SPECIAL FEATURE The Evolution of Witches and Wizards in Stories


Magic is prolific in children’s books and films. Stories of spells free our desire to escape into fantastical worlds where anything could happen, allowing children to test scenarios in a safe way and explore the extraordinary. Witches and wizards are always popular but where do they stem from? Kate Walker takes a look.


Peril in the Woods


Britain has a rich history of magic and fairytales. Our small island was once heavily wooded where anything could lurk between the trees. Celtic folklore and Paganism were huge parts of our belief system that still filter through our culture. These elements of other worldliness and magic were brought to life through JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but they are not new ideas, they’re evident in Shakespeare, an extend far further back.


Culturally we have absorbed darker magic with sagas of Norse gods that have cemented into the days of week, with the image of Odin and his crow heavily influencing modern fiction from Neil Gaiman to Marvel Comics. This mingling of myths is like our blood as invaders have settled and married into our population, creating a richer blend of stories passed down to their children. These tales were exported around our empire and the world, whilst snippets of other tales from far off lands were brought home.


Layering Stories and Characteristics


The origin of witches and wizards stretches into history. For many new stories you can see the evolution from the books and films that preceded them, feeding the desire of children wanting ‘the same again, but different.’ Witches and wizards are not gender opposites as they are in Harry Potter. They stem from different roots.




The witch concept has been around for millennia. Women were persecuted and murdered across the world for being different from the cultural norm and branded evil. The origins of broomsticks and potions are unsuitable for children, so how has this dark history become popular in young fiction?


The cauldron brewing image is clear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
The idea of the three witches appears in Greek mythology, iconically re-imagined in the 1981 blockbuster Clash of the Titans. Perseus tricks the Stygian witches to discover how to beat the Gorgon Medusa. These three crones live in a cave, sharing one mystical eye. This is a very similar image to Macbeth’s witches, spawning the coven of hags casting creepy spells. The magical three in witchcraft and storytelling persists in A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison, where three Widdershins sisters own three magical objects, from the three sharing the eye in the myth. Although Harrison turns the trope on its head with the characters and what’s expected.


Different From the Crowd


Witches add peril for children who love to be a little scared, but if the evil hag concept is removed, witches remain highly skilled and knowledgeable. This learning is appealing. Children are different from adults; they don’t fit in the same slots or have the same rules. Witches and magic open-up a world of possibility, of living life outside of normal. Even the name chosen by Michelle Harrison, 'Widdershins', means against the direction of the sun, anticlockwise, against the ordinary. This idea also features in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente, where September steals a spoon from the leader of Fairyland for witches to turn it widdershins. These books show children the benefits of questioning the existing order and dare to try a different path.


A Set of Rules and a Uniform


Every child can draw what a witch should look like. When Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900 it contained an illustration of the Wicked Witch of the West in the classic pointed hat, brought to life with iconic green skin in the technicolor film in 1939. This depiction has endured in popular culture, even down to the stripy tights that Mildred Hubble also wears in Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch.


It is often easy to trace the influences for witch-themed books. Macbeth, The Lord of the Rings and The Worst Witch heavily influenced JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, which inspired The Apprentice Witch by James Nichol and even Witch Wars by Sibeal Pounder. These twist the fantastical with the everyday creating a plausible alternative world of magic where anything could happen, which is both exciting and accessible for children.


Stories combine different ingredients of witchy-ness like potions to inspire many more characters, mostly with an enduring uniform. Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble by Tracey Corderoy mixes Macbeth’s cauldron and the Wicked Witch of the West’s classic outfit but gives Granny the kindness of The Wizard Of Oz’s Glinda the Good. In Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, animated by Studio Ghibli, witches wear classic black and ride a broom, even if Kiki has a portable radio and a red bow. Kiki and Arianwyn from The Apprentice Witch take their helpful magic into the community, like a district nurse, replacing the feared wicked witch concept with Cinderella-style kindness and dedication.


USA Work Ethic vs. British Exceptionalism


The Wizard of Oz, published at the end of the Victorian era, remains a huge influence on the modern genre. It mixes magic with fakery – the wizard is a sham. This fits with the American ideal of hard work, not magical exceptionalism which the UK devours. It was written when society was enthralled by parlour tricks, using recently invented cameras to appear otherworldly, which is what Oz does. Interestingly, Jenni Spangler’s The Vanishing Trick uses the deceit of parlor tricks like Oz, but flips it into darker magic and folklore, so Oz in reverse, rooting it back in the UK.


The Odin Influence on Wizards


Darker magic captivates children as they grow older. Paganism and Norse myths heavily influence wizards with a distinct link to Odin, the god of war and death. Odin is traditionally depicted as a wise, older magician with flowing beard, cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, much like Gandalf. Add some specs and this becomes Dumbledore!


Even Odin’s crow spies have seeped into magical genres.The crows in A Pinch of Magic forbode death, but Cressida Cowell, masterfully blends Odin with witches to create her terrifying King Witch in The Wizard of Once.


While magical elements may mingle and cross-pollinate between stories, witches and wizards endure as they shock and inspire new generations of children and take root in our rich culture.




Kate Walker writes, middle grade, picture and chapter books. She lives in Sussex with her family. She loves growing too many plants and stories, although her children grow far to quickly!

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.