From Wicked to Maleficent, literature’s most misunderstood witches have been cashing in on their fifteen minutes of fame lately — and setting the record straight while they’re at it. While tales of powerful women practicing magic have been around as long as the art of storytelling itself, the evolution of the witch as a literary character has left much to be desired — especially after the Medieval Christians, and later the Puritans, got a hold of it and began using the “witch” as an anti-feminist cautionary tale against women who are forces of feminine energy, intelligence, and strength. Our wicked sisters of sorcery weren’t always green-faced, hooked-nosed, and wart-bespeckled, easily defeated with a few splashes of water or lured into giving up their powers by the feigned charms of a less-powerful man. Often, they were healers — beautiful and mystical goddesses who used their powers for good (with the occasional, well-deserved evil.) Other times the witch merely existed as a mysterious, hermetic creature who just wanted to be left alone. But as we well know, women whose powers vastly out-perform those of their male counterparts are rarely left alone — instead they must be vilified, stripped of their dignity, and if you ask anyone living in Salem circa 1692, vanquished entirely.
But lately, some of the most misunderstood witches from books have been taking back their good names, through stories that offer a truer, more nuanced identity of the witch character. Here are 8 of the most misunderstood witches from literature, just in time for a little Halloween costume inspiration.
1. Elphaba from Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
As the villain in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz this green-faced gal has been wickedly misunderstood since readers were first introduced to her and her fearsome band of flying monkeys. That is, at least, until Gregory Maguire dug a little deeper in Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which offers a more nuanced portrait of the Witch of the West, aka: Elphaba. This unfavored step-daughter loses family, friends, romance, and footwear before she becomes truly wicked (it was the footwear that really sent her over the top, as to be expected) and even then, all it takes is a little water to vanquish her. Lonely, heartbroken, bare-footed, and rapidly dissolving — wouldn’t you be pretty irritable too?
2. Maleficent from The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood by Charles Perrault
Thanks to Angelina Jolie’s feminist — and much more sympathetic — portrayal of Maleficent in the 2014 film of the same name, we now know the real story behind the wicked fairy of Sleeping Beauty fame. Like Jolie’s Maleficent, the original character from both Giambattista Basile's 17th-century tale Sun, Moon, and Talia and the slightly-later The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood by Charles Perrault, is also a woman who has been betrayed by the person she most loves and trusts — plus her story is a tad more political, illuminating a world where women like Maleficent (powerful, intelligent, crafty, talented) had no legal rights, no welcome place in society, and were so feared by those around them that history recast them as evil. Now why does this trope sound so familiar…?
3. Circe, from The Odyssey by Homer
Although often cast as an evil sorceress, Circe was actually a Greek goddess — daughter of a sun god and an ocean goddess, and one who boasts an impressive knowledge of herbs, potions, and magic. So naturally, there must be something evil about her. In The Odyssey, Circe is best remembered for being a nymph who lured men to her remote island and then used her magic to turn them into animals. But in fact, Odysseus made his way into her lair all on his own, and then not only proceeded to hang out there drinking all of Circe’s wine and taking naps for a year, once he finally gets things going again Circe gives him directions through the Underworld and the route back to Ithaca. And I seriously don’t remember a thank you.
4. Morgan Le Fay from The Life of Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Morgan Le Fay is easily one of the most mistreated-by-history witches of all the misunderstood witches of literature. In the earliest accounts of Morgan’s story, circa 1150 or so, she’s actually a well-known and brilliant healer and enchantress who may have helped save King Arthur’s life after he was fatally wounded in battle. You can thank the Medieval Christians (who seriously just COULD NOT handle a strong woman if they tried) for Morgan Le Fay’s evil, violent, sexually aggressive (of course) and murderous makeover. And, the original Morgan Le Fay would never have become an apprentice of Merlin — she was way too smart for him.
5. The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Let’s go in a different direction here for just a moment, shall we? The typical Disney Princess-makeover generally involves taking a perfectly respectable, hugely talented, badass witch and transforming her into a one-dimensional, evil, step-whatever, right? Not so when it comes to The White Witch, originally appearing in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and recently reinvented for Disney’s Frozen. Now they’ve taken a character who was ACTUALLY EVIL and somehow transformed her into a clumsy, bitter, vulnerable girl who is afraid of her own strength. And, to top it off, this weakened-version of The White Witch, aka: Elsa, still totally steals the spotlight from Anna, who’s actually a badass going on an amazing, epic adventure to save the kingdom. Not better. Just not.
6. Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Molly Weasley is something of an unsung hero in the Harry Potter world — both by her wizarding peers and by fans and readers of the series alike. Not nearly enough is made of her in the novels; sure, she’s the brood of Weasleys’s warm-but-no-nonsense mum who gets her share of memorable moments, but not nearly enough is made of the fact that not only did she manage to take care of an entire houseful of young children during an especially dark time in the Wizarding World, and later took Harry under her wing (as though seven children weren’t enough) you gotta know she was also the behind-the-scenes glue keeping the revived Order of the Phoenix running during the Second Wizarding War (seriously, who else would have remembered all the tiny necessities? Like food. And that magical clock that told her where everyone was at all times.) Last, but not least, she was the one who finally took out Bellatrix Lestrange.
7. Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Shifting gears again, Hermione Granger is a witch who is totally understood and celebrated by her fans and readers, but completely misunderstood by her wizardly peers — most notably Harry and Ron, which is odd since they’re her best friends and she ends up marrying the latter. Nonetheless, while Harry’s busy getting all the glory and Ron acts as his comedic relief, it’s actually Hermione who keeps everything running (and on more than one occasion, keeps Harry and Ron from serious injury, destruction, death, and/or expulsion.) The other young witches and wizards at Hogwarts don’t seem to truly appreciate Hermione’s unique intelligence or work ethic either — which is a shame, because given the right opportunity Hermione could serious run the world.
8. The Witch-Queen from Stardust by Neil Gaiman
So, alright, the Witch-Queen, aka: Morwanneg, aka: the oldest of The Lilim does in fact consume the hearts of falling stars — who are apparently sentient beings in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust — in order to preserve her youth. And even if you disregard that little detail, she’s still not all that nice. But to be fair, The Lilim have had a seriously rough go of it: their beloved kingdom was destroyed by the ocean, they lost their true names and identities throughout history, and when they perform magic (which is basically the only perk of actually being a witch) they age badly (hence all that star-heart eating business.) Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do, you know?
Image: Harry Potter Wiki