Witchy Weekends: Frank Sinatra and the Question of Agency

Here’s a cute little song from days gone by. It’s kind of fun to listen to, if you have fond memories of the music of this era.

But there might be more to it.

The premise of the song is fairly straightforward, fairly simple: “You’re an alluring lady, so much so that my attraction to you goes beyond normal, and so there must be something supernatural going on here. But that’s cool, I can roll with that.”

The subtext is also pretty clear: “You’re an alluring lady, and I’m going to enjoy pretending I don’t need to take any responsibility for my actions because of how attracted I am to you.”

I can already hear some of you protesting that I’m making this nonsense up. That I’m ruining something sweet and nice.

Buckle up, buttercup.

You can’t denigrate witches as the ultimate evil predator in league with the devil — a Christian concept if ever there was one — and then also say how lovely and fun and exciting and marvelous and sexy witches are at the same time, unless you do some serious introspection on your particular fantasies and fetishes.

***

In my English classes we spend a lot of time talking about character agency, or (rather simply) the ability of a character to make decisions and enact choices that have consequences, which in turn have bearing on the plot. (You can read an excellent explanation of character agency in stories here on Chuck Wendig’s blog.)

This song suggests that part of the allure of the “witch” in the song is the usurping of the singer’s agency, “[stripping] [his] conscience bare,” and he’s totally on board. But why?

In the current miasma of what passes for public debate these days, some of the more socially conscious have been talking a lot about personal responsibility.

When I taught AP Gothic Lit., we spent an entire unit of study on the heritage of the Witch as a political figure and literary archetype. Fascinating stuff. For a very small taste of one part of this, check out this wonderful article on the archetype of the “sexy witch” in literature.

One thing that comes up again and again is that — in fairy tales, for example — witches are those characters who are agents of change. Sometimes for nefarious purposes, such as the crone living in a gingerbread hut in the forest or a wickedly vain queen. And sometimes their magics lead to positive outcomes: think fairy godmothers and Glenda the Good.

In the Burning Times, “witches” were more often than not women; and more often than not, defenseless other than through their own fierce and fearless agency; and more often than not, opinionated or otherwise empowered in a way that threatened the patriarchy (in whatever form that might have taken, be it political or religious or social). These days one might imagine a representation of the greatest perceived existential threat to the patriarchy might be depicted as a flash mob of women, having the time of their lives bellydancing in the streets, wearing pointy hats.

Others have written on this subject more eloquently and more coherently than I. Right now, so much of this subject is just swimming around in a maelstrom in my brain. ‘Tis the season and all.

Please, discuss. What do you think of all of this?

Witchy Weekends: Katherine Howe

This weekend let’s chat about some of the witchy work of Katherine Howe. Her debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, was so much fun to read. It contained a lot of the things I love to read about: smart characters, historical mystery, family drama, academic drama, a lush setting, a touch of romance, and an earnest belief in magic. What could be better, especially for this time of year?

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane came out in 2009, debuting at #2 on The New York Times Bestseller List.

Since then, Howe has gone on to write several more books to significant acclaim. (You should definitely check them out.) Her accomplished pedigree in academia — she holds degrees in philosophy, art history, and American and New England studies — shows in the subtle but unmistakable authority of her historical fiction.

And finally, at long last, a sequel to Howe’s debut is on our radar. The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs will hit the shelves in the summer of 2019. I can’t wait!

image borrowed from Katherine Howe’s social media

Witchy Weekends: The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

Welcome to October and the return of Witchy Weekends! I hope the weather in your part of the world is cooperating. It’s a little warm still here for my taste, but hopefully that will change in the not-too-distant future.

This weekend I’m highlighting a book series that I cannot believe I waited so long to read. Deborah HarknessAll Souls Trilogy consists of A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life. A fourth book, Time’s Convert, focuses on supporting characters from the original trilogy. It just came out last month, and I can’t wait to read it!

Harkness’ writing style is leisurely without being slow; you can tell she must have enjoyed crafting this story. Theme and detail and character development and plot are layered together in such a way that these books are both literary and commercially viable page-turners. They’re longish books but never really felt that way when I was devouring them with glee. I especially appreciated her increasing use of humor as the books progressed, and as the characters grew more comfortable in their intimacy and more human in their growth.

The primary protagonist is the witch Diana Bishop, a professor and historian, who encounters a mystifying, centuries-old alchemical manuscript and a mystifying, centuries-old vampire at the same time, while she’s on a research sabbatical at Oxford. If you have an interest in the paranormal, or in history, or in science — the vampire in question is a very accomplished geneticist — you will probably enjoy Harkness’ work. The three books also form one contiguous story (in the same way that The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King all form The Lord of the Rings). The books take us through different countries and different time periods without ever giving us whiplash. The intended audience for the subject matter of these books, I believe, is adults: even though she might be fascinated in the story, I’m not handing them off to my voraciously reading thirteen-year-old any time soon.

These are the kind of books I want to lose myself in not just as a reader, but in some fantastical existence, to be a character in them.

I can’t say enough good things about Harkness’ work, and I’m not alone: I just learned there’s an entire conference devoted just to the fandom of this series, and a TV series is being made of it, too. (It’s currently in production, yay!)

I hope you’ll give this immersive story a try — and give yourself some patience as it starts. The first book has a slow-burn kind of build, but once you’re in, you just might be gloriously consumed. You’re welcome.

Witchy Weekend: What Is A Witch, Anyway?

A practicer of magical arts.

Someone who buys into that really old time religion. A pagan.

Someone who knows her own damn mind.

A politically inconvenient troublemaker.

A heretic.

A caricature, a cautionary tale, a mockery.

Someone trying to make at least one little corner of the world a better place.

Someone who meditates.

Someone whose compass has five points.

Someone who is using the resources she has at hand to solve the problems that sometimes feel too big, but she is trying to do it anyway.

Someone who knows that what goes around, comes around, threefold.

Someone who wears a pointy hat, someone who has an intelligent cat, someone who soars to the moon and back.

 

 

Witchy Weekends: I Wish…

When I was a child watching the Saturday morning animated special movies for kids every weekend…

Okay, so you’re probably either groaning because you remember those or groaning because you’re conflating them with After-School Specials.

Seriously, though, sometimes those animated shows on the weekends were kind of cool. But the only one I really remember now was called maybe “My Teacher Is A Witch” or something similarly creative, and it was about a class of kids who got a new teacher one day whom they believed was a real witch. What tipped them off? The day she erased a really full blackboard full of chalk with a single swipe of her arm.

And I know it was just a cartoon and life doesn’t really work that way, but I cannot tell you how often, especially since becoming a teacher, I’ve wished that it did. I could really, really use that kind of speed and efficiency during the school year.

Especially this weekend, when I’m mired in grading and comments (two-paragraph narratives I write for the report card of every student in every one of my classes to discuss each student’s individual progress). But I don’t have that power, so this anecdote is about as substantive as my blog is going to get at the moment.

But here, to tide you over, have this lovely picture.

Witches #4

This morning I heard a really fascinating report on the place of women in folklore and fairy tales, and of course it revolved around the theme of the witch. I may write more on this subject later, when I’m not trying to be the superwoman of the to-do list, but for now, I want to share this brief article with you and know your thoughts on the matter.

Consider this the most benevolent and festive homework you’ll get this week. Please click on the link above, then read, and then discuss in the comments. I really do want to know what you think!

Witches #3

This weekend I’ve decided to share a song with you.

Do you remember a band called The JudyBats? They were from Tennessee, I believe, and popular in the 90s. I don’t know how big they ever were, but I loved them and even got to see them in concert when I was in college.

It was at an intimate concert venue in Houston called The Tower Theater, which later became a Blockbuster store, which later became something else, which later became a vacant space whose windows were used for ad posters, which is now I-don’t-know-what. I went to the concert with my friend Maggie, who was one of my closest friends our freshmen year at UH, and my little sister, who had probably just turned thirteen at the time. (She is now a rock star herself.) I saw quite a few great shows at that place, including Tori Amos (touring for Little Earthquakes) and Dream Theater (touring for Images and Words).

The JudyBats were touring for Pain Makes You Beautiful. The concert was fantastic, but partway through it, the music stopped abruptly and the band left the stage. Some jackass in the audience had maced the area, though at the time — and this is an important detail — I hadn’t actually realized why the concert had ended so quickly. And remember how I said the venue was intimate? It probably held 200 people when it was packed, maybe less. So we all had to clear out.

Remember how I implied it was the 90s? Guess who carried mace on her keychain? This girl. Every young woman and half the young men I knew did. I never used it, ever, not even to test it. But the theater manager came chasing me — and Maggie, and my little sister — into the parking lot anyway, nearly knocking me down as he swiped the keys from my hand, just when I was about to unlock my car door. I put him at about his mid-40s, but not the young-looking, health-conscious mid-40s that people are today. His long, scraggly blond curls blew back in the hot summer wind like he was some reject from a Robert Plant lookalike contest. His skin had seen better days. He had a half-ashed cigarette in one hand and a scotch-and-rocks in the other, and he had to put his ciggie back in his mouth while he fumbled drunkenly with my keychain, shouting and cursing at me the whole time.

“Did you do this?” he demanded. “You sprayed your mace in my concert hall!”

I denied having done it. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“We’ll just see if it’s your fault,” he insisted, jangling my keys and growling and sloshing and becoming absolutely beside himself with his inability to listen to us.

After some more foul-mouthed impugning of my person, he shoved the keys back at my hand. The mace canister was lodged partway out of its faux-leather sheath, the top mechanism askew, my keys wet with his scotch. He stumbled with self-righteous indignation back into his theater while I stared dumbly in shock.

“Hey, don’t be an asshole!” my friend Maggie shouted after him.

“What a dick,” my little sister said.

I looked down at my keychain. I was going to have to throw it away.

That was the last time I saw a concert there; with a manager like him, I’m not especially surprised the place closed down.

But The JudyBats? They were awesome. Here’s one of the songs from their album Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow. Enjoy.

Witches #2

Among the litany of ridonculous nonsense I had to put up with this week was a post about Shakespeare — specifically, about the ruination of Shakespeare by the (previously-by-me) respected Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival’s organizers are now commissioning translations of Shakespeare’s plays — that’s right, “translations” of plays written in an English that is, in the scope of the language, already rather modern — into contemporary diction.

This is harmful and stupid.

The organizers claim that audiences feel disconnected from Shakespeare’s language, that it’s too difficult to understand. The article I linked above makes the point, which I agree with, that usually the problem is that actors and directors don’t really understand the language well enough themselves to be putting it on their stage in the first place. I can’t even count the number of unfortunate productions I’ve sat through (at least until intermission) that were filled with people sawing the air with their hands and shouting dramatically at each other by the third scene, how many shows where the actors paused their sentences in the wrong place, not paying attention even to the punctuation in the script, much less to the depth of the meaning or the subtext.

This is similar to the problem I have with so many interpretations of Shakespeare which take his plays out of his time. Sometimes a director will set the play in a different time and place, but this only works when the themes and conflicts relevant to Shakespeare’s play are also actually relevant to the new time and place. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet had its flaws, but feuding families transported from Renaissance Italy to the gang-infested streets of 1990s Los Angeles county — that worked. Setting Twelfth Night in the 1980s — yes, the narcissism of Duke Orsino’s character writ large against a soundtrack that included David Bowie, Morissey, and New Wave, men and women in gender-ambiguous costumes and make-up — lovely.

But I once saw a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing set amongst the football players and cheerleaders of a college campus in the 1950s. Clever and interesting in some ways — and serious props go to the very young and ambitious person who wrote it, for certain — but that play is about a young woman’s virtue being a function of her virginity, and the disastrous break-up of her imminent marriage when her fiancé believed her to have been “not a maid.” How much of an issue was premarital sex among football players and cheerleaders in 1950s American colleges? Probably not a big enough deal for a girl to apparently die over it at the altar.

I get the argument, really I do. “Young audiences can’t relate to Shakespeare’s time so let’s set it in one they can recognize.” On the surface that might seem to get more people into the theater, but the result of this well-intentioned mountain coming to Mohammed is that those audiences might become less able, in the future, to understand and relate to Shakespeare as it truly is. As a high school English teacher, one who tries every year to help fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds appreciate the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s language and his historical context and the work’s inherent magic, I have to lament the decisions that take the Bard out of his moment. Sometimes, when not executed thoughtfully or well, these choices do my students a disservice and make my job harder.

Look, I’m not a complete snob. I know Shakespeare is challenging. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t still be reading and producing and watching it four hundred years later. The language is all he left us, and it is glorious. Take that away, and you’re left with Cliff’s Notes and one more trudge forward in the dumbing down of our culture.

If you really have a burning desire to contemporize Shakespare, hire authors to write novels.

The third witch, in a dress I would gladly wear -- and maybe that tells you something about my perspective -- posing on the carved cedar chest I inherited from my grandparents which sits in my library.
The third witch, in a dress I would gladly wear — and maybe that tells you something about my perspective — posing on the carved cedar chest I inherited from my grandparents which sits in my library.

Rebecca Reisert’s The Third Witch tells the story of a young woman who falls in with a couple of weird sisters scavenging a battlefield, a woman whose post-traumatic stress and ensuing ferocity inspire her to avenge the heinous wrongs wreaked upon her family. This domestic-drama-turned-medieval-thriller is an imaginative retelling of Macbeth from the perspective of a character who, in the play, is fairly minor. It’s an excellent read, and it enhances one’s understanding of the original in a way that gives audiences something new and fresh.

It doesn’t treat the audience like six-year-olds. It assumes their intelligence, their familiarity with Macbeth and his lady, and it asks them to consider all the ways in which Lady Macbeth can be a villain, all the ways in which a thane-turned-king can be ambitious.

This is a good book. A dear friend gave it to me for my birthday, and I remember picking it idly up one afternoon while I was checking my email just to browse the first chapter, fully intending to read it after the semester was done. I opened to the first page and began reading — and I didn’t look up again until chapter five.

Don’t bastardize the Bard. Give us true ekphrasis, something new in response which pays homage to the original’s depth and plumbs the profound alongside it, rather than instead.

Witches #1

It is October, and even though the temperatures here in my tropical part of the world have dipped only into the low 80s — and we’ll take it, happily, because it’s what we can get this week — the Hallowe’en season is in full bloom. This year I’ve decided to celebrate the season on my blog by covering the topic of witches.

The popular image of witches, of course, is kind of insane: hags with green skin, stringy hair, warts and toads, flying on broomsticks while cackling and manipulating other people’s lives in nasty ways. The closest thing I can imagine coming to that in real life, honestly, is a middle school bully. I suppose we can thank The Wizard of Oz for the green skin and Macbeth and Greek mythology for the rest. When I went to college I met real witches, actual pagans, and I discovered not only that witches were real, but that they had absolutely zero to do with the fantastically grotesque Cotton Mather holdovers imprinted on our Early American cultural DNA. As one person put it to me, “No, we don’t follow the devil. Satan’s a Christian thing.”

October always makes me think a lot about witches, what they’re about. Their image is everywhere — or images, since there’s not just one picture of them anymore. We’ll cover the “witch as archetype” unit in the spring in my AP Gothic Lit. class. I’ll try to lead my class to explore what literature’s view of witches says about the Human Condition, what the humanity or lack of it in those witches reveals about the authors and readers dissecting them. We’re going to hold them up to the sparkling light of analysis and see what filters out.

One of the most famous witches in our popular consciousness is, of course, The Wicked Witch of the West, a wretched fiend who would destroy someone else’s dog on a good day and whose obsession with fashion might lead her to murder. If you’ve never read Wicked by Gregory Maguire, I suggest you should. It was transformed into a Broadway musical, one of those things that puts an author on the map, and while I enjoyed the musical and am extremely happy for Maguire’s resulting success, it doesn’t hold a candle to the novel (which ended up being the start of a critically acclaimed book series).

If Maguire had been a less kind man, if he had been able to stomach such a horrendous historical figure, this book would have been about Hitler. Let me explain.

During the (first) Gulf War, a traumatically awful case involving two adolescent boys and a toddler boy they’d abducted and murdered was making gory headlines in the UK. I won’t go into the details of what they did to this child they lured away from his mother in a shop, but suffice it to say the bodily things they did to torture this child before they put him on a train track for him to be squashed would give Hannibal Lecter nightmares. They perpetrators, middle-school aged boys themselves, were caught, tried, imprisoned.

But they were minors, and so eventually they got out of prison, as young adults.

Now, their names had been splashed across the media for their heinous crime. But when they got out of prison, they wanted to start over in life. They wanted new names. There was a debate over whether they should be allowed to have new names, or whether they should have to be saddled with those marks of Cain forever.

This got Maguire thinking about names, identity, villains, sympathy. Those boys were in the news. Saddam was in the news. Maguire thought about writing a book about someone who had to live with a villainous moniker — and wondered what it might be like if that person didn’t truly deserve that notoriety. What would it be like to write that person as a sympathetic character?

Well, when you want to think of a name that inspires horror, what name do you think of? Hitler.

But Maguire, rightly so, couldn’t stomach the idea of imagining that particular figure in a sympathetic way and sure didn’t want to write a book that might lead other people to do so.

So then what other name inspires fear and loathing? (Remember, this was before Harry Potter was published.)

The Wicked Witch of the West.

So he wrote Wicked.

WICKED cover

I loved this book because it did what I’d been trying, as a writer, to do in my own work: it told the swept-aside story, illuminating Otherness in a profound way. It broke down a flat image and built it roundly back up again, creating something gorgeous and meaningful in the process. In Elphaba I found myself, a girl who had always been different but not in a way valued by any other kid with social standing. There’s so much more to this character, as Maguire imagined her, than a cackling “I’ll get you, my pretty.”

more to Elphaba than you think

Maguire’s writing is, as always, imaginative and intelligent. The story is good, but the writing is, too, down at the level of word choice and sentence structure.

If you’re looking for something witchy to read, I highly recommend this book.