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: Watho from George MacDonald’s fairy tale “The Day Boy and the Night Girl: A History of Photogen and Nycteris!”

“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.

Painting by Jean Jacques Henner

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.

Watho’s monstrousness            

Ok, so why do I think Watho is so fascinating? Because she’s a flash point for so many identities and ways of navigating the world. She is defined by issues of disability, madness, gender, and knowledge production. She is the witch, the villain of the story, but she is also the person who puts the plot into motion and drives it forward. She tinkers. She experiments. She wants to understand how the world works. It’s her desire for knowledge that makes her monstrous. As a literary descendent of both Eve and Lilith, Watho is intensely curious and independent. She represents a dangerously potent femininity unfettered by familial ties or conventional morality – she’s scary because she doesn’t follow the rules and she doesn’t act like a woman is supposed to act. She has her own castle and estate, and she does not have to answer to anyone (i.e. a father or husband.)

Painting by Luis Ricardo Falero

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!) Watho could be understood as a straight-up werewolf – she certainly transforms into a wolf at the end of the fairy tale – or the wolf itself could be understood as a witch’s familiar! The wolf also symbolically represents the Other, the inhuman, and generally That Which Does Not Belong in Britain.

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.

Painting by Jean Jacques Henner

“There was once a witch who desired to know everything”

In sum, I think I find Watho so interesting because she does everything a little bit (or a lot a bit) wrong. The way she wants to know everything, the way she performs her gender, the way she looks, the way she mothers, the way she thinks, even the way that she is a witch – they are all different or too much in some way. She is a creature of passion and excesses, and she is intensely herself, even when she is intensely flawed. Because “Photogen and Nycteris” is a fairy tale from the 19th century, things do not work out well for Watho – she dies for her crimes, and I can’t say I blame Photogen and Nycteris for their actions! But I think in Watho we get glimpses of what will later become Elphaba (Wicked) and Maleficent (Maleficent) and Sabrina (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) – witches who challenge the status quo, who want power, and who want to know the world so they can change it for the better.

P.S. Can’t get enough of witches and Halloween stuff this time of year? Our special $25 Halloween mini-course is enrolling now!


  1. Carrie

    It’s been a little while since I read The Day Boy and the Night Girl, and you’ve brought up a lot that I haven’t thought about before (my English major tendencies must be fading pretty badly by now!). One thing that stands out to me in particular is the aspect of Watho wanting to know everything. I don’t know much about MacDonald as a person or what his views on science were, but I do wonder if Watho is supposed to be a cautionary figure as well, against the temptation of scientific experimentation just for the sake of knowing things rather than guided by ethics or for the good of humanity. In a way she’s like a Frankenstein figure, though instead of creating life, she’s manipulating it just to see what happens. In any case, I find it difficult to have any sympathy for her, though she really is an interesting character.

      1. Carrie

        Possibly directly to women, but I don’t know. Nyctoris always seems to me to be the strongest character and the natural leader in the story, so I’m not sure he was being misogynistic with his construction of Watho. But then I don’t know his intentions.

        1. Great observations, Carrie! These are all things I wrote about in my dissertation, and I’m going to try REALLY hard to be brief here instead of just pasting the whole chapter 😀

          Yes, Watho is definitely linked to scientists like Frankenstein (and the slew of other scientists that starting showing up in British literature in the late 19th century.) What I find so interesting about that though is that she’s a woman, and all of these famous (mad) scientist figures (Jekyll, Moreau, Raymond, Rappaccini) are all men, so I do think this is an unusual gendered moment. And of course, Watho is never referred to as a scientist – instead she’s a witch, even though she doesn’t do magic and is acting like a scientist!

          I personally do not see misogyny in this story (or really in any of MacDonald’s writing.) Generally, women tend to be a lot more sensible, wise, and put together in MacDonald’s stories than the men! Nycteris definitely comes across better than Photogen, and there are plenty of female characters in MacDonald’s writing that get to be wise and knowledgeable about the world – Nycteris herself is tuned in to the beauty and magic of the natural world. I believe MacDonald is critiquing certain ways of interacting with the world, not knowledge itself.

          1. Carrie

            Thank you! Yes, it is strange that she’s so much like a scientist and yet called a witch (forgot to hit on that in my original comment). I wonder if it’s because at the time it would have been easier for readers to swallow the idea of a woman being a witch than the idea of her being a scientist. Or if MacDonald was trying to say something about scientific experimentation without ethics being no better than witchcraft.

            The characterization of women and girls in MacDonald’s stories is one thing I’ve liked about the few that I’ve read. Although they do tend to be characterized as being more domestic than their male counterparts (which would be normal in his time), they really are the most capable characters.

  2. Claire Thomas

    I haven’t read the book, (although I definitely would like to after reading this post!) so my thoughts may not be relevant. However, the ending in which she turns into a wolf (and that being the only magic apparently in the story) reminded me of a lot of the sagas I read. When people in Viking society did truly horrible, unforgivable things, they were officially deemed to be a “wolf among men” (not a direct quote). That meant they were effectively ostracized from society, and could be killed on sight without penalty the way someone would kill an animal. I’m not sure if this is relevant to the story, or if MacDonald would have read any sagas, but it grabbed my attention. Then again, perhaps its just a human fascination with wolves as being like us in some ways, and yet dangerous and other. Really enjoyed the post!

    1. How fascinating! I’m not sure if MacDonald would have been familiar with Norse sagas, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was!

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