‘The Once and Future Witches’: Where Women and their Words have Power

Once upon a time, Alix E. Harrow tells us in The Once and Future Witches, a man wronged a woman. The woman was in fact a witch, because as Harrow says, “behind every witch is a woman wronged.” The witch cursed the man, who, in dismay, asked who she was. Nobody, she said, cleverly, then fled. When the man was asked later who’d cursed him so that she could be found, he exclaimed, Nobody! It was Nobody!

I read Harrow’s anecdotal aside as apt allegory, given that Nobody is who the three Eastwood sisters are at the start of Harrow’s novel, a witch-tale about witch-tales, and the author’s first novel following the Hugo-award-winning portal fantasy The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Bella, Agnes, and Juniper Eastwood are nobodies. They are estranged from one another, broken, impotent, and invisible, all having suffered at the brutal hands of an abusive father. They are witches without the craft of witches, wayward women in a world that “binds and bridles” wayward women. They converge in the spring of 1893 on New Salem, a town in an alternate America. New Salem is about 100 miles distant from Old Salem, which was destroyed by witchcraft years before and is now just a macabre tourist attraction — a warning to women everywhere about the menace of “witching,” and by extension, the menace of women who do not fall in line.

Bella, the wise eldest, a librarian at the Salem College Library, seeks refuge in books and stories, those “doors to someplace else, someplace better.” Agnes, the second daughter, the strongest, wants to connect and nurture. Wild and fierce Juniper, the youngest of the three, is rage personified. She wants to reclaim her lost power — the rights to which she and all women are entitled as well as the “words and ways” of witchcraft. The sisters are modern-day versions of the Crone, Mother, and Maiden, the three archetypes in the witch-tales that litter Bella’s desk, and they, along with the suffragettes of the New Salem Women’s Association, are “the ones who want, who pine, who long; the ones who chafe against the stories they were given and dream of better ones.”

Over the course of the novel, the sisters must overcome their past grievances and heal their fractures, build a sisterhood with other women, and rediscover and master the spells half-hidden by the witches of yore in fairy tales, nursery rhymes, lullabies, and children’s stories. And standing in their way is a power-hungry witch-in-hiding determined to hoard and wield all lost magic in a New Salem rife with disease, social upheaval, racism, bigotry, and sexism.

Harrow’s story lies firmly within the feminist tradition, reflective of the social commentaries of modern feminist thinkers like Kate Manne and Rebecca Traister and reminiscent of women’s recent and growing exercise of their political power, especially as evidenced by the Women’s March of 2017 and the #MeToo movement. Today’s women are angry and motivated by feelings of powerlessness. But Harrow seems to be saying that power can be found in connection, in a collective of women within and across generations, united together and striving to achieve a common goal.

“A girl is such an easy thing to break; weak and fragile, all alone, all yours,” Harrow writes. “But they aren’t girls anymore, and they don’t belong to anyone. And they aren’t alone.” When united, the Eastwood sisters — and all women — can live in a world “where women and their words have power.” After all, what is an incantation if not words with power, words with weight?

It’s a good thing that we women, we witches, have not lost but only misplaced our craft. Harrow’s use of “once and future” in The Once and Future Witches evokes the title of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which was published in 1958 and was a retelling of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. White’s novel alludes to the prophecy that Arthur was king once upon a time and will return to be king again when his country needs him. The same goes for Bella, Agnes, and Juniper, and indeed all women, who were witches once upon a time. What once was will be again. Interestingly, the legend of King Arthur endures in the same way that witch-tales endure, and in one sense, Harrow’s new novel is, like her first, an homage to the endurance of stories and storytelling.

If I had just one criticism to level against the novel, it would be that the suffragette story thread was dropped early on. A book about suffrage and spells became a book about spells. I would’ve liked to spend more time with the members of the New Salem Women’s Association and watch them interact with the Eastwood sisters’ coven. But this misstep was minor. The Eastwood sisters are deftly characterized, and glorious in their imperfections; the world is imaginatively built; and the tale entertains. I found myself lingering over some of Harrow’s figurative language (“… her voice is as crisp and neat as the turn of a staple”), which made the associative networks in my brain sing.

I rooted for Bella, Agnes, and Juniper every step of the way. I yearned for them to find that which they’d misplaced. The words and ways are powerful, and Harrow proves she has both.

FICTION
The Once and Future Witches
By Alix E. Harrow
Redhook
Published October 13, 2020