When writing about witches and witchcraft, explaining too much may take away from the magic. Writer Fire Lyte discusses how to write about witchcraft.
The first witch I remember was Miss Eglantine Price, an apprentice witch and protagonist of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the film adaptation of multiple children’s novels by Mary Norton. Price lived a quiet, solitary life in rural England until fate intervened and she came to care for three orphaned children during World War II. At first the story seems to be a familiar tale of city dwelling youth adjusting to country life with an odd yet endearing older lady. But then the witchcraft happens.
The children find out Price has been taking correspondence courses to learn witchcraft in order to aid the war effort. What’s more, the courses seem to have worked well, because her magic really works. She can fly on a broom, animate clothing to dance around, and over the course of the film turns several people into rabbits. She’s a witch, but if you’re focusing on the witchcraft itself, you’re missing the magic of the story.
There is a scene towards the end of the film—after the apprentice witch has cast a spell over all the armor in a museum—where we see Miss Eglantine Price astride her broom wearing a helmet and raising a sword, a flag stuck in the bristles of the broom flapping behind her, leading the charge against a Nazi invasion. She’s glowing. Not literally. I don’t quite think the special effects department in 1971 could manage that. But, she has this broad smile on her face. It is that image that stayed with me, that had me searching for other witches in other stories. That might have had a big hand in me eventually seeking out witchcraft as a real practice. And, it is that image that taught me a key lesson when it comes to writing about witchcraft:
It is never about the magic. It is about the power.
Price’s reason for turning to the cauldron, as it were, was to aid in the war effort, to literally fight Nazis with witchcraft. She wanted to protect herself, her community, her country, and she used magic as the means to do that when nothing else was seemingly available to her. The turning people into rabbits or the teleporting of a bed to an island of anthropomorphic cartoon volleyball playing animals … those are fun, sure, but they are not why the story endures.
Tales of witches have fascinated humanity since we’ve been telling stories. Witches and practitioners of magic of all sorts are a bit unique in the literary fossil record, in that there isn’t really a point in our stories at which we can say “after this was witches.” They’ve always been there. They have been goddesses and tricksters and heralds of disaster. They have been healers and matchmakers and, yes, have done some pretty spectacular things with a wand. And a broom. And a cat. And … you get it.
In researching my book, The Dabbler’s Guide to Witchcraft, I found that many people who dabble in witchcraft and other forms of modern spirituality do so because they want a spiritual life that is inclusive of the kinds of conversations people are having in their daily lives. Issues of social and economic inequity, racism and transphobia, patriarchy, and political oppression. Too often people feel they must keep their feelings about these separated from their spiritual lives as they are faced with messages from within their religious institutions that are in contrast to the kind of person they want to be right now in 2021. Many people who end up dabbling in some form of real world magic often point to the witch in fiction and folktale as a sort of lighthouse drawing them closer to the shores of witchcraft. Not because of the spells and potions, but because the witch is typically portrayed as having eschewed societal norms and found power elsewhere that allows them to right wrongs and reach an equity they’ve previously been denied.
Because in the oldest stories, they’re neither villains nor heroes, but powerful, neutral figures whose gifts can provide aid but only when asked. The Witch of Endor was bothering no one when Saul sought her out to have a chat with the dead king Samuel. The Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid is basically an underwater businesswoman who provides a service in a fairly equitable barter arrangement. Circe, Morgan le Fay, Merlin, Gandalf—all magical, assuredly, but for the most part they are mysterious, supportive characters in someone else’s story.
In recent years witchcraft and magic have taken center stage and challenged authors to ask interesting, nuanced questions—oftentimes with the magic providing a character with the power to solve a wholly unmagical problem. Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis, for example, shows a teenage necromancer who can speak to, and later raise, the dead using witchcraft to try and lift herself out of extreme poverty, abuse, and neglect. The magic, while flashy, doesn’t solve all of the protagonist’s problems. In fact, it creates some of them, but the story remains a grounded character study with the real villains being societal and cultural issues to which many readers can relate. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and The Mermaid, The Witch, & The Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall also showcase very different versions of magic, but the magic exists to support the respective protagonist’s internal journey to understanding themselves, their identity, and how they fit in with their born or chosen families.
The thing about writing witchcraft into a story is that too often writers make the mistake of thinking they have to explain witchcraft, that the reader needs to hear every arbitrary rule and boundary and equation needed to perform effective magic. While some of that might help a plot—a key ingredient for an important elixir that is necessary for The Thing to Happen—it isn’t necessary for making an engaging witch. This explanation is often unnecessary, because witches are so ubiquitous that when it comes to telling stories about them, the reader is already primed to accept that they can do fantastic feats of magic. I’ve read more stories and seen more television shows and movies than I can count where the magic was certainly there in great spectacle, but afterwards I was left wondering why it was there and whether it added anything other than an excuse to show off what modern special effects are capable of achieving.
Lean in to social, cultural, and political issues, because that is where the witch has always lived. And if you’re feeling constrained by how magic has been portrayed until now—all rhyming couplets and wand waving and a truckload of candles that would make any Fire Marshall more than a bit nervous—feel free to reinterpret what magic might be or how it works. Rainbow Rowell does this with great success in the Simon Snow series by couching spells in nursery rhymes and colloquialisms. Though, don’t dwell on the mechanics on the page. Trust that the reader is smart enough to understand it and then put it in the background. Instead of spending time creating a new twist on witchcraft, search for how that witchcraft can weight the scales of power in your story.
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