My doctoral student Laura Luque is now giving the finishing touches to her excellent PhD dissertation on the positive representation of the witch as a figure of empowerment in contemporary YA fantasy literature. She has focused on Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Rin Chupeco and Kelley Armstrong, which is certainly enough, although as the lists in Goodreads show, the witch is present in the work of many more authors in these genres (see for instance this list).

            A matter that puzzles me after reading Laura’s work is whether a witch who uses her powers for good is actually a fairy. Laura tells me that whereas fairies are not seen as threatening figures by patriarchy and, hence, no woman has been burnt at the stake accused of being a fairy, witches oppose patriarchy with their powers. The women who were tortured and executed under suspicion of being witches died in horrific ways precisely because they were feared as a source of anti-patriarchal power. The witches that Second-Wave feminism rescued and YA fantasy authors celebrate in the 21st century are, thus, a vindication of the many real-life women who lost their lives to rampant patriarchal misogyny. Fair enough, but I still have doubts.

            Frank L. Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its popular film adaptation (1939, Victor Fleming) must be credited with the turn by which the good witch almost replaced the fairy. The Wicked Witch of the West, a character popularized by Margaret Hamilton’s performance in the film, in which she is famously characterized as a horrific, green-skinned hag, has been vindicated by Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) and its musical stage adaptation Wicked (2003), and other texts. Yet, few have paid equal attention to Glinda, whom Baum created as the Good Witch of the South but who was transformed into the composite character the Good Witch of the North in the film. Apparently in later novels Glinda was labelled a sorceress, rather than a witch, but the point is that Baum did not call her a fairy. In contrast, Billie Burke, the actor who played Glinda in the film, called her a “good fairy” rather than a “good witch” (in her 1959 memoir With Powder on My Nose).

            In her marvellous article for The Atlantic, The Wizard of Oz Invented the ‘Good Witch’” Pam Grossman, who identifies as a witch, explains that Baum’s mother-in-law, American suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, may have inspired him with her feminist essay Woman, Church, and State (1893). Grossman clarifies that although Baum defines Glinda as “the most powerful of all the Witches”, she is a far more marginal character than in the film, in which she mainly sends Dorothy to find Oz after providing her with the magical ruby slippers. Interestingly, Glinda “doesn’t let the young heroine take the easy way out. At the end of the film, she explains that she chose not to tell Dorothy that the girl had the power to heel-click herself home from the get-go, so that Dorothy could ‘learn it for herself’”.

            I see actually very little difference between Glinda and the traditional fairy godmother, though we should ask the diverse contributors to the film script and the costume designer (Adrian Adolph Greenburg simply known as Adrian) of which figure they thinking when they characterized Glinda. Grossman insists, at any rate, that Glinda was the main inspiration for the turn that the witch took in popular American fiction; the new witch “must negotiate her relationship to the power she has—and whether her magic is seen as an asset or a threat is often a reflection of the sexual politics of her time”. Grossman concludes that in Harry Potter and TV series Sabrina, “21st-century witches get to keep their powers and use them to save the world” (original italics), though she forgets that Rowling pitted her good witch Hermione against the bad witch Bellatrix, a cruel torturer and murderer.

            Please note that King Arthur’s wicked sister is known as Morgan le Fay, that is, ‘the fairy’. It seems that “In old French romance, fee was a ‘woman skilled in magic’”, as Laura Kready informs in her 1916 volume A Study of Fairy Tales, and this is what Morgan is. Our conception of the fairy is essentially a legacy of the 19th century, but fairies had appeared thousands of years earlier in many folkloric traditions all over the world as magical beings of diverse sizes and varied personal dispositions, from the trickster to the caregiver. The Puritans, who were among the keenest persecutors of witches in the 17th century, appear to have demonized fairies as well, which makes perfect sense since the root of the persecution of witches is, as I have noted, misogyny and fairies were believed to be mostly female.

            I believe we need to blame fairy tales, precisely, for the softening of the female fairy into that bland figure who appears to welcome royal princesses whenever one is born. These fairies have little to do with the fairies of medieval romance, with Spencer’s Fairie Queene (1590) or with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It must not be forgotten besides that eleven years after Baum created Glinda, J.M. Barrie placed Tinker Bell, an example of the tiny fairy of English folklore, in Neverland, with his novel Peter and Wendy (1911), based on his famous play (1904).

            On the other hand, it is important to recall that whereas Glinda is a good witch, the figure of the evil fairy Maleficent, popularized by the Disney adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty” released in 1959, sinks her roots in Charles Perrault’s version of the fairy tale (1697), later also written down by the Brothers Grimm’s as “Little Briar Rose”. The origins of the tale are apparently to be found in the French-language anonymous prose chivalric romance Perceforest or Le Roman de Perceforest (c. 1340), though surely the idea that a magically endowed woman might turn evil has been around for centuries. The goddess Diana, for instance, used her divine might to turn peeping-Tom hunter Acteon into a stag to be eaten by his own dogs simply because he spied her bathing naked. I would insist that Morgan le Fay, a character perhaps of Welsh origin, first mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Vita Merlini (c. 1150) as a skilled healer, stands at the intersection between the fairy, the witch, the sorceress and the enchantress.

            As I have mentioned, I have my suspicions that what makes the fairy less attractive than the witch in its current feminist incarnation is the presentation of the former as a godmother. Apparently, Madame d’Alnoy and her circle of précieuses (or blue-stocking aristocratic ladies), and Perrault are responsible for presenting fairies as protectors and mentors in tales such as “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”, instead of individuals with their own cares. Jane Yolen claims in Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie, and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (1981) that although the story of the ‘Ash-girl’ had circulated for centuries between Asia and Europe, Perrault added the fairy godmother (p. 24), perhaps thinking of real-life French godmothers. In his and the Grimm Brothers’ versions the fairy godmothers appear in groups, but we are used to seeing two or three at the most welcoming princess Aurora and just one helping Cinderella, just as Glinda helps Dorothy. The problem with the godmother, whether fairy or witch, is precisely that she is a sort of parent, and both for the First and Second-Wave feminists that got interested in the witch, this must have seemed uncool, too close to the traditional feminine role of the selfless caregiver present in the Victorian doctrine of the separate spheres.

            In fact fairies and witches were basically similar types of misogynistic fantasies associated with the fear of powerful women capable of using magic until the publication of monstrosities such as the work by the German Dominican monks Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum (1487) gave inquisitors a formidable tool to focus on the witch. It must be noted that the Inquisition had been originally founded in 1184, in Languedoc, to fight the Albigensian heresy and only in 1484 did Pope Innocent VIII officially decree that the Catholic Church believed in the existence of witches (in the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus). Joan of Arc, let’s recall, had been burnt at the stake decades before, in 1431, as a heretic, not as a witch. In short, the method used to fight heresy was applied to fighting witches, the difference being that while heretics did exist, no woman ever had the magical powers attributed to witches. Interestingly, the first question Kramer and Spengler ask in their volume is “Whether the Belief that there are such Beings as Witches is so Essential a Part of the Catholic Faith that Obstinacy to maintain the Opposite Opinion manifestly savours of Heresy”.

            I’ll end with an article which I have come across as I was about to close this post: “The Mingling of Fairy and Witch Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Scotland” by Canon J. A. MacCulloch (Folklore 32.4, 31 December 1921, 227-244). MacCulloch explains that “Widely separate in origin and personality as fairies and witches may be, nevertheless the beliefs regarding both are often altogether or nearly the same (…)” (228). In Scotland, where there had been no witch trials before the Reformation introduced them, women accused of witchcraft were said to draw their powers from the fairies, for “the theological view (…) was quite clear and straightforward, and both fairies and the mediaeval and post-Reformation witches were regarded as of Satan’s train” (231). Please, note that Macbeth Weird Sisters, ultimately derived from the Greek Moira or Fates (from which Latin ‘fatum’, the root for ‘fairy’ comes), act as sinister fairy godmothers, not so different from Maleficent. MacCulloch argues that before the Enlightenment both the accused and the accuser were trapped by their serious difficulties to move beyond superstition into the realm of rationality, which explains why so many women died believing they were indeed witches. As for the fairies, if no woman was accused of being one, this is because like Satan they were believed to be spirits, not flesh-and-bones persons, though that could be a sort of historical accident. Instead of Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) the two Dominican sadists could have perhaps written Malleus Fatorum (Hammer of the Fairies in my macaronic Latin version); I’m sorry to say that the vocabulary would have been different but the result quite the same.

            Here ends my vindication of the fairy as a powerful female figure, akin to the witch, supposing they are not exactly the same. Food for further thought…