Halloween Extravaganza: The Witch Who Desired To Know Everything
October 14, 2019
We’re continuing our HALLOWEEN EXTRAVAGANZA this week with a discussion of one of my favorite witches:
“THERE was once a witch who desired to know everything. But the wiser a witch is, the harder she knocks her head against the wall when she comes to it. Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself — only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel. She was tall and graceful, with a white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind onto her back.” – George MacDonald
So begins George MacDonald’s fairy tale “The Day Boy and the Night Girl: A History of Photogen and Nycteris.” Unsurprisingly, the story revolves around the two title characters, a boy named Photogen and a girl called Nycteris. Watho, a witch and the antagonist of the tale, steals them from their mothers at birth and meticulously shapes their upbringings to ensure that they are avatars of the day and the night respectively—Photogen is never exposed to darkness or the nighttime, while Nycteris is kept in a windowless room and shielded from any light beyond a single, dim lamp.
Both children grow to thrive in their extreme environments, their bodies adapting to their peculiar circumstances, but they each eventually chafe at the edges of their carefully circumscribed worlds. Photogen ventures outside after dark, but physically and mentally collapses, while Nycteris believes she is dying when she exposes herself to sunlight. By relying on one another, they are able to escape Watho and live happily ever after.
But while Photogen and Nycteris are both pretty interesting characters, the real star of the show, at least to me, is Watho. She is definitely evil – the child-stealing and experimentation isn’t a good look – but she is fascinating. There’s so much going on in this fairy tale and in the character of Watho in particular so in this post, I’ll be hitting just a few of the highlights.
Original Literary Fairy Tale or Retelling?
Generally, critics talk about MacDonald’s fairy tales as original literary creations – in other words, he makes up new characters and plots instead of retelling older tales. However, his stories are heavily influenced by traditional, familiar fairy tales that circulated in both oral and written forms. Most obviously, his delightful and hilarious fairy tale “The Light Princess” is a clear though wildly inventive version of Sleeping Beauty. But “Photogen and Nycteris” is also deeply indebted to the traditional fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. As I wrote in my dissertation: “Beaumont’s story might not initially appear to share much in common with MacDonald’s romance—there are no iconic roses, inept fathers, or curses that, when broken, transform beastliness into beauty in ‘Photogen and Nycteris.’ However, Beauty and the Beast is, in essence, a story about mismatches and mirroring—a reader can identify a Beauty and the Beast tale because the protagonists appear to be fundamentally incompatible but eventually find a state of equilibrium.” In other words, stories that play with or retell Beauty and the Beast usually feature romantics leads who clash and appear to be wildly incompatible yet find their way to a happily ever after.
But who is the protagonist really?
Fairy tales usually begin with a focus on the hero(ine) or their parents. Basically, this tells us who we should be paying attention to and rooting for as we read – it’s a way of aligning the reader with the right characters. However, MacDonald begins the story not with Photogen, Nycteris, or their parents but with Watho! He vividly describes her – her insatiable thirst for knowledge, her physical appearance, and the “wolf” in her mind. MacDonald basically primes us to be #TeamWatho! I suspect he is more sympathetic to her than the plot suggests.
Ok, so why do I think
The Wolf in Her Mind
What, you might be wondering, is up with the wolf in her mind? I have many thoughts but no definitive answer (which is what George MacDonald would have wanted!)
It also strongly suggests disability, with the wolf standing as a symbol of her madness. Madness occupies a paradoxical position in the contemporary cultural imagination. While those who experience neuroatypicality often experience discrimination, prejudice, and even abuse or institutionalization, madness as a concept has been glamorized as a metaphor for rebellion, particularly feminine rebellion. Such a reading of Watho is definitely possible. Watho possesses her own estate—a castle and extensive grounds—that she holds independently. Instead of acquiescing to a husband’s wishes and bearing children, she devotes herself to her own decidedly anti-patriarchal interests, most notably stealing the children of the aristocracy and raising them without interference, literally interrupting patriarchal lineage and societal stability. Her rejection of both marriage and traditional motherhood can be understood as the kind of transgressive womanhood – she is a bad mother but a powerful figure.
There is a LOT more going on here. Madness as metaphor for rebellion is limited, though super compelling, and I think the wolf has a lot more to do with embodiment (or what it actually feels like to experience the world in a particular body) than just metaphor, but I’ll just say that Watho’s wolf can teach us a lot about pain, Othering, and living in different kinds of bodies and minds.
Witch or Mad Scientist
Part of what I find most interesting about Watho is that she’s halfway between a witch and what we now think of as a mad scientist. She doesn’t really do magic (except for turning into a wolf at the end of the story!) but she performs experiments. The trope of the mad scientist occurs when a scientist is out of step with society, generally through a combination of unusual, even antisocial personality traits, and is nearly always characterized by radical ambition and an inability or unwillingness to comprehend the repercussions of their experiments. Though “Photogen and Nycteris” predates this term, Watho can be regarded as a proto-mad scientist, as her character is defined by anti-social experimentation and disregard for her subjects.
“There was once a witch who desired to know everything”
In sum, I think I find
P.S. Can’t get enough of witches and Halloween stuff this time of year? Our special $25 Halloween mini-course is enrolling now!