Michael Victor Bowman was once chased by an angry hippo in Tanzania — the most interesting seven seconds of his life. The most interesting six seconds are another story… He grew up preferring fantasy to football, and, as a writer, he’ll try any genre at least once, but always comes home to science fiction and fantasy.
His published works include ‘The Lucky Ones’ (in The Book of Angels), a story about angels trapped on Earth, and ‘Black and White’, a new take on the mythology of dragons (in The Book of Dragons). His books can be found on Amazon and, when he isn’t writing, he can usually be found walking a dog.
Today, he contributes a fascinating essay to celebrate the release of The Book of Witches in which his latest story ‘Heart’s Desire’ can be found.
Follow him on Twitter: @mvictorbowman.
Writing, Subverting Old Tropes
& The Book of Witches
By Michael Victor Bowman
In the heart of a mysterious forest a lonely traveller comes upon a ramshackle cottage nestled amongst the trees, so old it might have been abandoned generations ago, were it not for the thin wisps of smoke seeping through the thatched roof. Here lives the witch of local legend, about whom terrible stories are told in the village tavern on stormy nights, and of whom small children are taught to be afraid by cautious parents:
She will steal you away through the open window, and boil you alive in her cauldron!
She will chew on your flesh with her one good tooth, and decorate her cottage with your bones!
And as the child lies in bed, small fingers clutching the sheets, peering with fearful eyes at the window, the gentle tap-tap-tap of the shutters as they shift in the breeze becomes the knock-knock-knock of the lonely traveller upon the ancient wood of the witch’s door.
So, what do we find when the creaky old door opens under the lonely traveller’s hand?
First we must ask, what is the stereotypical witch? Or at least, what is the most recognisable form the witch has taken in the post-Victorian, post-Disney, post-1980’s Fantasy Movie age? Discoloured skin, hook nose, funereal dress sense. Check, check and check.
What props does she have? A boiling cauldron full of exotic and often disgusting ingredients. How does she behave? Does she make a habit of cackling? One might think the traditional witch was a figure of power and fear, a feminist icon, an affirmation of female potency, but not so.
The disfigured appearance is often attributed to the ravages of age (a state of weakness, by definition), but her appearance is actually an outward manifestation of her innate evil, which robs her of the greatest powers that woman in literature, and throughout most of history, have had: beauty, sex and reproduction.
To attain these powers, the traditional witch can only cast spells to blind the lonely traveller with an illusion of beauty, but the illusion is always temporary; the witch is doomed to return to her state of powerlessness. Because, obviously, women who can’t attract a man are powerless, right?
The lonely traveller is invariably a strong young male, invariably heroic in some way, invariably “honourable” (which is not the same as “moral”) but still driven by base desires; he falls for the illusion of beauty, usually without questioning it, and frequently proves himself unfaithful to his one true love in the process. And, of course, he invariably defeats the “evil” witch.
But what if the witch’s appearance was not the result of weakness or innate evil? What if the witch was simply a different ethnicity, or even a different species of human kind? Normalcy is relative, and among her own people the witch is no different to anyone else. She might even be considered beautiful, and she might even be a good, kind, moral person.
But to the inhabitants of the village and their children, she is the only one of her kind they have ever seen, and so they don’t stop to wonder if she is actually a nice person in a difficult situation. To them, she is just a monster.
And what if the lonely traveller were not the strong young, virile hero, blessed by nature and beloved of the fairest maiden, and who is all but destined to defeat the witch? What if he is older and embittered? What if he comes from a background of personal tragedy and loss that has warped him inside, and that drives him to commit crimes that some would call evil, if it were the witch that did them?
Everyone knows that witches live in crumbling cottages in the deep, dark forest. They enchant lonely travellers and eat small children. So what better place to start? It’s a recurrent theme in folklore and literature that is instantly recognisable, and just as instantly sets the scene without tedious pages and pages of preamble, which is why writers love it, and probably why I did the same in my own story.
But it also challenges the writer to subvert the reader’s expectations, to add some creative flair to the tired old mix, and to surprise the reader with some new take on an old trope.
So what’s my new take on this old trope?
Well, I could tell you, but that would spoil the story! So if you really want to know what I did to subvert your expectations, to add some creative flair and to surprise you with a genuine twist at the end, then you’d better go and read ‘Heart’s Desire’.
Michael Victor Bowman
– August 2020