Wise Women: Willfulness or Witchcraft?: Background information when reading The Rules of Magic

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The Rules of Magic

by Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman X
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2017, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2018, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag

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Wise Women: Willfulness or Witchcraft?

This article relates to The Rules of Magic

Print Review

Practical MagicWhether talking about Rules of Magic or its predecessor, Practical Magic, Hoffman always makes one thing clear about the Owens sisters – there is something different about them. The town is not quite sure whether to revile or fear them, but that never stops the community from turning to the Owens' unorthodox problem-solving methods if they have a need. The Owens women have special knowledge and power, something that simultaneously isolates them and gives them prestige. In short, they are witches; figures that constantly appear in many magical tales, fairy tales, and bits of folklore all over the world, often as old women who are meant to be feared.

Baba YagaHoffman isn't the first writer to draw on the play between witches, wise women, women's knowledge, and women's power. Evil stepmothers, hags, cultural icons such as Russian Baba Yaga and Japanese Yamauba – all of these women are old, and wield power and knowledge. They instill fear because they can exert change upon protagonists – and readers. But despite their negative connotations, as in Hoffman's novels, people turn to them for help. Though on the surface largely unflattering, they are almost the only women in traditional stories who have power over their societies and the people in them – and a woman with power is one of the scariest things imaginable for the status quo. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote of stepmothers in their iconic text, The Madwoman in the Attic: "…even while they kill [they] confer the only measure of power available to a woman in a patriarchal culture."

Emerald City's GlindaEven when presumably benevolent, women with power are to be feared. Think of Dorothy landing in Oz – she drops a house on the Wicked Witch of the East and the denizens of Munchkinland do not know whether to laud her or fear her; Glinda's first question is "are you a good witch or a bad witch" – for what else could one with such power be? Even Glinda, though clearly beloved by her citizens, is marked as different from those she cares for, and she is a force to be reckoned with and to be feared - this is seen even more pronouncedly in the contemporary TV series Emerald City.

Hoffman's witches are no different. Even as we grow to love them and empathize with their many heartbreaks and hardships, we know that, for all the positives and problem-solving they may bring to other people's lives, there is always that underlying question: what might they be able to do if in not so kind a mood? But it is not just their supernatural powers that make people wary. It is their demeanor and willfulness, their pride in their heritage and identity, and the audaciousness of not choosing to hide to make other people more comfortable.

To ask if this is because of the magic, or if the magic has something to do with this willful streak, is almost irrelevant. What matters more is that the capacity to inflict harm or influence for good remains the same; whether through curses or simply the secrets of their neighbors, for Hoffman's witches, like for so many others, knowledge is power, and is terrifying to those who know they won't be able to control the direction in which that power is eventually expressed.

The Owens sisters
Baba Yaga, by Ivan Billbin, courtesy of www.oldrussia.net
Jolie Richardson as Glinda in Emerald City

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Rules of Magic. It originally ran in October 2017 and has been updated for the June 2018 paperback edition.

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