Witches and Wiccans in Contemporary Teen Fiction

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Christine Jarvis writes quite a thought-provoking article on the work of Cate Tiernan (among others who write about teenage Wiccans). Jarvis writes: “Fictional witches are usually represented as supernatural beings, or as humans with supernatural abilities. There is, however, a small body of work for teenagers which presents witchcraft as a religious choice for human beings. Witches are identified as Wiccans, adherents of the contemporary pagan religion, who learn to be witches/Wiccans. Although these texts represent a minor proportion of teenage fiction, they are very popular. The success of Isobel Bird’s Circle of Three series, dealing with the experiences of three school friends when they begin to follow the Wiccan religion, led to 15 books. The witch, Willow, in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) has cult status; she also started life as an ordinary schoolgirl, who learned about Wicca, although Wiccan deities are not featured, as Winslade (2001) has noted. Cate Tiernan’s Wicca series (known as Sweep in the United States) also sold enough copies to [-p.44] warrant 15 publications and has been reissued recently.” (43)

“Strmiska (2006) recounts a history of violence and repressive attitudes towards paganism from mainstream religions that may account for the relatively low profile maintained by most Wiccans. This, combined with the fact that the religion has no one orthodox form or leader, and has any number of solitary practitioners, makes membership hard to quantify. He draws on the 2001 American Religious Identity Survey, undertaken by City University of New York, to note that 307,000 Americans identified themselves as Wiccan, Pagan or Druid. The anthropologist Margaret Murray posited a view of witchcraft’s history that gained considerable popularity (Murray 1921). She argued that it was the surviving form of a pagan religion that had been suppressed by Christianity. Her views were taken up by Gerald Gardner (1954) in his Witchcraft Today. Most modern versions of Wicca can be traced back to his work, which he claimed was based on his links with a surviving coven based in England’s New Forest. Murray’s thesis has been widely criticised and some (Trevor-Roper 1970; Thomas 1971; Kelly 1991) claim that Gardner created Wicca; that there was no survival from ancient times. Ronald Hutton (2000) presents a balanced, detailed view of this debate. He notes there is no good evidence for the existence of Wicca before the end of the 1940s and agrees that Gardner probably wrote some of the rituals and chants himself. He identifies many differences between Wicca and the pagan religions of ancient Europe. Nevertheless, Wicca, he argues, did not come from a vacuum, but draws on a ‘rich and complex collection of cultural impulses and processes’ (Hutton 2000, p. 115). He sees it as a continuation of four traditions: ritual magic, cunning craft, folk customs and classical art and literature. Modern witches practise many forms of the craft. Murray’s thesis is one that still has some hold in the popular imagination.

The notion of a secret survival of ancient knowledge, access to power and ritual and a rather romanticised history of oppression makes the religion an appealing topic for fictional treatment. The idea that witches and witchcraft have survived hidden for centuries is central to Tiernan’s novels. Studies of contemporary Wicca and witchcraft reveal considerable diversity of practice and belief (Scarboro and Luck 1997; Greenwood et al. 1995; Salomonsen 2002; Greenwood 2000). Greenwood indicates that the term Wicca should only be used to denote those witches following the Gardnerian tradition. In practice the term is often used by others, probably to dispel some of the opprobrium still attached to the word witch.” (44)

Wicca is monistic rather than dualistic, so does not divide the world into polarised good and evil, seeing these instead as part of a totality; this is reflected in its treatment of common moral issues. It differs from the larger monotheistic religions in its attitude towards women and sexuality and in its eclecticism and egalitarianism. Although scholars raise many points of detail, the consensus generally is that Wicca is a nature religion that stresses the immanence of the divine rather than transcendence, which in turn leads to a strong emphasis on responsibility, rather than rules. It also leads to inclusive forms of organisation, in which there is no [-p.45] mediator between the individual and the Divine. It focuses on the holiness of nature and the earth and its festivals, sabbats and esbats follow the cycles of the year. It respects male and female principles and worships a god and a goddess, although in many forms of Wicca the goddess appears to be dominant and is occasionally the sole deity. Women’s physicality is celebrated in contrast to the more equivocal attitudes towards the female body found in monotheistic religions. In its current form, then, it is compatible with a great many liberal, secular perspectives—particularly feminism and the Green movement.

Witchcraft has strong connections with the women’s movement…. The feminist orientation of contemporary witchcraft may explain its appeal to teenage girls.” (44-45)

“The presence of witches in teenage fiction has received attention from scholars (Mosely 2002; Moody 2005; Waller 2004). Mosely, concentrating on material such as Sabrina and the film The Craft looks at the potential for transgression in images of witchcraft, but argues that in teen fiction this is largely controlled and conventionalised. Focusing on the dual meaning of the term ‘glamour’ she notes how acceptable use of power is largely confined to the domestic, ‘glamorous, not excessive and bodily’ (p. 422). Alison Waller’s study of Margaret Mahy’s witches makes a similar point. Mahy’s witches, Waller argues, are placed ‘firmly back into domesticity and reality as soon as they have become comfortable with their magic’(p. 85). Moody also notes a degree of conformity in the presentation of young witches in these commercially successful products. She argues, however, that they do provide scope for ‘negotiating issues of consumption, feminism and alternative lifestyle’ (p. 57) and that the fantasy elements in the story provide opportunities to ‘subvert emerging and prevailing social norms’ (p. 57).

In this article I want to focus on something that has not been addressed directly—the intersection between fantasy and the socially and historically grounded portrayal of spiritual/religious experience and practice. The texts are interesting because they reflect a growing interest in spirituality amongst young people. I show how these texts use religious awakening as a vehicle and a metaphor for exploring questions of teenage female identity and personal growth. By choosing Wicca, with its monistic rather than dualistic morality, the books model a [-p.46] sophisticated approach to morality, values and decision making, which reflects the moral complexities of young people’s lives in postmodern, Western societies. I shall begin by considering the texts’ portrayal of the impact of religious belief in three areas of teenage life—the family, learning and self-discipline, and sex and sexuality, and then go on to look at how both romance and fantasy work alongside this social realism.” (45-46)

Jarvis concludes: “These texts offer girls the opportunity to undergo a fictional experience that takes religious and spiritual conversion and commitment seriously. Youth can be a time when religious feeling is particularly intense; the texts meet a need for religious experience and a connection with something greater than the self. The girls at the centre of the stories engage with a religion that challenges them. They feel empowered through a connection with an immanent pantheistic divinity; the experiences described are intense and life changing. In some respects this version of Wicca offers a counterbalance to youth culture; through their religion the girls are integrated with tradition, with ancient beliefs and with a community of older people who are not their guardians, just believers with more experience.” (51)

Ref: Christine Jarvis (2008) ‘Becoming a Woman Through Wicca: Witches and Wiccans in Contemporary Teen Fiction’ Children’s Literature in Education 39:43–52

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