By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #42 – The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Are witches evil old women, or can they actually change the world? Alix E. Harrow tries to answer this question in her novel The Once and Future Witches.

Witches. They’re often seen as ugly old women with hooked noses, black clothes, pointy hats, and flying broomsticks. Witches are evil and want to kill innocent people. At night, they set out and pick mushrooms and other foul ingredients which they need for their potions. Alix E. Harrow’s latest novel, The Once and Future Witches, shows that this stereotype isn’t true; witches are women who use their knowledge and wisdom to help out those in need, and are punished for it by the ignorant ones. And in this novel, they’re fed up with being regarded as inferior beings. Want to know how they try to change their story? Read on!

The Once and Future Witches is about three wayward sisters, Bella, Agnes, and June, whose different paths in life reconverge after spending seven years apart. They meet in New Salem, 1893. They’re all very different, but they have one thing in common: witching. Using the suffragists’ cause for women’s rights as a disguise, they actually want to unite all the witches in the world, and show men they deserve equality.  

Last Tuesday was International Women’s Day. Ever since the rise the female suffrage movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women have been celebrated on this day. When I started reading The Once and Future Witches, I loved the parallel between suffragettes and witches, since both groups were marginalised, ridiculed, considered inferior, and feared… by men. I therefore read Harrow’s novel as a celebration of female empowerment.

What’s most important in The Once and Future Witches is the notion that once they fight for a common cause, women cannot be stopped. The town of New Salem is ruled by men, and their one goal is to eradicate all forms of witchcraft. That’s when its female inhabitants establish underground societies, where they can keep an eye out for each other, spy on their male enemies, print leaflets for the suffrage movement, and share their secret knowledge on witchcraft.

The three sisters, Bella, Agnes and June arrive in New Salem thinking that there’s only one brand of magic. However, they soon realise that each woman, each family, each community has their own words and ways and their own spells – and the reason they didn’t know was simply that they had never been written down. The sisters, aided by the help of three mythical women who, long ago, founded a magical library, decide to collect these unique forms of magic, and share them with all women.

In The Once and Future Witches, the three sisters manage to band together all those women who are treated as inferior, including women of colour, so-called “unnatural women” (LGBTQI people), and prostitutes. It is a powerful statement, since even in our own modern society there is no such thing as a true union between all women. I’m afraid that’s because our own world is so much more complex than the one created by Alix E. Harrow. The notion of the suffrage movement is dropped quite early on in the novel, because it turns out that in New Salem the three sisters’ true nemesis is a powerful male witch, instead of a political system. And the one way to destroy this man is by sharing stories about strong women, for it reminds the female inhabitants of New Salem that they’re not powerless.  

Stories lie at the heart of The Once and Future Witches. Scattered throughout the novel, like the breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel, are fairy tales that seem to be like the ones we know, but aren’t really; they, or their authors, have been feminised. For instance, there’s Aunt Nancy the spider, based on the African folk tales about Anansi; or the Sisters Grimm; or Alexandra Pope who translated the Greek Myths, such as the one about the Crone who fooled a Cyclops by pretending her name was Nobody; or Charlotte Perrault, the famous fairy tale author. Not to mention the title of the novel, which was based on T. H. White’s King Arthur retelling The Once and Future King.

While making these references female is a clever device to increase the female influence on world literature, it somehow felt wrong to me. It made me feel like Harrow couldn’t find any actual women (there’s plenty of them; the very word fairy tale, or actually the French term contes de fées, was coined by a woman!), and therefore simply pretended the stories we all know were written by women, about women, for women. However, simplifying things never work when you want to change them, especially when it comes to women’s rights.

In conclusion, The Once and Future Witches shows we need more fairy tales about strong, powerful, magical, irresistible women. However, Alix E. Harrow shouldn’t have altered the already existing stories; she should have written completely new ones instead. We women don’t want to rewrite the past, but instead, we want to be reminded of the fact that we can change the future.

What did you think of The Once and Future Witches? What is your favourite feminist novel? Do you think there is such a thing as magic? Will all women truly be united? Will there ever be real equality between men and women? Why do you think we need an International Women’s Day? As you can see, this novel raises many important issues. Please share your opinions in the comments. Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

It’s no coincidence I picked purple and white crocuses; together with the green grass they form the traditional colours of the Suffragette Movement.

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