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Elphaba, Eglantine, Mildred & Me

I’m not quite sure whether to be fascinated or frustrated by the ongoing battle for the symbolic significance of ‘witch’ that seems to continue to rage on – on the one hand, those who are ‘reclaiming’ the  moniker and all those ever (rightly or wrongly) associated with it as embodiments of feminist empowerment, and those desperately trying to distance it from any previous historical associations to pioneer it as a shiny new classification free of political, social, gender and any other inequalities that plague other philosophies.

Neither of these fits with my perception of witches. For the purposes of this I refer to witches, since it’s accessible and relevant in this context, and similarly most of my references are to women but this is in terms of illustration only as I genuinely feel the overall principles encompass all magic users of all sorts.

I grew up surrounded by fictional witches – Simon’s witch, Dorrie the apprentice, Samantha Stephens, the women of the Owens’ family. None of these were the villainous crone stereotypes, and in fact if you remove Disney from the equation there were very few sorcerous hags featured at all.

Some of the most notable that have stayed with me are those from the title – Elphaba (from Wicked, specifically the book version), Miss Eglantine Price (Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch, who studied spells, potions and broomstick riding at Miss Cackle’s in the days long before Harry Potter and Hogwarts). These people (and yes, it probably did matter to me that they were female at a time when most protagonists and heroes were male) were not blessed with innate powers and propelled on some prophetic, destined quest for the benefit of all humanity. Naturally in the interests of storytelling they were faced with trials and tribulations, but they dealt with the problems that were in front of them at the time, they did what was needed not because of some objectively noble cause (even if it ultimately was) but because it was the right and important thing – subjectively – to do. Not to score points or win abstract arguments or for power or prestige, but to make things just a bit better where they could.

And, perhaps most compelling for me, magic was something they learned. They studied, and practised, and tried and failed and often in the end magic wasn’t the real solution at all, but it was something that was within everyone’s grasp if they wanted it to be. You didn’t have to be born into it, or wait to be singled out by a mystical mentor, or have a random birthmark or hope an owl started throwing itself at your bedroom window. You could go out and do it for yourself.

And to me that’s empowerment. I don’t need to connect myself to or distinguish myself from historical, media, cultural, New Age or spiritual connotations of what it means to be a witch, a wizard, a magician, a pagan, a priest(ess). I get to find out for myself, taking account of as much or as little of what those sources contribute as I like. Before I jump on any bandwagon I have to feel pretty strongly about the tune I’m being asked to dance to. And it’s by far the way I recommend because taking that journey yourself gives you the information, the confidence and the grounding in whatever you ultimately choose to stand for.

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