Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

The Mirrors of Jamie Lannister: Who Does the “Kingslayer” Remind You Of?

(Note: Spoilers from A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Harry Potter series and the Legends of King Arthur.)

Jamie Lannister—the prodigy of the Seven Kingdoms, the youngest ever to join the legendary Kingsguard, the eldest son of Lord Tywin Lannister, the man who fucked his twin sister—the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. The “Kingslayer,” at first, appears to be your typically over-confident rich boy who uses his family name to get what he wants. Well, that is true. And yet, by the time he becomes a P.O.V. character in A Song of Ice and Fire series, we view things from his angle (obviously) and get a full understanding of the man.

Jamie Lannister is a very complicated person, almost at the level of Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series (I mean that in terms of personality, nothing else). For instance, both characters proved to be very talented in their areas of study that were expected from them. Severus Snape was so talented as a young wizard at Hogwarts he corrected the “mistakes” in his spell books. Jamie Lannister was deemed a prodigy swordsman by age ten.

Next, both men appear to be haughty and fixated on “revenge” against an individual, but we later find out that it is self-pity and annoyance surrounding the ignorance of past events that drives them. Snape joined the Death Eaters while he was still at Hogwarts. As time past, he eventually realized that the group had more hatred than he could handle. But, when he tried to protect his childhood friend, Lily Potter, from Lord Voldemort, he failed and never forgave himself for her death. Throughout the series, Harry Potter believes that Snape hated him because he was more like his father than his mother. Yes, Snape and James Potter never got along because both of them were in love with the same woman, it could be argued that Snape hated Voldemort more for killing Lily.

Jamie Lannister joined the Kingsguard after being “persuaded” by his sister Cersei. What neither of them knew was that the relationship between Mad King Aerys and their father, the Hand of the King, was on edge. It was widely believed that King Aerys accepted Jamie only to humiliate Tywin Lannister by disinheriting his “heir.” It was also immediately after joining the Kingsguard that Jaime realizes that the vows of knighthood did not mirror the vows of the Kingsguard. Jamie believed that the duties of a knight were “to protect the weak and the innocent.” However, Jamie felt worthless the longer he remained within the Kingsguard. He wasn’t even allowed to protect Queen Rhaella when her husband was ravishing her violently. It was at the Sacking of King’s Landing that Jamie decided he had to step in for the “kingdom” instead of the king. He killed Mad King Aerys and his pyromancers before fire could be set to the entire capital. Unfortunately, the only witness to the incident was Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, and he had gotten inside the throne room after the deaths. Jamie knew that no matter what he said, truth or lie, he—a member of the Kingsguard—killed the King. Ned Stark would have seen it as dishonorable either way. So, Jamie becomes hateful towards Ned Stark simply because Ned Stark would not hear reason behind King Aerys’ murder.

Last, both characters are seeking redemption for their past actions. As of right now Snape managed to gain redemption, after death. According to J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter shares the memories of Snape with Professor McGonagall and several other wizards after the Battle at Hogwarts. Thus, it is proven that Snape was working with Professor Dumbledore the entire time and is praised for his actions. Jamie Lannister is trying to redeem his honor and that of the Kingsguard. While the Kingsguard is beyond his control in terms of “structure,” Jamie is focusing on making fair decisions throughout the kingdom and attempting to search, to find, and to protect the daughters of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard Stark, Sansa and Arya. Based on what George R.R. Martin has said, Jamie will attempt to, but never complete his journey for redemption. It is here when the comparisons between Jamie Lannister and Severus Snape stop. However, there is another fictional character that Jamie Lannister can be compared with.

Sir Lancelot is a character (or even a true person based on the legends) that many people throughout the world are familiar with. Most notably, he is one of the famous Knights of the Round Table, from King Arthur’s kingdom of Camelot. He was a good-looking, talented swordsman whose deeds proved him to be a “true” knight. That is the tale told within the numerous editions and variants of the story of Lancelot. However, no one is perfect. When Mordred—King Arthur’s bastard son with his half-sister, Morgause—reveals the love affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, Camelot is thrown into a civil war, which brings about the end to the legendary kingdom. Hmm, this sounds very much like another popular story.

Jamie Lannister is most likely based on the character of Sir Lancelot, and to some extent King Arthur, from the Arthurian tales. Both men are handsome, are talented in the art of fighting, and are able to provide their talents for their king. Then, they commit adultery with their queen, and everything falls into chaos when the affair is revealed.

Sir Lancelot was said to be one of King Arthur’s best knights, and he was allowed to become part of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Jamie Lannister joined the Kingsguard when he was fifteen-years-old, the youngest ever to join the order in the Seven Kingdoms. Another thing both of these knights have in common is that they both love the queen they are supposed to serve and to protect. Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere (also spelled Gwenhwyfar) were in love with each other, but obviously Guinevere was already married to King Arthur (sounds like another romantic pair from A Song of Ice and Fire series, R+L=J!). In fact, some of the variants state that Sir Lancelot saved Queen Guinevere a few times when she was abducted or was in danger. However, this did not stop them from carrying out a love affair. When the affair is revealed, it is the distraction Mordred needed to start a war with King Arthur for rule over Camelot.

This is where Jamie Lannister mirrors King Arthur. King Arthur unknowingly sleeps with his half-sister, Morgause (or Morgan), and the result is Mordred, the (unacknowledged) bastard son of the king. Mordred was believed to have had a violent nature, and when his father left Camelot to fight a war, Mordred took complete control of the kingdom. Jamie Lannister carries an affair with his twin sister, Cersei, the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and that affair resulted in three children: Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen. The children are believed to be the heirs to King Robert Baratheon, until his brother, Stannis, and Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, begin to suspect the parentage. Joffrey has a sadistic nature, and when Robert Baratheon dies, Joffrey ascends the throne and starts a full-out war within the Seven Kingdoms. Like Mordred, Joffrey dies, and everyone is happy to see him go.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Mordred mortally wounded King Arthur, and Arthur is “buried” at Avalon. As of right now, Jamie is still alive and nowhere near his remaining children. In addition, Jamie displays no grief after Joffrey dies because he believed him to be an ineffective ruler. On one hand, in comparison to Sir Lancelot, Jamie and Cersei have ended their “relationship,” and Jamie, like Lancelot, decides to live the rest of his life honorably while seeking redemption. On the other hand, Lancelot lives the rest of his life as a hermit and in penitence. When Lancelot does die, he is buried at his castle where his tomb was already waiting for him. Jamie Lannister is making his way across the Seven Kingdoms with several companions, which include other knights and members of his family. When he does die, will be buried where he died, like the other members of the Kingsguard before him. It is unlikely that Jamie will be buried at Casterly Rock with his ancestors.

In all, Jamie Lannister is based on two Arthurian characters: King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. However, I argue that Jamie Lannister reminds fans of Severus Snape. I know GRRM does NOT want his fans to assume that his fantasy series will be anything like J.K. Rowling’s, but there are times when it cannot be helped. It means that these fictional characters are so well developed that we can automatically think of another rounded characters. At the same time, because we have an idea of the inspirations surrounding A Song of Ice and Fire (and Harry Potter) we have several theories and educated guesses as to what could happen to these characters in future tales.