Halloween postcard from the 1920s
mething wicked this way comes.” This line, stated by the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is possibly the most famous quote by witches. Followed not too far behind by both “I’ll get you, my pretty…and your little dog too!” and “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself,” from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film. The three quotes form an interesting dual view of witches. They’re thought to be either powerful spellcasters, dangerous and capricious, and or they’re good but don’t use those same powers to solve our problems for us.
Witchcraft throughout fantasy has leveraged both of these views. Evil witches are often shown to be cagey and powerful. Take the Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus. They have the combined spellcasting ability to take over the minds of everyone in town. The spell, like many witchcraft spells in fantasy, requires a specific time to be cast, but the power comes from them. Likewise, both the Wicked Witch of the East and the West directly control large pieces of the kingdoms in Oz through their magic.
Even when they aren’t wholly evil, witches who angle to the darker side of morals are shown to be fairly powerful. Endora, Samantha’s mother in the television show Bewitched, would often cast spells on Darrin. These spells seemed to take little power and Samantha would have trouble dispelling them.
On the other hand, good witches have tended to be shown as less powerful. This is especially true if the fantasy world includes wizard spellcasters. Moria, a hedgewitch from Wizard’s Bane (Rick Cook, Baen), is thought by the local wizard to be beneath them since she cannot cast spells in the same way they do. However, she is a powerful healer and can use the herbs around her much better than the wizards can.
One advantage witches are shown to have over more conventional spellcasting wizards is the coven. Witches in fantasy can gather together and combine their powers. This allows them to cast extremely potent and powerful spells beyond the capabilities of other spellcasters. They also are shown to be very familiar with herbology and healing. Good witches in fiction often lean into this part of their power since it allows them to concoct useful potions and poultices for the commoners.
Unfortunately, while wizards are often viewed as important advisors and powerful allies, witches are viewed more often as outcasts and villains. This may be simply the general sexism shown towards spellcasters in myth, legend, and early fantasy, but that is a discussion for other sites and blogs.
Overall, as the spooky season comes to an end and we enter into the time of winter elves, animated snowmen, and magical cornucopias filled with never-ending food, let’s celebrate the wonderful and amazing witches of fantasy one more time.
THE THEFT OF THE MAGIC CLOAK
When the soldiers of Queen Zixi ran away, they fled in so many different directions that the bewildered queen could not keep track of them. Her horse, taking fright, dashed up the mountain-side and tossed Zixi into a lilac-bush, after which he ran off and left her.
One would think such a chain of misfortunes could not fail to daunt the bravest. But Zixi had lived too many years to allow such trifles as defeat and flight to ruin her nerves; so she calmly disentangled herself from the lilac-bush and looked around to see where she was.
It was very quiet and peaceful on this part of the mountain-side. Her glittering army had disappeared to the last man.
In the far distance she could see the spires and turreted palaces of the city of Nole, and behind her was a thick grove of lilac-trees bearing flowers in full bloom.
This lilac-grove gave Zixi an idea. She pushed aside some of the branches and entered the cool, shadowy avenues between the trees.
The air was heavy with the scent of the violet flowers, and tiny humming-birds were darting here and there to thrust their long bills into the blossoms and draw out the honey for food. Butterflies there were, too, and a few chipmunks perched high among the branches. But Zixi walked on through the trees in deep thought, and presently she had laid new plans.
For since the magic cloak was so hard to get she wanted it more than ever.
By and by she gathered some bits of the lilac-bark, and dug some roots from the ground. Next she caught six spotted butterflies, from the wings of which she brushed off all the round, purple spots. Then she wandered on until she came upon a little spring of water bubbling from the ground, and filling a cup-shaped leaf of the tatti-plant from the spring, she mixed her bark and roots and butterfly spots in the liquid and boiled it carefully over a fire of twigs; for tatti-leaves will not burn so long as there is water inside them.
When her magical compound was ready, Zixi muttered an incantation and drank it in a single draught.
A few moments later the witch-queen had disappeared, and in her place stood the likeness of a pretty young girl dressed in a simple white gown with pink ribbons at the shoulders and a pink sash around her waist. Her light-brown hair was gathered into two long braids that hung down her back, and she had two big blue eyes that looked very innocent and sweet. Besides these changes, both the nose and the mouth of the girl differed in shape from those of Zixi; so that no one would have seen the slightest resemblance between the two people, or between Miss Trust and the girl who stood in the lilac-grove.
The transformed witch-queen gave a sweet, rippling laugh, and glanced at her reflection in the still waters of the spring. And then the girlish face frowned, for the image glaring up at her was that of a wrinkled, toothless old hag.
“I really must have that cloak,” sighed the girl; and then she turned and walked out of the lilac-grove and down the mountain-side toward the city of Nole.
The Princess Fluff was playing tennis with her maids in a courtyard of the royal palace, when Jikki came to say that a girl wished to speak with her Highness.
“Send her here,” said Fluff.
So the witch-queen came to her, in the guise of the fair young girl; and bowing in a humble manner before the princess, she said: “Please, your Highness, may I be one of your maids?”
“Why, I have eight already!” answered Fluff, laughing.
“But my father and mother are both dead; and I have come all the way from my castle to beg you to let me wait upon you,” said the girl, looking at the little princess with a pleading expression in her blue eyes.
“Who are you?” asked Fluff.
“I am daughter of the Lord Hurrydole, and my name is Adlena,” replied the girl, which was not altogether a falsehood, because one of her ancestors had borne the name Hurrydole, and Adlena was one of her own names.
“Then, Adlena,” said Fluff, brightly, “you shall certainly be one of my maids; for there is plenty of room in the palace, and the more girls I have around me the happier I shall be.”
So Queen Zixi, under the name of Adlena, became an inmate of the king’s palace; and it was not many days before she learned where the magic cloak was kept. For the princess gave her a key to a drawer and told her to get from it a blue silk scarf she wished to wear, and directly under the scarf lay the fairy garment.
Adlena would have seized it at that moment had she dared; but Fluff was in the same room, so she only said: “Please, princess, may I look at that pretty cloak?”
“Of course,” answered Fluff; “but handle it carefully, for it was given me by the fairies.”
So Adlena unfolded the cloak and looked at it very carefully, noting exactly the manner in which it was woven. Then she folded it again, arranged it in the drawer, and turned the key, which the princess immediately attached to a chain which she always wore around her neck.
That night, when the witch-queen was safely locked in her own room and could not be disturbed, she called about her a great many of those invisible imps that serve the most skilful witches, commanding them to weave for her a cloak in the exact likeness of the one given Princess Fluff by the fairies.
Of course the imps had never seen the magic cloak; but Zixi described it to them accurately, and before morning they had woven a garment so closely resembling the original that the imitation was likely to deceive any one.
Only one thing was missing, and that was the golden thread woven by Queen Lulea herself, and which gave the cloak its magic powers.
Of course the imps of Zixi could not get this golden thread, nor could they give any magical properties to the garment they had made at the witch’s command; but they managed to give the cloak all of the many brilliant colors of the original, and Zixi was quite satisfied.
The next day Adlena wore this cloak while she walked in the garden. Very soon Princess Fluff saw her and ran after the girl, crying indignantly: “See here! What do you mean by wearing my cloak? Take it off instantly!”
“It isn’t your cloak. It is one of my own,” replied the girl, calmly.
“Nonsense! There can’t be two such cloaks in the world,” retorted Fluff.
“But there are,” persisted Adlena. “How could I get the one in your drawer when the key is around your own neck?”
“I’m not sure I don’t know,” admitted the princess, beginning to be puzzled. “But come with me into my rooms. If my fairy cloak is indeed in the drawer, then I will believe you.”
So they went to the drawer, and of course found the magic cloak, as the cunning Zixi had planned. Fluff pulled it out and held the two up together to compare them; and they seemed to be exactly alike.
“I think yours is a little the longer,” said Adlena, and threw it over the shoulders of the princess. “No, I think mine is the longer,” she continued; and removing the magic cloak, put her own upon Fluff. They seemed to be about the same length, but Adlena kept putting first one and then the other upon the princess, until they were completely mixed, and the child could not have told one from the other.
“Which is mine?” she finally asked, in a startled voice.
“This, of course,” answered Adlena, folding up the imitation cloak which the imps had made, and putting it away in the drawer.
Fluff never suspected the trick, so Zixi carried away the magic cloak she had thus cleverly stolen; and she was so delighted with the success of her stratagem that she could have screamed aloud for pure joy.
As soon as she was alone and unobserved, the witch-queen slipped out of the palace, and, carrying the magic cloak in a bundle under her arm, ran down the streets of Nole and out through the gate in the wall and away toward the mountain where the lilac-grove lay.
“At last!” she kept saying to herself. “At last I shall see my own beautiful reflection in a mirror, instead of that horrid old hag!”
When she was safe in the grove she succeeded, by means of her witchcraft, in transforming the girl Adlena back into the beautiful woman known throughout the kingdom of Ix as Queen Zixi. And then she lost no time in throwing the magic cloak over her shoulders.
“I wish,” she cried in a loud voice, “that my reflection in every mirror will hereafter show the same face and form as that in which I appear to exist in the sight of all mortals!”
Then she threw off the cloak and ran to the crystal spring, saying: “Now, indeed, I shall at last see the lovely Queen Zixi!”
But as she bent over the spring, she gave a sudden shriek of disappointed rage; for glaring up at her from the glassy surface of the water was the same fearful hag she had always seen as the reflection of her likeness!
The magic cloak would grant no wish to a person who had stolen it.
Zixi, more wretched than she had ever been before in her life, threw herself down upon her face in the lilac-grove and wept for more than an hour, which is an exceedingly long time for tears to run from one’s eyes. And when she finally arose, two tiny brooks flowed from the spot and wound through the lilac-trees—one to the right and one to the left.
Then, leaving the magic cloak—to possess which she had struggled so hard and sinfully—lying unheeded upon the ground, the disappointed witch-queen walked slowly away, and finally reached the bank of the great river.
Here she found a rugged old alligator who lay upon the bank, weeping with such bitterness that the sight reminded Zixi of her own recent outburst of sorrow.
“Why do you weep, friend?” she asked, for her experience as a witch had long since taught her the language of the beasts and birds and reptiles.
“Because I cannot climb a tree,” answered the alligator.
“But why do you wish to climb a tree?” she questioned, surprised.
“Because I can’t,” returned the alligator, squeezing two more tears from his eyes.
“But that is very foolish!” exclaimed the witch-queen, scornfully.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the alligator. “It doesn’t strike me that it’s much more foolish than the fancies some other people have.”
“Perhaps not,” replied Zixi, more gently, and walked away in deep thought.
While she followed the river-bank, to find a ferry across, the dusk fell, and presently a gray owl came out of a hollow in a tall tree and sat upon a limb, wailing dismally.
Zixi stopped and looked at the bird.
“Why do you wail so loudly?” she asked.
“Because I cannot swim in the river like a fish,” answered the owl, and it screeched so sadly that it made the queen shiver.
“Why do you wish to swim?” she inquired.
“Because I can’t,” said the owl, and buried its head under its wing with a groan.
“But that is absurd!” cried Zixi, with impatience.
The owl had an ear out, and heard her. So it withdrew its head long enough to retort:
“I don’t think it’s any more absurd than the longings of some other folks.”
“Perhaps you are right,” said the queen, and hung her head as she walked on.
By and by she found a ferryman with a boat, and he agreed to row her across the river. In one end of the boat crouched a little girl, the ferryman’s daughter, and she sobbed continually, so that the sound of the child’s grief finally attracted Zixi’s attention.
“Why do you sob?” questioned the queen.
“Because I want to be a man,” replied the child, trying to stifle her sobs.
“Why do you want to be a man?” asked Zixi, curiously.
“Because I’m a little girl,” was the reply.
This made Zixi angry.
“You’re a little fool!” she exclaimed loudly.
“There are other fools in the world,” said the child, and renewed her sobs.
Zixi did not reply, but she thought to herself:
“We are all alike—the alligator, the owl, the girl, and the powerful Queen of Ix. We long for what we cannot have, yet desire it not so much because it would benefit us, as because it is beyond our reach. If I call the others fools, I must also call myself a fool for wishing to see the reflection of a beautiful girl in my mirror when I know it is impossible. So hereafter I shall strive to be contented with my lot.”
This was a wise resolution, and the witch-queen abided by it for many years. She was not very bad, this Zixi; for it must be admitted that few have the courage to acknowledge their faults and strive to correct them, as she did.
THE PLAIN ABOVE THE CLOUDS
I have already mentioned how high the mountains were between Noland and the land of Ix; but at the north of the city of Nole were mountains much higher—so high, indeed, that they seemed to pierce the clouds, and it was said the moon often stopped on the highest peak to rest. It was not one single slope up from the lowlands; but first there was a high mountain, with a level plain at the top; and then another high mountain, rising from the level and capped with a second plain; and then another mountain, and so on; which made them somewhat resemble a pair of stairs. So that the people of Nole, who looked upon the North Mountains with much pride, used to point them out as “The Giant’s Stairway,” forgetting that no giant was ever big enough to use such an immense flight of stairs.
Many people had climbed the first mountain, and upon the plain at its top flocks of sheep were fed; and two or three people boasted they had climbed the second steep; but beyond that the mountains were all unknown to the dwellers in the valley of Noland. As a matter of fact, no one lived upon them; they were inhabited only by a few small animals and an occasional vulture or eagle which nested in some rugged crag.
But at the top of all was an enormous plain that lay far above the clouds, and here the Roly-Rogues dwelt in great numbers.
I must describe these Roly-Rogues to you, for they were unlike any other people in all the world. Their bodies were as round as a ball—if you can imagine a ball fully four feet in thickness at the middle. And their muscles were as tough and elastic as india-rubber. They had heads and arms resembling our own, and very short legs; and all these they could withdraw into their ball-like bodies whenever they wished, very much as a turtle withdraws its legs and head into its shell.
The Roly-Rogues lived all by themselves in their country among the clouds, and there were thousands and thousands of them. They were quarrelsome by nature, but could seldom hurt one another; because, if they fought, they would withdraw their arms and legs and heads into their bodies, and roll themselves at one another with much fierceness. But when they collided they would bounce apart again, and little harm was done.
In spite of their savage dispositions the Roly-Rogues had as yet done no harm to any one but themselves, as they lived so high above the world that other people knew nothing of their existence. Nor did they themselves know, because of the clouds that floated between, of the valleys which lay below them.
But, as ill luck would have it, a few days after King Bud’s army had defeated the army of Ix, one of the Roly-Rogues, while fighting with another, rolled too near the edge of the plain whereon they dwelt, and bounded down the mountain-side that faced Noland. Wind had scattered the clouds, so his fellows immediately rolled themselves to the edge and watched the luckless Roly-Rogue fly down the mountain, bounce across the plain, and thence speed down the next mountain. By and by he became a dot to their eyes, and then a mere speck; but as the clouds had just rolled away for a few moments the Roly-Rogues could see, by straining their eyes, the city of Nole lying in the valley far below.
It seemed, from that distance, merely a toy city, but they knew it must be a big place to show so far away; and since they had no cities of their own, they became curious to visit the one they had just discovered.
The ruler of the Roly-Rogues, who was more quarrelsome than any of the rest, had a talk with his chief men about visiting the unknown city.
“We can roll down the mountain just as our brother did,” he argued.
“But how in the world could we ever get back again?” said one of the chiefs, sticking his head up to look with astonishment at the ruler.
“We don’t want to get back,” said the other, excitedly. “Some one has built many houses and palaces at the foot of the mountains, and we can live in those, if they are big enough and if there are enough of them.”
“Perhaps the people won’t let us,” suggested another chief, who was not in favor of the expedition.
“We will fight them and destroy them,” retorted the ruler, scowling at the chief as if he would make him ashamed of his cowardice.
“Then we must all go together,” said a third chief; “for, if only a few go, we may find ourselves many times outnumbered and at last be overcome.”
“Every Roly-Rogue in the country shall go!” declared the ruler, who brooked no opposition when once he had made up his mind to a thing.
On the plain grew a grove of big thorn-trees, bearing thorns as long and sharp as swords; so the ruler commanded each of his people to cut two of the thorns, one for each hand, with which to attack whatever foes they might meet when they reached the unknown valley.
Then, on a certain day, all the hundreds and thousands of Roly-Rogues that were in existence assembled upon the edge of their plain, and, at the word of their ruler, hurled themselves down the mountain with terrible cries and went bounding away toward the peaceful city of Nole.