Sunday, October 26, 2014

Witches & Wizards

I decided to cover the two together, because I don't think you can really mention one without the other. They just seem to go together. While most urban fantasy has a magic user of some description in it, witches and wizards do seem to be surprisingly under represented as central characters, but I'll get to that later.

Like ghosts witches and wizards have existed in fiction for as long as people have been telling stories, and they also share other things in common with ghosts, in that many believe witches and wizards are real, even now all over the world.

There were a number of other words used to describe ghosts and that holds true for witches and wizards: enchanter, sorcerer, magician, conjuror, druid, spell caster, mage, warlock, shaman, the list is almost endless and new terms seem to crop and be rediscovered or come into popular use on a regular basis.

While people have always told stories about witches and wizards they're not as well represented as one might think. There's probably a two fold reason for this. One is that due to the belief in witches and wizards and their powers people may have been a bit concerned that to speak against them, or even about them, may draw undue attention and have them cursed or enchanted. The other is that for a long time, particularly in Europe during the middle ages, and even into the Renaissance, being suspected of practicing witchcraft was an offence punishable by death. Writing or speaking about it could see someone hauled in by the Inquisition for torture and possibly a fairly unpleasant death (burning seems to have been a rather popular option). This also spread to the Americas and the Witchfinders were every bit as dedicated as their European counterparts when it came to ferreting out suspected practitioners of witchcraft.

It's also rather interesting to look at the portrayal of witches as opposed to wizards. Witches were almost always the villain of the piece and they were quite often drawn as unattractive old crones, who ate children and had sinister black cats as familiars, they also flew around on broomsticks and had a penchant for black clothing. Wizards on the other hand were kindly old chaps with long white beards, robes of varying colours, they carried staffs and were often mentors of young square jawed heroes.

Even in Arthurian legend Merlin comes out of it rather well and his nemesis is an evil witch called Morgana Le Fay.

Witches often popped up in Grimm's fairytales and other European folktales. They were generally villains in those too. They lived away from society deep in the woods and shunned human contact, unless it was to take over a kingdom or eat lost children.

It was probably Shakespeare who first started the idea of witches as scarred, unattractive crones crouched over a steaming cauldron and tossing in such delicacies as eye of newt into their potions, with his trio in Macbeth. Other writers took their cue from the bard and continued to work on his prototype. They often appeared in covens of three, too. Terry Pratchett lampooned it all very successfully with his Witches books in his long running Discworld comic fantasy series. Characters like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg subverted that trope wonderfully well.

L. Frank Baum attempted to put a different spin on witches in his Oz books. Yes, the Wicked Witch of the West was green skinned and rather crone like, but Glinda the Good Witch was young and blonde and beautiful (she rather reminded me of the Blue Fairy in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio) and Ozma was younger again (I really like Bill Willingham's Ozma in Fables as a girl in her early teens, but wiser than her looks would lead one to believe).

However Walt Disney went back to the evil witch trope in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White's evil stepmother Grimhilde looked young and vital, but that was an illusion and she was black hearted, attempting to kill her stepdaughter, so that she could have the throne, the kingdom and be the fairest of them all into the bargain.

Hollywood didn't really seem to take to the witch, I'm not sure why and it was our old friend Thorne Smith who dragged the concept kicking and screaming away from what had been done for centuries. Smith's final book: The Passionate Witch (it was unfinished at the time of his death, completed by Norman H. Matson and published posthumously. Matson also put out a sequel Bats in the Belfry) was about a more modern type witch. It was later filmed as I Married a Witch, which along with the film Bell, Book and Candle formed the basis for the 1960's TV series Bewitched.

In terms of cartoons and comics witches were good business. Following the success of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Harvey Comics created Wendy the Good Little Witch. She was a pretty little blonde girl who wore a red cloak and hat, she also flew around on a broomstick, but had been raised by three, green skinned, warty stereotypical witches, who despaired of her ever being bad.

For some reason Archie Comics produced a series in the 1960's about a teenage witch called Sabrina who lived near Riverdale in Greendale. She was the focus of the Groovie Goolies spin off cartoon. The character had her own comics, her own animated series, there was a live action movie made and later a successful long running TV sitcom, starring Melissa Joan Hart.

TV show Bewitched (1964 - 72) really showed that there was a market for witches out there, and it's star wasn't a warty old woman with green tinged skin, she didn't hang about around a smoking cauldron, chanting horrible things or drop lizard and amphibian parts into it, she looked and acted like a stylish and attractive young '60's suburban housewife and later mother. Even her mother Endora, although sort of the villain of the piece didn't conform to the standard view of witches, nor did her dotty great aunt Clara.

The show was very popular and probably paved the way for witch themed TV shows from that point on. It's doubtful that shows like Charmed would have been made if not for Bewitched, even Sabrina's live action show may never have happened. The show also prompted a similar themed show in I Dream of Jeannie which featured a pretty female genie.

Bewitched had a rather weird morality that can probably be attributed to the time it was made. I could probably do a blog post on that alone to be honest. They did keep trying to recreate the show's popularity.  Lisa Hartmann played Tabitha Stevens. the grown up daughter of Elizabeth Montgomery's Samantha Stevens in 1977, but the show never took off and had a very short run. The less said about the Nicole Kidman 2005 film remake the better. There's actually a proposal to make a new Bewitched at present, focussing on Tabitha's daughter Daphne, but it has not been picked up yet and it may never happen.

Pickings were pretty slim after Bewitched, Sabrina aside, and I never really took to that. The show seemed to revel in it's cheesiness and cheapness and Salem the talking cat annoyed me intensely.

There was a TV movie starring Linda Blair (I know, I know) called Stranger in Our House in 1978 that was rather chilling. I really liked the ending in which it is revealed that despite being seen in a car that went off a cliff and exploded the witch didn't die after all. It begged for a sequel, but this was never made.

The Witches of Eastwick starring Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer as the witches and Jack Nicholson as the Devil was based on John Updike's 1984 novel and was a big hit when it came out in 1987. It wasn't actually that bad a film, but it's success was due more to it's star quality than anything about the story or the film itself.

1996 movie The Craft dealt with teenage witches and was a sleeper hit and later cult favourite.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured witches right from the early days. The 3rd episode is called Witch and introduced a recurring character. The first season also introduced Jenny Calendar who originally called herself a techno pagan and was later revealed to be a member of the gypsy tribe that cursed vampire Angelus with a soul. Her tutelage and later tragic death prompted Willow to study witchcraft and become a powerful witch in her own right, as was her girlfriend for a few seasons Tara McClay. Although the two shows did cross over at times, Angel never really dealt with witchcraft as much as it's parent show.

I always found Charmed to be a poor reflection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with witches in place of slayers and demons instead of vampires. However the show about the witchly Halliwell sisters ran for 8 years and garnered quite a following.

Supernatural also has plenty of witches popping in and out, but they're not the focus of the show.

In 2012 CW had a short lived show called The Secret Circle that centred around a group of teens with supernatural powers, it was based on a series of successful teen novels of the same name by L. J Smith.

Witches interestingly enough don't really seem to be a hit in urban fantasy. Anita Blake has magical ability, but she's a reanimator, not a witch as such. The best example I can think of was Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde series. Diana's a wiccan, who describes herself as a practicing witch. It was unfortunate that at the time Lackey wrote the books they didn't really take off commercially, because now they'd be a huge hit, and the author doesn't seem to have a great interest in writing about the character anymore.

Now while the witch was making a name for herself and changing her look the wizard went his not so humble way as well.

Merlin was always popular, and had plenty of imitators. Largely every wizard in books since Le Morte de Arthur seemed to be physically based on Arthur's court wizard. Even Gandalf shared more than a bit in common with Merlin.

Whereas witches were often evil, wizards generally weren't. There were evil wizards, Saruman and Sauron spring to mind, but they were usually balanced out by someone like Gandalf. Witches weren't often extended that courtesy. There were plenty of imitators once Lord of the Rings became big business. Terry Brooks' Allanon from his Shannara series, David and Leigh Eddings' Belgarath (although he did have a daughter Polgara who was equally as powerful and popular as he was, they both got origin books), Raymond Feist's Pug from his Midkemia books and it could even be argued that Joe Abercrombie's scheming, manipulative Bayaz is a subversion of the wizardly trope, but they're all from epic fantasy.

Next to Merlin and Gandalf it could be argued that the most famous of wizards is a kid with spectacles by the name of Harry Potter. He and his alma mater Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry put young witches and wizards on the map and into the public consciousness in a big way, both through the books and the movies that were made from them. I tend to think that Harry probably owes more to his creation to Ursula Le Guin's Duny/Ged/Sparrowhawk than anything.

Before this Enid Blyton kept the fires burning in the imaginations of children. Both her witches and wizards were rather stereotypical and they were peripheral to the main stories, but they were an element and an important one that that.

Hollywood never really seemed to take to wizards prior to the live action version Lord of the Rings. I suppose they appeared in the occasional low budget sword and sorcery, but that seemed about it.

There was a 1970 - 71 British TV series called Catweazle about an inept  11th century wizard, who despite his rather dubious talents as a wizard manages to transport himself from his cave in the 11th century to the modern day and winds up living on a farm and being assisted in this strange new world by a young boy called Carrot. Most of the humour in the series came from Carrot's attempts to hide his friend from his father and coming to grips with modern technology (he refers to a telephone as a 'telling bone' and thinks it's magical). There were also novelisations of the episodes and seasons of the show.

Wizards didn't really get TV shows of their own. I guess they just weren't as entertaining pre Harry Potter as witches. There was an American sitcom called Mr. Merlin, that ran for one season. It had the famous wizard as a kindly, but mysterious garage owner who has to guide teenager Zac through life because he pulled Excalibur disguised as a crowbar out of a bucket of cement. It was rather predictable and never really worked, though. Only mildly amusing, occasionally and only if you had nothing else to watch.

1998 saw a TV mini series called Merlin, starring Sam Neill as a younger version of the legendary wizard and showing how he came to his power.

When it came to wizards on TV they just never seemed to get past Merlin. 2008 saw Merlin premiere on BBC One. The show was also nicknamed Camelot 90210, because of it's pretty and youthful cast. I found it rather hit and miss. It was hard to buy the premise that Merlin started off as a kitchen hand in Camelot and became a young Arthur's squire (he was actually slightly younger than Arthur), and it was often quite ridiculous. It also required a major suspension of belief in that Merlin could hide his magic from Arthur for as long as he did, without Arthur, dim as he was, not working it out. It seemed to be a running gag that Merlin was an awful liar, but no matter how feeble his stories were, Arthur never worked them out until the final season. The company that made the show have never been able to repeat the success with other legends, despite trying with Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts (Atlantis).

Similar to witches, while there are plenty of male magic workers in urban fantasy there aren't many that are main characters, although it's starting to come around. Of course Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden is the most prominent. Harry Copperfield Blackstone Dresden actually advertises himself as a Wizard for Hire, and he's the star of a highly successful series of books and a short lived, but underrated TV show also called The Dresden Files, which was axed far too soon.

Benedict Jacka has a series about a character called Alex Verus, who is largely an English version of Harry. I read the first book, but found the main character intensely annoying, so didn't stick with it.

Kevin Hearne has a series about Atticus O'Sullivan, a 2,000 + year old Irish Druid, who consorts with gods and mythological creatures, that's quite a lot of fun, even if the best bit is Atticus' talking wolfhound Oberon.

Laura Resnick's Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, while being about the struggling actress Esther has as another major character, her friend Maximilian Zadok, a 350 year old Hungarian wizard. The first book in the series Disappearing Nightly, was about a stage disappearing trick that went horribly wrong and the third book Unsympathetic Magic dealt with voodoo.

Recommended reading and watching:

Various retellings of the Arthurian legend, best traditional version is T.H White's The Once and Future King. I personally recommend Parke Godwin's Firelord, but Merlin is hardly mentioned in that one.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
The Oz books by L. Frank Baum.
The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien
The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien.
The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin.
The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike.
The Diana Tregarde series by Mercedes Lackey.
Harry Potter books 1 - 7 by J.K Rowling.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.
The Esther Diamond series by Laura Resnick.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I Married a Witch (1942)
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Craft (1996)
Harry Potter (2001 - 2011)

TV Shows:
Bewitched (1964 - '72)
Catweazle (1970 - 71)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
The Dresden Files (2007)
Merlin (2008 - 2012)

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