When you’re raising a daughter what you find is that the majority of children’s stories are sexist. Except the ones about witches.
I don’t think the authors of witch stories (always women) deliberately go about deciding to create a witch. What I think happens is, the author wants to write about adventures, and a feisty woman.. but when she puts her pencil to paper the female character looks out of place, because the objectification of her simply isn’t compatible with a rip-roaring good time. So the writer’s thoughts then wander a little, and she ends up realising that the solution is to make the main character a witch.
Witches always live alone, sometimes in a massive house like Winnie, sometimes in a cottage like Sali Mali, but always alone, never with a man in the background. This is excellent tension building before you even begin because as soon as you open the first page you get a sense of “while the cat’s away the mice will play..” Women are always policed by the men in their lives, usually the one who lives with them, or their bosses, fathers, neighbours whoever, but a cartoon witch owns property. And she always takes advantage of it.
They’re not lonely though. Even though they’re physically alone their rich inner life always keeps their minds occupied. In fact, it’s worth metnioning that you can feel more lonely when you’re with a man than when you’re physically alone… The women all have familiars, of course, usually a cat and some sort of bird (owl or crow) to act as non-judgemental advisors and friends.
To my daughter all of this makes perfect sense. After seeing that Mog sleeps with Meg, and Wilbur sleeps next to Winnie she’s asked me if our cat could sleep with her.
They also each have a cauldron, and we get the feeling they use it for cooking hearty stews with their friends, when they’re not making spells. In fact the cauldron, to me, symbolizes women’s traditional relationship with food, and it reminds me that the women who were hunted down as witches in the past were definitely sweet unfastidious women who frequently had a large cooking pot on the boil to make sure there was some left over for visitors, family and friends.
And what I love the most is how erratic the lives of the storybook witches are. When women are left to their own devices time takes on a different meaning. In Winnie’s Midnight Dragon, she is woken up in the middle of the night by lost baby dragon and doesn’t manage to get to sleep until daybreak. “Methu Cysgu” (seen above) is a tale about when Sali Mali can’t get to sleep (lots of her animal friends can’t sleep either so she invites them into her bedroom to sleep with her.) We don’t learn why she can’t sleep. But we do get to understand that sometimes humans can’t sleep, and that this is completely normal. I compare it to the gazillion droning storybooks out there illustrating some dull character who always goes to bed on time (not that I’m against bedtimes, by the way. Mothers each have their preferred way of getting things done. It’s the dogma that I’m against, the idea that there’s a “right” way of doing things)
Men are so very orderly aren’t they, which makes it extra cruel that they expect women to do all the ordering, all the cleaning and making everything just so. Women aren’t very good at this sort of stuff, really. Winnie’s mess is absolutely wonderful. She can never find anything, she’s always losing her her wand. When she wants to go to a party she realises she’s got red jelly on her party dress, and has to wash it quickly, but accidentally washes her wand which leads to all sorts of mis-haps.
Which brings me to parties. Witches in stories are always off to parties. Meg wakes up at 3am to fly off to the spell party on a hill where she meets her mates, Bess, Jess, Tess and Cress. Winne is actually going to be performing herself on stage at the party she’s going to, and she’s a bit nervous about it.
Put bluntly, these women have got lives.
Sali Mali is a welsh series that I grew up with. Sali is not actually a witch, but she lives as a witch, if that makes sense. She lives alone and has got crow who sleeps next to her in bed. She’s supremely self-sufficient. When she decides on her birthday to bake a cake for herself, she’s surprised to find she has no ingredients… but what has actually happened is that her animal friends have nabbed them to bake a cake for her. No martyrs in sight, just lots of friends who appreciate her worth.
I find myself ripping out the last page of fairy stories, you know, the bit where the prince and princess walk off into the sunset. But already my daughter is telling me she wants to live alone when she’s older. She’s five. I regard this as progress.