Let’s talk about the Gray Witch.

“I suspect that via the insidious medium of picture books for children the wizards will continue to practice their high magic and the witches will perform their evil, bad-tempered spells. It’s going to be a long time before there’s room for equal rites.”

– Terry Pratchett

If you do nothing else, follow this link to the transcript I pulled this quote from. Ansible.com: Why Gandalf Never Married 1985 Talk by Terr Pratchett. I found this from another quote floating around on Tumblr, and was absolutely floored.

Because, here it is. In 1985, Terry Pratchett beat me to the punch. In a speech he gave at a convention he perfectly explained what I’ve been fumbling around for years trying to express. He summed up Swordpunk in an aside:

“But a part of my mind remained plugged into what I might call the consensus fantasy universe. It does exist, and you all know it. It has been formed by folklore and Victorian romantics and Walt Disney, and E R Eddison and Jack Vance and Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber — hasn’t it? In fact those writers and a handful of others have very closely defined it. There are now, to the delight of parasitical writers like me, what I might almost call “public domain” plot items. There are dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities. There’s the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.

To see the consensus fantasy universe in detail you need only look at the classical Dungeons and Dragon role-playing games. They are mosaics of every fantasy story you’ve ever read.

Of course, the consensus fantasy universe is full of cliches, almost by definition. Elves are tall and fair and use bows, dwarves are small and dark and vote Labour. And magic works. That’s the difference between magic in the fantasy universe and magic here. In the fantasy universe a wizard points his fingers and all these sort of blue glittery lights come out and there’s a sort of explosion and some poor soul is turned into something horrible.”

The “consensus fantasy universe’. That’s swordpunk. In three goddamn words.

He then proceeds to document the gross dichotomy of gender roles in magic. Wizards are wise, powerful and male — witches are crafty, evil, and female. And that’s troubling and stupid.

It just absolutely flabbergasts me. I’ve been floundering around with these concepts for years, since before I even started work on Spell/Sword, and to find it put so neatly when I was five years old is amazing.

It makes me feel inspired. It makes me feel — I’ll say it — proud. Proud and important, even though it’s completely unwarranted from such a silly book. I want to raise my hand from the back of the speech hall and say “I’m here, Mr. Pratchett! I’m here, and I’m trying. I’m trying to do that thing better! I have three magic users in my book and all of them are female, and through them I’m trying to explore the spectrum. Cotton, wizard of order, seer and battle-mage, the refined and learned wizard of lore and might. Rime, mage of chaos, unfettered and burning Reality like a sun going nova. And The Gray Witch, unknown and unknowable, the magic of forever, of stone and sorrow. I have a witch that is different! SO different!”

Mr. Pratchett peers over his glasses at me, and drums his knuckles on the lectern. An awkward cough fills the sudden silence.

I leap back to the present before some sort of time rift develops or I collapse from Hyper-Anxiety.

Salon Witch, Albert Joseph Penot (1910).
Salon Witch, Albert Joseph Penot (1910).

My witch is different, as I hope the few of you that have read the book can attest.

In lore and legend she is the expected crone, laughing and mad and malevolent. But when Jonas stumbles into her yard with Rime in tow, she is not what he expected — or I hope what the reader expected.

She is gray, all gray like the edge of a storm. She is nude and unconcerned, merry and strange, her brown-eyes still human but beyond that completely Other.

And she is sad. And sure. The greatest curse of all is certainty. Necessity.

The character is overtly sexual, but never in a prurient manner. Her nudity is barely described, as component as the red hat she wears in her wide-bucket garden.

I know so little about her! Writers are supposed to be God, but she eludes me. She frightens me more than a little, which is why I skitter into poetry when I describe her.

The fear and loathing that Mr. Pratchett correctly observes in the depiction of the Dark Feminine I do not truly jettison, but wrap it into the character along with all the strange unknowns of her identity. She is not a gibbering octogenarian that can be dismissed, pitied, or relegated to lesser status. She is a character of ill portent, but should never be seen as a minor force – -she is Beyond. Almost beyond gender entirely, but never quite.

I’ll try to put in some dopey male wizards next time around, Mr. Pratchett. To underline. It’ll have to wait for Book Three, the cast of Riddle Box is already set.

“I’m here,” I whisper across the years and the ocean to Mr. Pratchett. “And so is the Gray Witch. Be careful what you wish for?”


11 thoughts on “Let’s talk about the Gray Witch.

  1. Have you also noticed that “wicked” males tend to be loveable tricksters – the Loki archetype (or Captain Jack Sparrow) where is their female equivalent? I think Fairy Tale parlour games and the Victorians have a lot to answer for 😉

    • Agreed! Any female character of power coming out of the Western Literary tradition has to be the villain, and has to be demonized in some fashion. The more you think about it the weirder it gets, even villainous male characters have to have some grand attribute: their intelligence, their nobility, just plain old wattage. I would LOVE to read something with a female trickster.

      • Yes, its cool to be evil if you’re a guy, if you’re a lady you’re just a colossal b***h! 😉
        There’s more balance in ancient mythology – goddesses tend to be more multifaceted than gods, but that balance got lost somewhere. Maybe Angelina Jolie in Maleficent can turn things around :/

    • Female tricksters tend to use their sexuality as a weapon. Catwoman is a good example. The Witch in the Conan the Barbarian movie is another good example, and so is Valeria, the thief-woman Conan shacks up with. Then there is Number 6 from the recent Battlestar Galactica series (the one in Baltar’s head), and Irene Adler in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie. All tricksters, none of them are major villains.

      There are some exceptions to the “must use their sexuality as a weapon” rule, such as the enchantress who casts the spell on the Beast and his castle. There’s also Tinkerbell, These tend to be minor roles.

      It’s interesting to ponder what this says about the power of attractive women.

      • These are interesting examples of tricksters which certainly challenge the idea of the female as either saint (fairy godmother type) or siren (witch type). I’m not sure if they work as representatives of chaos or misrule as their actions tend to have subjective romantic undertones. Truly independent and powerful women are obviously just too scary 😉

  2. Bless you sir, for 2 things on this day-
    For bringing my eyes to a Pratchett speech that I was not aware.
    For truly writing a heroine that I enjoyed- now get thee to the Riddle Box so I may have more Rime!

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