By Shawn Stjean
We return to this series, as we often do in October, to devote a little analysis to the better understanding of commonly seen (and often misinterpreted) figures and events in storytelling. Or, as I prefer to call it, our cultural mythology.
Entire blogs and books are devoted to the subject of witches, so I’m treating them here in a special circumstance: when appearing as half of two lesser-known figures that function together as a pair. Other examples, beyond the familiar Oz universe, of this pairing include:
-the Oracle and the Architect from The Matrix films
-Morgan Le Fey and Merlin of Arthurian legend
-Eve and Adam
-Pandora and Prometheus
Sometimes the witch-figure is masculinized, though the specific male-witch character will often exhibit feminine traits of nurturing and guidance:
-Gilliam and Wilford from Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer
-Gandalf and Saruman from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
-Arioch and Donblas from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga
-Even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader function this way.
The fact that these two figures often covertly conspire together, or at least operate with a tacit understanding of the need for the other’s existence, signals their true nature at the archetypal level. On the surface, the two might be bitter enemies–“Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West,” commands Oz–but perhaps “rivals” might be more accurate.
Beneath the local storytelling level, the couple are really two parts of a whole: the “witch” is an agent of the primal, universal force of Chaos, and the Wizard a custodian and operative of Order. This fundamental addiction to dualism in storytelling results from the inability of mortal human beings to reconcile existence into its transcendent reality as One, as Joseph Campbell once told Bill Moyers. However, this working together for balance, a yang-and-yin harmony, is the storyteller’s acknowledgement of the need for both. One without the other? You may as well ask for an ebb without a tideflow, a moon without a sun, female without male.
For westerners, this primal level can be hard to penetrate because of our cultural bias against Chaotic forces, identifying them as “wicked” or “evil.” The original inhabitants of our American continent held no such biases. Whatever was useful was good; otherwise, try to avoid it. For example, in Lakota mythology, Iya (the Eater) and Iktomi (the Spider) are siblings. The Native Americans instead prefer a “Trickster” figure (a la Hermes among the ancient Greeks, as opposed to brother Apollo,) who sows disorder in a Boethian way–through ignorance, selfishness,stupidity, and accident, but without intent to harm.
(By the way, this shift in emphasis is not be taken as a philosophical argument that evil never exists. Clearly, Hitler stood for fascistic order, and the Allied forces opposing him stood for a more tolerant, democratic order.)
How, then, to spot these figures in a story, and recognize that the story of “good vs. evil” is often really our cultural shorthand for a tension that exists in each human being, even at the biological level–every pump of the bellows of the heart, inhalation/exhalation of the lungs, every emotion and countering bit of logic?
Science and Technology are manifestations of Order as a force; Magic/”Powers” are manifestations of Chaos as a force–wherein the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, are voided. Characters with command of magic don’t “play by the rules.” A spell or enchantment violates space, or gravity, or free will; a prophecy violates Time. But when a machine is built to accomplish these same feats? Everybody wants one. As old as the antagonism between reason and mysticism, is this divide.
There’s a complicating factor in the West: gender. Cries of “Witch” at first glance signal acknowledgement of the presence of a powerful woman, but really mean a woman beyond control–and the use of the slur is a final desperate attempt to regain that power, to call in the force of the collective against the relatively vulnerable individual. The parallel gender slur “Bitch” is a variant, defining the woman as merely a female, at the animal level.
Women have been villainized because they are unconsciously identified with Chaos–lack of control, emotion, a lure to sexuality, even insanity. “She” embodies the human inability to understand (“Weird,” we say–as in Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters–as a placeholder for that which we have yet to comprehend.) Recall that Circe–the most powerful female antagonist of Homer’s Odyssey–was denigrated from her proper status of goddess to a mere “witch.”
Often, agents of Chaos appear as Oracles–a brilliant trick, as it appears to sort things out–reveal the future. But prophecies are riddles that are subject to, and often are, misinterpreted, a storyteller’s way of warning us against too-slavish devotion to Order.
And the Wizard?–well, let us not forget one thing: he’s a fraud. Oz hides behind a bombastic projection of technology, Vader is half a robot, the Architect retreats to his room of computer screens. Order is at least as artificial a construct as Chaos, and as tenuous–as anyone who has ever experienced the danger of over-reliance upon technology–a flat tire, a dead cell phone battery, a corrupted hard drive–can attest. We crave order, routine, solidity beneath our feet, and we resist change, dynamism, and unpredictability–and yet these are catalysts of growth. The struggle of losing control, regaining it, and losing again are the very rhythms of life.
Agents of Order often appear as policemen and soldiers (the Sheriff of Nottingham or Sherriff Will Teasle or Javert) versus the intrusive elements and undesirables (Robin Hood or Rambo or Valjean) that threaten the community’s authoritarian stability. Thus we arrive at another of the tacit recognitions that Chaos is not inherently evil: the Western tradition of the rebel-hero (beginning with Prometheus versus Zeus). Only relatively recently have women been gaining access to these non-stygmatized roles, appropriately enough as adolescents (Bella Swan of Twilight, Beatrice Prior of Divergent.) Here, age prejudice intersects with gender prejudice in a kind of double-double standard. It remains largely to be seen if adult and mature women of Chaos can gain heroic acceptance as anarchistic rebels, and cease being dismissed as crazy old crones.