Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Virago Book of Witches - Shahrukh Husain

I’ve wanted the Virago Book of Witches for a few years, but whenever I had checked for second hand copies they were to expensive to be tempting, and I’ve never yet spotted a copy in a charity shop (although now I have it what’s the betting they turn up everywhere). Imagine them how pleased I am that it’s been reissued as a particularly handsome hardback.

Hardbacks aren’t normally my thing (in the battle between space and a love of physical books, paperbacks are my preference) but this one will look especially nice with the Angela Carter edited edition of Virago Fairy Tales. Also, I’m a sucker for anything with an owl on it.

The Virago Book of Witches is also a collection of fairy tales from around the world, but specifically ones that deal with Witches in all their various traditions. There are chapters on ‘Alluring Women and Ailing Knights’ (Indravati and the Seven Sisters is a memorable opening for its distinctly purple prose). ‘Wise Old Women’, which starts with ‘I Love You More Than Salt’, a story I read once as a child and have never seen since. I’d sort of mixed it up with King Lear, Shahrukh Husain’s Version comes with an interesting array of Scottish accents which give it a whole new life.

There are  also chapters on ‘Witches in Love: Possessive Women and Devoted Wives’, ‘Transformations’, ‘Guardians of the Seasons and Elements’, ‘Witchy Devices: Cauldron, Broomsticks, and Trysts with the Devil’, ‘Hungry Hags: Cannibals and Blood-Suckers’, and ‘Trials and Contests’.

The attraction of the witch in all and any of her forms is that she gets to be so many of the things that women traditionally are not allowed to be. She has power, she can pursue sex, behave badly, be destructive, be old, be free. She can fly. A force of both good and ill, a scapegoat with powers that are both desirable and fearsome.

This is a fabulous collection to dip in and out of with an impressive variety of source material. The preface and introduction are excellent, and there are useful endnotes too. Had I known what I was missing I might have coughed up for a second hand copy long ago.

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