Fiction’s wickedest witches
© AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
By Pat Black
Posted on April 26, 2016 in Books with tags
Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex has put a bit of abracadabra into the witchcraft canon. Although they’re prevalent in fairy tales, witches tend to take a back seat to vampires and ghosts when it comes to villainy in classic literature. There are some notable exceptions, however…
The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Originally hailing from the land of Charn – where she killed absolutely every single other person on the planet apart from herself – Jadis becomes queen of Narnia for a memorable spell. Her exploits in CS Lewis’ classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe include installing permanent snowy conditions, turning anyone she dislikes into stone, killing Aslan, and – brace yourself – banning Christmas. In the middle of permanent winter. Now that’s cold.
And yet, this Amazonian seven-footer is not without her admirers. As the magician in the title says in The Magician’s Nephew, she’s a “dem fine woman, sir… dem fine”.
I’d have resisted if she offered me Turkish Delight, all the same. Truly, the “Marmite” of the sweetie world. Blechhhh.
The witch from ‘The Illustrated Man’
Ray Bradbury’s classic short story sees a circus strongman turning to fat. He has to do something to stay in the big top, so he decides to get his whole body tattooed in a bid to join the freak show.
Unfortunately, he has chosen a witch to do the job. Her eyes are stitched up, but she can still ink to beat the very devil… Worse still, some of the tattoos foretell a grim future, with what you might call pinpoint accuracy.
One of Bradbury’s most disturbing stories. Uncle Ray could be brutal when the mood took him.
Marisa Coulter from His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is jam-packed with great sorcerers – Serafina Pekkala, leader of a flying brigade of witches, is particularly enchanting, though it doesn’t hurt that Eva Green played her in the movie. Not one bit.
But, even though she’s not technically a witch, Mrs Coulter is as bad as the rest put together. She is an arch-manipulator who will commit any wickedness to further her ambitions – and to stifle her maternal instincts. To say she has a heart of stone is a bit rough on stones. And her daemon is one of the great evil fictional monkeys, perhaps only beaten by the Nazi one in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Mrs Coulter has lots in common with Jadis, not least of which is a trail of stuttering males worshipping the ground she stamps on. As Metatron the Angel himself admits after his harrowing inquisition, Mrs Coulter might be completely wicked, but she sure is lovely.
Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series
We’re spoiled for choice in the Potterverse. Top of the list is Hermione Granger, of course – a polymath, top of the class, morally steadfast, courageous, a great heroine and a fantastic role model for anyone.
These are qualities which you could easily find in today’s Wiccans (please note – Wicca is distinct from what the nasties featured here get up to!), but they aren’t characteristics I’d associate with the wicked witch of legend.
Bellatrix Lestrange has the wicked factor, alright. But she’s nowhere near as memorably nasty as Dolores Umbridge. Her sickly-sweet demeanour hides a heart that’s blacker than a Spinal Tap album cover. She will remind you of the psychopathic teacher or line manager you hoped you wouldn’t get.
In her capacity as a teacher at Hogwarts (she even becomes headmistress at one point), Umbridge’s punishments trip into outright sadism. Who could forget making Harry Potter write out his lines with the blood quill? But on top of that, she’s a schemer and empire builder – it’s hard to think of anyone who could beat her for sheer two-faced nastiness on Top Trumps.
Dolores Umbridge has the uncanny habit of sticking in your mind much longer than many more front-and-centre characters in Harry Potter. Dare I say, we’ve been bewitched by JK Rowling?
The Three Witches from Macbeth
Would Macbeth have wielded the dagger, had he never met these three ladies? It’s one of the key questions in all literature. If we’re looking for someone to blame – and our notions of witches are quite often all about blame – then perhaps we should look to Lady Macbeth.
“Why have they got beards?” Hey, it’s the 17th century now – this is the modern world!
Circe from The Odyssey
A witch from the dawn of literature, Circe’s witching CV boasts some fine skills with roots, herbs and potions when we meet her in The Odyssey.
She invites some of Odysseus’ crew into her house for a cheese n’ wine shindig, but things go a bit Janice Long after she turns them all into pigs.
I do sympathise. Most women must have felt like doing the same to the odd hair-waxed sleaze in a nightclub.
Odysseus, who seems to have a thing for challenging relationships, thwarts Circe’s attempt to do the same to him. Then, after a tip from Hermes which you won’t read in any dating advice columns, he threatens to stab Circe – which, as predicted by the god, has an aphrodisiac effect.
Odysseus spends the next year drinkin’, eatin’, a-huggin’ and a-kissin’. Every day is toga party day at the witch’s house. Circe, almost completely tamed by our hero, even gives the big O a steer in order to avoid the Scylla-Charybdis problem a bit further down the line.
Circe was a rubbish witch. But I guess if anyone is going to put an enchantress off her game, it’s Odysseus. The lad had some skills.
The least said about the entire episode to poor old Penelope back on Ithaca, the better, though…
And finally, there’s this one. Run for your life – or the volume control…
Follow Pat on Twitter at @ and read more of his writing here.