Magic is obviously a staple of all fantasy, but the role of the witch in contemporary fantasy has a layer of mythic meaning over and above magic itself. The witch is set apart from society, living in secret, misunderstood, often persecuted. In a lot of fantasy stories set in today’s world, the witch is the guardian of nature’s purity and health. Witches stand in conflict with a rampaging industrial society that has little regard for ecological sustainability and that values profit above all.
Witches are ancient. They follow a magical, spiritual, and religious tradition deriving from before the dawn of civilization and are in possession of a truth denied to and scorned by mainstream religions. Where those religions have held temporal power, witches have been accused of demonic magic and those convicted of the practice have been condemned to death.
Of course, those killed by the ignorant are seldom real witches.
The witch, then, isn’t just another name for the magic-user, but something more specific: the powerful, wise, and insightful outsider, the reminder of our natural roots, the cautionary voice that threatens nature’s wrath at our disregard and hubris.
Fantasy Witches and Real Witches
There are, of course, real witches in the real world, and they bear some resemblance to the contemporary-fantasy witch, mostly because they are themselves tapping into the same myths as shapers of their own life-paths. Witches in real life are followers of a loose-knit nature religion, a branch of Neopaganism, characterized by devotion to nature, the practice of magic, and related progressive values such as feminism and environmentalism. Witches typically meet in small groups or practice their craft alone, rather than gathering in large congregations. They are typically individualistic, a bit geeky, rebels against the cultural norms of the past, and possessed of a dim view of the big traditional religions. Their existence makes the witch the contemporary fantasy trope most closely grounded in reality. (There are, as far as I know, no real vampires or werewolves.)
The fantasy witch begins with the real witch as a template, but of course departs from it in a number of ways. The most obvious departure is to amplify the real witch’s ability as a magic user, giving fantasy witches delicious powers that are beyond the scope of most real-world humans. In addition to that, fantasy witches are sometimes not quite human. Perhaps they are rare family lines bearing the genes for magical power and connection to the Earth, passed from mother to child (or sometimes also father to child) down the generations. Perhaps they constitute a separate species that look human, but aren’t.
These are just window-dressing, though. In essence, the fantasy witch is the real witch on booster drugs.
The Role of the Witch
The witch in a fantasy story may be the main protagonist or a side character. As a main protagonist, the witch presents us with a set of witchy issues as well as the usual array of personal issues that are available to any main characters. The common issues are things like relationships, jobs, family, friends, and danger from fantasy creatures out to slaughter them — the usual. In that respect, the witch is just like any other fantasy character with remarkable but limited powers asked to solve problems that look impossibly daunting and survive dangers that seem to promise certain death.
In addition to all that, the witch has spiritual issues and obligations that can weave into the story. She (note: the witch need not be female, but archetypically is) has a job to do, dictated by her role in life, and that is to safeguard the natural order of things. She is the preserver of life and health against the threats of — whatever threatens them, which in the modern world mainly consists of rampaging, out of control industry. She’s an environmental extremist with magical powers: watch your backs, Koch brothers! In addition, she’s the defender of women against slope-browed patriarchy.
One common theme for a witch in a young adult story is her reluctant or troubled coming of age. A young witch may be ignorant of her heritage and powers, or reluctant to believe in them, or determined to fit in and be like everyone else, when in reality she is anything but that. She may have to go through a passage in which events force her to take up her role against her preference. On the flip side, she may be a little too enamored of magical power, arrogant and impulsive. The story or a side plot may involve the consequences of her attitudes and the need to gain maturity and humility.
Witches also make good supporting characters, offering wise counsel to protagonists and helping them against magical dangers or offering the assistance of powerful spells.
Either as main character or as supporting character, the witch always rides the same mythic current. She is a reminder of our role as part of nature, calling us to humility in the face of our own power. She tells us, as often as necessary, that the power we carry is offered in trust by the cosmos, and is ultimately in service to something greater than ourselves — and abuse of it carries grave consequences.
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