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(Image: Archi Banal)
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BooksJune 21, 2023

A brief history of witches in NZ literature

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

To celebrate the release of Margaret Meyer’s novel The Witching Tide, we look back on some of the best witches in New Zealand fiction. Happy solstice!

The Boy with Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (1971)

Mahy’s witches are iconic as are Jenny Williams’ illustrations of them. In this and the next picture book you could argue that the witches represent the darker side of a child’s imagination. In both stories witches barrel into idyllic home environments and mess things up: but terrifically so. They’re exciting, unpredictable and keep a kid on their toes.

The witch in The Boy with Two Shadows (an altogether strange tale) is rambunctious, pushy and exploitative. When it’s time for her to go on holiday she asks a very good little boy (who is unnamed, which makes him a sort of everykid), to look after her shadow. The witch’s shadow is charming at first, doing such mild mischief as scrambling the shadows at the fruit and veg store. But before long the shadow gets bored and nasty: it bullies the dog’s shadow before turning on the boy’s own, scaring it so badly that it runs away. 

The witch’s shadow muddles the shadows of the fruit. From The Boy with Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy. Illustrations by Jenny Williams.

It all comes good in the end, of course, but the menace in this tale is brilliantly unsettling: you can be as good as you like but that won’t protect you from a gallivanting witch on a mission. Williams’ illustrations tell a story all of their own, too. Highlights include the changes in the witch’s clothing as she goes from regular witch, to holiday witch, to the witch just back from a break and wearing a souvie T-shirt to prove it. Also the spell written on a quick-bake sausage roll which is the good little boy’s reward for his troubles (see image below).

From The Boy with Two Shadows. Note the witch’s T-shirt.

Badjelly the Witch by Spike Milligan (1973)

Not technically a New Zealand witch, but we are a country obsessed with Spike Milligan’s absurdist masterpiece about the “baddest witch in the world” to the point we’ve basically adopted her as one of our own. Thanks to a hugely informative essay series and thread of tweets by Badjellyologist Gemma Gracewood, we know that Badjelly was out of print for years in the UK before it was reprinted in 1994 thanks to a request from legendary bookseller John McIntyre (The Children’s Bookshop, Wellington).

Since the reprint, Penguin NZ has sold over 100,000 copies in New Zealand. Which is flabbergasting. We also love the live version: in 1977, New Zealander Alannah O’Sullivan adapted Badjelly for the stage and it’s now, over 150 performances later, the most licensed stage play in New Zealand, ever. 

If you have not yet terrified and tickled your kids with batshittedness of Badjelly then, to summarise: Tim and Rose go looking for Lucy the Cow in the big, black forest when they are captured by Badjelly who can turn policemen into cows and kids into sausages.  Binklebonk the Tree Goblin, Mudwiggle the Worm and Dinglemouse attempt to assist. 

The Witch in the Cherry Tree by Margaret Mahy illustrated by Jenny Williams (1974)

I love this crooked, morose witch with her long, red nose that drips in the rain. This story is all about the universal allure of baking: the smell of cupcakes toasting in the oven brings a witch to the yard with a plan to steal whatever’s in the oven. Little David manages to scupper her attempts at sneaking into the house, which makes her depressed. She sits up in the tree like a gangly magpie. The twist? David burns his batch and throws them out on the lawn for the witch who, it turns out, prefers her treats with a side of carbon. Once again Williams’ illustrations map out a domestic prettiness which contrasts perfectly with the stooped, gnarly witch who entertains a bored little boy.

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (1984)

In the postscript to the 2007 reprint of The Changeover, Mahy writes: “Rereading it after all these years, I think how curiously devoid of adolescent idiom it is (compared with many current books), but I am in no mood to apologise for this. After all these years, its folk tale origins, its city setting (in which the city is simultaneously a mythological forest) and its relatively plain language mean that it can travel across time rather more readily than if it had made strong use of the jargon of the time.”

The Changeover is set in Christchurch and is one of Mahy’s first books to be grounded here in New Zealand. And it still stands up as a deeply intelligent story about the intense, even sinister shifts and realisations that come with adolescence. Behind the magic there is anxiety about family, the beginnings of romantic lust, and how the world changes as you age into it. The novel won Mahy her second Carnegie Medal (her first was for The Haunting, a perfect middle grade ghost story). 

The basic plot is that quiet, observant Laura Chant must “change over” and become a witch in order to save her little brother Jacko, who is having his life sucked out of him by an ancient malevolent creature lurking in the body of Carmody Braque. Laura’s love interest is precocious teenage witch Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle who comes from a long line of witches. Sorry’s definition of witchcraft goes: “We’re like scientists. We compel nature, move it around according to our wishes – but scientists use rules that they’ve worked out through thought, and ours comes through imagination, I suppose.”

There’s also a babysitter called Mrs Fangboner.

Sheryl Jordan’s witches

As hard as it is to select a favourite witch from among the bounty that Tauranga writer Sheryl Jordan created, for me it’s always Juniper from The Juniper Game (1991). For others it’ll be Marnie and Raven from The Raging Quiet; or Wynter from Wynter’s Thief; or Midnight from The Other Side of Midnight; or Elsha from Winter of Fire (1992) which you can read about at length in this piece by three of the book’s biggest fans

Juniper flips the teenage witch stereotype by being popular, beautiful and a massive nerd. She loves the medieval times to the extent that she puts hay down in her bedroom floor and runs experiments with architectural models to see which style can preserve meat the most effectively. Juniper is an expansive character who pulls timid boy Dylan into her orbit. When the pair realise they have a telepathic connection they traverse the boundaries of time and space and eventually unravel precisely why Juniper has such an affinity with the 1400s. This is a novel that draws on the history of witch trails to bolster the magic realism, and it works.

Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox (2013)

Like Mahy, Elizabeth Knox’s magic is always deeply intelligent. Her books have things to say. Mortal Fire is set in a fictionalised Southland where Canny (what a name!) has something “extra” and this makes her feel different from everyone else. Her brain is exceptional, a human calculator, she is lightning-quick and can draw conclusions from slight materials, and yet she struggles with reading comprehension in school. In this way she’s always reminded me of Knox who is famously brilliant and who has dysgraphia, which made writing difficult. 

When Canny stumbles into an enchanted valley she is plunged into a magical mystery that draws on history both worldly and personal. It’s lush, complex, romantic and layered. At its heart it’s a story about uncovering what you’re good at, what makes you special.

The Witch of Maketu (song) by Anika Moa (2016)

Anika Moa is the queen of kids songs in Aotearoa (rivalled only by The Front Lawn’s Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan, who are responsible for the genius music in Kiri & Lou). The Witch of Maketu is a child-eating nightmare cackling over her cauldron of disgusting ingredients (a horse’s hoof, frog’s eyes, three little mermaids, ogre’s bogies). It’s creepy and eerie and perfectly terrible at the end. And yes, it’s a song, but lyrics = poetry.

Whetū Toa and the Magician by Steph Matuku (2018)

So much of children’s literature is driven by the need for children to have a life of their own while their parents are at work (or at war). It’s at that point they usually tumble into chaos and have to take on responsibilities they’re not equipped for and so they learn, and fast. In Steph Matuku’s middle grade novel series (two books so far), Whetū’s mum moves them into the home of a wizard so she can take up a job as his administrator. The motley crew of farm animals gives the book a rural magic while the character of Errant, the white rabbit, is a nod to the chaos of Alice in Wonderland. 

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (2019)

On her website, Knox writes: “And, as sure as the foreign gentleman in chapter one of The Master and Margarita is the devil, The Absolute Book was always going to be a full-throttle fantasy. The novel’s other principle character, Shift, a person who calls everyone from chickens to demons “people”, has, like the book itself, an egalitarian, even-handed approach to the everyday and the mythical. Shift is the friend Taryn makes. He’s something between Dante’s poet guide and the magical animal that accompanies the hero on a quest.”

So it’s not entirely correct to call the character of Shift a witch, but he is powerfully alchemical. If we take Sorry’s definition of witchcraft – that it is magic worked out through the imagination – then The Absolute Book is one of the most charged literary spells in recent times. Shift creates, changes, re-writes, and amends. In a novel that celebrates story and repositories of shared knowledge, Shift is a catalyst for the magic inherent in a good narrative: the kind that imparts a vision in which people are better served by the system.

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer (2023)

This historic novel grounds itself in the brutal witch trials of the 17th Century. The awful irony is that the women murdered in the witch hunts weren’t witches at all: they were just women. Meyer’s novel is richly drawn, compelling and necessarily blunt with the facts. To learn more about the research Meyer did to inform the book, read our interview with her here.

Keep going!