The Darker Side of the Mirror: Why Fairy Tales Need Witches
By Derek Newman-Stille
Everyone has glowing things to say about figures like the fairy godmother who helps someone out by bringing them blessings, but what about those figures from the candy houses, the lonely castles, or the dark woods? What about the witches?
Witches are as much about transformation as fairy godmothers, and they may do even more than those light buoyant floating guardians by forging heroes and heroines out of unfortunate situations. Witches pose challenges to the heroes of fairy tales, not allowing them to go about their normal lives until they have asked themselves fundamental questions about who they are and who they want to be. They literally cause transformations that challenge preconceived ideas by transforming people into animals, inanimate objects, or physically unattractive bodies. They invite the challenge: if you don’t change, you will not be able to regain your normal form (and they always remind us that “normal” is a concept that is open to interpretation and disruption). They entwine the physically transformative with the psychologically transformative, shifting perspective by shifting the body.
Witches also serve the important role of providing punishment. They serve as the threat that underlies fairy tales, the notion that harming others will bring about repercussions.
Ultimately, most fairy tale witches want to change people for the better. Why else would they always linger on the side of the path, pretending to be poor and needing alms and then cursing those who refuse to give them consideration? These witches serve the role of equalizers, asking people to care for one another – especially those in need.
Witches serve as the counter-narrative for the wonderful women who rescue people from lives of darkness. Witches remind us that darkness is a place of reflection, a place of the unconscious where nightmares can teach.
Fairy godmothers bail people out of their problems, but witches invite people to deal with their own problems, depend on them to change themselves, and make their own circumstances change.