Monday, October 19, 2015

Magic and Responsibillity

You don't always get the cool pointy hats in witch movies, but you usually get women coming to terms with power.

For so long it was denied many women, and it can be a great challenge to manage.  I've mismanaged it, as have many women in lifetimes full of various work environments.  You learn that power can't be used to get even, no matter how badly you may have been wronged or suffered.  You learn that the only proper use of power is support of those who need it most, and in the interest of the greatest good.  If you hold yourself accountable for your actions, power is especially fraught with the perils of shame, regret, embarrassment and the rocky climb to redemption.

Buffy fans watched Willow, who begins as an outcast and geek, then becomes a very powerful witch, turn into an addict, a bully, even a murderer, all from the pain of having once been treated the same way.  In the movie Practical Magic the overuse of power results in a murder and a rat's nest of trouble; even used against an evil guy, murder is murder.  The film Bell, Book and Candle features a powerful witch protagonist who wants to give up her power because, as she says, "I won't let it destroy me as a person,".  The Witches of Eastwick find out that power has an almost uncontrollable destructive quality, and in The Craft the introduction of power tears friends apart.

Men also suffer from this problem, but they seem to wrestle with it differently.  Very powerful men seem to be marked by an absence of empathy.  Women who rule nations and armies have displayed all the faults of character that men suffer from.  But in the common woman, I believe there is a difference.

In a documentary on the Israeli army made years ago, the women who had fought on the front lines were interviewed.  Women no longer fight on the front lines because the atrocities committed against them rendered the risk intolerable.  But the ones who had fought all said they knew there was a difference between women and men fighters.

"When a man fights," said one former soldier, a middle aged woman in a long skirt and scarf, sitting with her legs crossed as her hair trembled in the wind, "He sees his enemy.  When a woman aims a gun she can't get certain thoughts out of her mind.  Who's son is this, who's father, who's husband?  It's not as simple for us,"

She was speaking for herself and her friends; who knows what the Syrian women fighting ISIS right now feel when they are in battle?  It might be a very different mind set.  Also I would imagine that any man who had lost loved ones to ISIS would have all the same feelings women have.  But men, historically, have held the most power, and for the longest time. It has been their birthright.  It's much less so for most women, and magic is the perfect metaphor for exploring the issue.

For my money the clearest and most genuine portrayal of witchcraft as a feminine representation of power is in Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series, beginning with "The Wee Free Men" and finishing with his final book, "The Shepherd's Crown".  There are a million wonderful quotes, but this is one of my favorites:

“...Granny Weatherwax...walked nightly without fear in the bandit-haunted forests of the mountains all her life in the certain knowledge that the darkness held nothing more terrible than she was...”

If you want to see a brilliant portrayal of power as handled by a mature woman, watch "Penny Dreadful" season 2 episode 3, called "The Nightcomers" - a beautiful illustration of the passing of power, bravery, hard truth and wisdom from one generation of women to the next. 

The theme that resonates for me in witch stories is complex, and also at times terrifying: how do women handle power?

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