight, looking just like us (so be sure to check everyone you meet for a wig or lack of toes) and holding down respectable jobs. They’re also entrepreneurial, with a plan to turn all English children into mice via laced sweets dispensed by their candy conglomerate. Greed is good, even for the warty set.
There are no boys allowed in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, or as I like to call it, Divine Secrets of the Supernatural Sisterhood. Not that men can’t enjoy the plight of the sisters and their witchy aunts; it’s just that the ladies handle themselves fine without them—without living men, anyway. To quote Gillian and Sally Owens as they observe the desperate women beseeching their aunts’ help in romantic matters: “Yuck.”
The Good Witches of Oz
L. Frank Baum: teaching directions, one witch at a time. While they’re easterly and westerly counterparts were pure evil, the good witches of the North and South are delightful helpers. It’s the Good Witch of the North that bestows a mark of protection on Dorothy, defeater of bad witches, erstwhile savior of Munchkinkind, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And it’s Glinda, Good Witch of the South, who informs the silly girl she could’ve been hitting the road home all along with three knocks of her heels. There’s no place like home, but Aunt Em’s got nothing on these witches.
Though John Updike’s novel is heavier and darker than its film adaptation, it’s hard to get the image of Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher as the three eponymous Rhode Island vixens out of your head. It’s fun-ish Updike. Plus Cher!
Witch of the Waste
Look, I know Frankenstein-ing a man out of body parts from the unwilling dead might be seen as bad-witch behavior. But, come on, who hasn’t been there? And a witch so feared as the Witch of the Waste is in Howl’s Moving Castle deserves some grudging respect. After all, it’s a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a psychotic, spurned witch.
As Homer renders it in The Odyssey, Circe’s got a pretty sweet setup. Beautiful mansion, nice location, buffets aplenty, bewitched animal friends…oh, and the ability to turn men into pigs. She gets a bad rap for that, as well as her penchant for taking that which isn’t hers when she gets you into bed. But set some boundaries with Circe and she can be downright helpful, unless you think your GPS can find a route to the Underworld all by itself.
The Three Witches
As he had a habit of doing, Shakespeare set the standard for literary hocus-pocus with the Three Witches who drove poor, pitiful Macbeth to distraction and doom. It just doesn’t get any better than coming home to your cozy cave, a brewing cauldron, and the incantation that’s music to your ears:
Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and caldron bubble
Just ask the Olsen twins.
Agnes Nutter, Witch
Nostradamus was a hack. Bow down to Agnes Nutter, whose Nice and Accurate Prophecies set the stage for Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s ultimate tag-team effort, Good Omens. Not only is she always right, this 17th-century witch is also sassy as all get-out. At her own burning at the stake, she scolds the mob for being 10 minutes late and then blows them all sky high with the 80 pounds of gunpowder and 40 pounds of roofing nails she’d packed inside her dress for the occasion. For revenge is a dish best served molten.
Who’s your favorite fictional witch?