Henry Longfellow’s “Musician’s Tale: The Saga of King Olaf” from his Tales of the Wayside Inn appears on the surface to be little more than a retelling and versification of the Old Norse-Icelandic saga Heimskringla which includes accounts of King Olaf Tryggvason. Of course, in the process, Longfellow adapts the medieval story honoring converter-king Olaf Tryggvason in his modern English translation suited for American audiences and his poem is mediated through Samuel Laing’s translation which Longfellow used as a model. Situating the poem in its the historical context, I would argue, highlights some of the rhetorical implications surrounding early American works of medievalism, such as Longfellow’s “The Saga of King Olaf.”
Archaic diction, especially medieval English terms and compounds, adorn the epic poetic retelling of the saga, such as the line “Through weald, they say, and through wold,” which include two alliterating terms “weald” [a forest] and “wold” [a wooded hill], both deriving from the Old English word wold meaning “wilderness,” and this embeds archaism into the poem.
In the previous blog, I included the opening stanza of the epic poem, “The Challenge of Thor” which Olaf then answers:
“And King Olaf heard the cry, Saw the red light in the sky, Laid his hand upon his sword,
There he stood as one who dreamed; And the red light glanced and gleamed On the armor that he wore; And he shouted, as the rifted Streamers o’er him shook and shifted, “I accept thy challenge, Thor!”
This initiates the presentation of Olaf as a violent converter and warrior of Christ, which makes him an enemy of indigenous Scandinavian religion.
Religion continuously causes tension in the poem. When Queen Sigrid, whom Olaf pursues as his queen, refuses to convert to Christianity, he beats her in punishment, demonstrating again his use of violent conversion.
“A footstep was heard on the outer stair, And in strode King Olaf with royal air.
He kissed the Queen’s hand, and he whispered of love, And swore to be true as the stars are above.
But she smiled with contempt as she answered: “O King, Will you swear it, as Odin once swore, on the ring?”
And the King: “O speak not of Odin to me, The wife of King Olaf a Christian must be.”
Looking straight at the King, with her level brows, She said, “I keep true to my faith and my vows.”
Then the face of King Olaf was darkened with gloom, He rose in his anger and strode through the room.
“Why, then, should I care to have thee?” he said,– “A faded old woman, a heathenish jade!
His zeal was stronger than fear or love, And he struck the Queen in the face with his glove.“
This section, surely designed to demonstrate Olaf’s Christian zeal, reveals to Sigurd how abusive a husband he would be, and her decision not to wed him, while couched in fidelity to her indigenous beliefs, could have just as much to do with the violence he displays toward her as a result of her assertion of her voice and her commitment to her beliefs.
Olaf’s violence persists as he converts the pagans—frequently called warlocks and witches—but Longfellow seems to applaud the deliverance of his enemies for “thus the sorcerers were christened!”
Held up as validation of his conversionary conquests, Olaf finds the ghost of Odin, and proclaims the Allfather dead:
“King Olaf crossed himself and said: “I know that Odin the Great is dead; Sure is the triumph of our Faith, The one-eyed stranger was his wraith.”
Longfellow’s narrative takes this a step further later in the poem,
“All the old gods are dead, All the wild warlocks fled; But the White Christ lives and reigns, And throughout my wide domains His Gospel shall be spread!” On the Evangelists Thus swore King Olaf.
When it comes to human sacrifice, Olaf threatens that if the pagan practice continues, then it will be the upper not the lower class offered as sacrifices to the gods, and in making this threat of violence against the aristocracy, convinces them to give up the practice.
“Such sacrifices shalt thou bring; To Odin and to Thor, O King, As other kings have done in their devotion!”
King Olaf answered: “I command This land to be a Christian land; Here is my Bishop who the folk baptizes!
“But if you ask me to restore Your sacrifices, stained with gore, Then will I offer human sacrifices!
“Not slaves and peasants shall they be, But men of note and high degree, Such men as Orm of Lyra and Kar of Gryting!”
Then to their Temple strode he in, And loud behind him heard the din Of his men-at-arms and the peasants fiercely fighting.
There in the Temple, carved in wood, The image of great Odin stood, And other gods, with Thor supreme among them.
King Olaf smote them with the blade Of his huge war-axe, gold inlaid, And downward shattered to the pavement flung them.
At the same moment rose without, From the contending crowd, a shout, A mingled sound of triumph and of wailing.
And there upon the trampled plain The farmer Iron-Beard lay slain, Midway between the assailed and the assailing.
King Olaf from the doorway spoke. “Choose ye between two things, my folk, To be baptized or given up to slaughter!”
And seeing their leader stark and dead, The people with a murmur said, “O King, baptize us with thy holy water.”
Even the notoriously unruly Thangbrand, described repeatedly as “Olaf’s Priest” and credited with Christianizing Iceland through violence, is praised for his efforts and paralleled with Olaf’s missionizing work:
All the prayers he knew by rote, He could preach like Chrysostome, From the Fathers he could quote, He had even been at Rome, A learned clerk, A man of mark, Was this Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
He was quarrelsome and loud, And impatient of control, Boisterous in the market crowd, Boisterous at the wassail-bowl, Everywhere Would drink and swear, Swaggering Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest
In his house this malcontent Could the King no longer bear, So to Iceland he was sent To convert the heathen there, And away One summer day Sailed this Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
Of course, when met with resistance from those still adhering to indigenous cultural practice, Thrangbrand resorts to violence, in accordance with his benefactor:
Hardly knowing what he did, Then he smote them might and main, Thorvald Veile and Veterlid Lay there in the alehouse slain. “To-day we are gold, To-morrow mould!” Muttered Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
Much in fear of axe and rope, Back to Norway sailed he then. “O King Olaf! little hope Is there of these Iceland men!” Meekly said, With bending head, Pious Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest
The final line of this stanza is repeated twice in the poem, communicating the violent nature of Olaf’s mission and emphasizing the brutality associated with his Christianization of the indigenous cultural practice.
In their temples Thor and Odin Lay in dust and ashes trodden, As King Olaf, onward sweeping, Preached the Gospel with his sword
The ethnonationalist overlay, as well as situating this saga retelling as a tale in colonial America, parallels the violent Christianization of indigenous peoples in North America, extending from the earliest colonial period to the ongoing American “Indian wars,” which the United States government was conducting, and which would not conclude until after the Civil War. “White Man’s Burden” justifications loomed large, and literature such as Longfellow’s “Musician’s Tale” support the continued Christianization and Westernization of indigenous cultures in the United States as around the globe to European colonial powers.
Although primarily revered as a scholar and poet, Longfellow was also an abolitionist who supported the anti-slavery movement in the mid-nineteenth century with both his art and his resources, and in 1842 write Poems on Slavery in an effort to draw attention to the inhumane cruelty of slavery, and he contributed financially to abolitionist organizations and individuals. Additionally, Longfellow was intrigued by indigenous peoples, and Longfellow’s most famous poem, The Song of Hiawatha, tells a fictionalized tale in part inspired by Ojibwe legend, but likely influenced by nationalistic epic projects, such as the Finnish Kalevala. Of course, Longfellow’s goal to include Anishinaabe legend in American literary canon could be viewed as inclusive in that it offers Anishinaabe peoples representation that might help preserve and celebrate their cultural heritage. However, Longfellow’s poem, perhaps unconsciously or subconsciously, reinforces harmful stereotypes and corroborates assimilation attempts by missionaries and government Indian agents to Anglicize indigenous people, which worked to erase cultural practices and identities.
Longfellow’s interest in King Olaf I aligns him with other romantic antiquarians, but the rhetoric that emerges from a retelling of an Old-Norse Icelandic saga as a tale told in the cozy Wayside Inn in colonial Massachusetts creates an ethnonational link with medieval Europe and a religious model for conversion subjugation of indigenous peoples and belief systems by force and through an overt threat of violence. Since the advent of early modern European colonialization, efforts to Westernize indigenous people in North America were part of the same tradition of civilizing heathens through violent missionizing, just as certain early medieval Christianizing kings, such as Olaf I and Charlemagne, practiced conversion by the sword.
Longfellow articulates a melancholy nostalgia and romantic reverence for indigenous people, stating:
“As population advances westward, the plough-share turns up the wasted skeleton; and happy villages arise upon the sites of unknown burial-places. And when our native Indians, who are fast perishing from the earth, shall have left forever the borders of our wide lakes and rivers, and their villages have decayed within the bosom of our western hills, the dim light of tradition will rest upon those places, which have seen the glory of their battles, and heard the voice of heir eloquence;—and our land will become, indeed, a classic ground.”
However, the use of pronouns—us and them—demonstrates Longfellow’s view that the time for the indigenous is over as United States continues expanding west, an idea that remains toxic to the numerous, yet all-too-invisible, indigenous communities who resides in every state in the union.
Moreover, Longfellow’s medievalism participates in a broader social trend that serves to connect America with Europe through a shared historical and ethnonationalist identity. This rhetorical implication and paralleling create an historical allegory and provides the rationale for acts of genocide perpetrated by the American government and European colonists against indigenous peoples in North America, and the “New World” more broadly. It further reinforces as well, the New World—Old World rhetorical connection. Like many medieval theologians parallel the Old Testament with the New Testament, and at times use the Old Testament as a source of prophecy, Christianization of the indigenous Old World of the pagan North serves as a prophetic roadmap for Manifest Destiny and American westward expansion, which frequently employ violence and committed acts of genocide as a means of Christianizing and Westernizing indigenous peoples.
Richard Fahey, Ph.D. Medieval Studies University of Notre Dame
Animal symbolism is an important part of the visual imagery of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, released in 2022. But where do they come from? What do they mean?
Anyone who has seen The Northman knows that director Robert Eggers is interested in history and mythology. In a recent interview with Slate, he went into considerable detail about the archaeological and literary sources for many of the events and images of his latest film. Snippets of archaeological evidence from the Orkey isles, the Osberg tapestry, and Snorri’s Edda are all woven into his story. It’s also no secret that Eggers’s films lean heavily on animal symbolism: goats and gulls are everywhere in The Vvitch and The Lighthouse. I was therefore surprised that, in his Slate interview, Eggars didn’t touch on one area that seemed ubiquitous in his latest film: the motif known in Old English scholarship as ‘the beasts of battle.’
What are the Beasts of Battle?
Simply put, the ‘beasts of battle’ are the ravens, wolves, and eagles who come to devour the slain on the battlefield. Though they are staples of early Germanic literature, their purpose remains pretty mysterious. When Arnorr Jarlaskald, the 11th century Icelandic poet, commemorated the battle of Nesjar, fought between King Olav Haraldsson and Earl Svein Hakonsson of Lade in 1016, he wrote:
Sandy corpses of [the loser] Sveinn’s men are cast from the south onto the beaches; far and wide people see where bodies float off Jutland. The wolf drags a heap of slain from the water; Olav’s son made fasting forbidden for the eagle; the wolf tears a corpse in the bays.
The beasts help themselves to the dead, and the dead are reduced to food for the beasts. In Egil’s saga, the 11th century poet Egil Skallagrimsson records that his father was a werewolf, who ripped out a man’s throat with his teeth and was nourished by the blood. Even in the complex mythology of the Vikings, carrion eaters are there to consume corpses. The wolf Fenrir, son of Loki and the giantess Angerboda, will be magically chained until Ragnarok (the Norse Doomsday), at which point he will fight and swallow Odin. His purpose is foretold in the Edda, and the very act of chaining him points towards this dark day when he will devour the dead.
The beasts are also a feature of Old English poetry, one of the few markers that hint at literary traditions once shared across northern Europe and now sadly lost. In 991, near the town of Maldon in Essex, England, Earl Byrhtnoth of Mercia led an army into battle to repel his enemy Olaf’s Viking invasion. Byrhynoth suffered a major defeat, which was immortalized a century later in an anonymous poem called ‘The Battle of Maldon.’ In the poem, just before the armies clash, the poet writes that ‘Hremmas wundon, earn æses georn’ (‘ravens circled, eagles eager for food,’ 106-7). They are a dark symbol of fate, of the inevitable slaughter of battle. In fact, the poet calls the Vikings ‘wælwulfas,’ ‘wolves of slaughter’ (96), a role that Amleth inhabits fully in Eggers’ The Northman. Griffith summarized the ‘beasts of battle’ trope thus: ‘in the wake of an army, the dark raven, the dewy-plumaged eagle and the wolf of the forest, eager for slaughter and carrion/food, give voice to their joy.’
The Meaning of the Beasts of Battle
But what do these beasts mean? Beyond their bloodlust, what function might they play? Clearly they are closely connected to battle, a terrifying and ever-present reminder of the ultimate price humanity pays for war. But they also seem to be about dying as an act of nourishment. Old Norse poetry was interested in the borders between human culture and the natural world typified by processes like ‘birth, the unpredictable tenor of life (where Fate was operative) and death.’ Death and eating carrion are both natural processes, but human conflict is not. By eating the dead, the wolves and ravens bring the human into their natural reality. Death feeds them so that they can thrive; it’s a process of naturalizing humans, but also about a cycle of death and life. One gives life to the other. Of course, the animals are also mythological. As we’ve seen, the wolves have a mythological counterpart in Fenrir, as well as Odin’s wolves Freki and Geri (‘Ravener’ and ‘Greed’). Thor’s ravens Hugin and Munin, who travel the earth each day to bring him wisdom and prophetic knowledge, are supernatural versions of the ravens who fly over the battlefield. So these beasts of battle are part of the mythological story of the Vikings, as well as the natural cycles of life and death.
In The Northman, Amleth and his father take on the wolf as a totemic animal. In his Slate interview, Eggers acknowledges that young Amleth’s coming-of-age wolf ceremony, led by the Fool in a cave, isn’t drawn from any specific Viking ritual. The setting is derived from a burial chamber found in the Orkney Isles, and the Fool’s ceremonial rattle comes from an archaeological find, and plenty of creative license is taken with them. However, it establishes a connection between Amleth and the wolves from the very beginning of the film. We see him acting as a wolf-pup in the ritual deep in the earth, and then becoming a wolf as a berserker and, as though he were Egill’s own father, ripping out a man’s throat. Historically, berserkers were feared warriors whose ferocity on the battlefield was legendary: they were said to feel no pain. It’s not clear how Viking berserkers developed this immunity—Eggers accounts for it in his film via a trance-inducing ritual. As he torments his uncle, Amleth continues to embody the ferocity and cunning of the wolf. In a revenge tragedy like The Northman, it’s only fitting that the main character’s totemic animal is also a prophetic foretelling of his own death.
Amleth’s father is a nobleman called the Raven Lord, and at several moments a black raven appears to remind Amleth of his duty, as though his father is watching over him. His hero’s journey in The Northman is to avenge his father’s death. But the raven was a symbol of wisdom—a creature that can see the present and the future. Its presence hints at the death that follows Amleth. When he reaches Iceland, Amleth kills his uncle’s eldest son and Amleth’s half-brother, Thórir. When Fjölnir finds the body, it is surrounded by hundreds of ravens. Death has come for Fjölnir and his family. The Raven Lord’s vengeance is near at hand. But in the final showdown between Amleth and Fjölnir, there is no winner. Each kills the other. The ravens were waiting for both of them, and they will feed on them in death. Both men are absorbed into the natural world, and their deaths will nourish the carrion-eaters. In fact, their death also ensures the survival of Amleth’s own son and daughter, who are taken to safety by their mother Olga. But the blood that was spilled in their name—Fjölnir’s entire family, his soldiers, his friends—is inescapable.
The animals of The Northman are companions, tribal markers, but also dark omens of the inevitable death to come. Their presence reminds Amleth, and the audience, that death—his death—is always near at hand. Perhaps The Northman is a piece of Viking literature not because of its longships, Thor’s hammers, Valkyries, but because, in the end, the only certainty is Fate.
Will Beattie PhD Candidate Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
Perri Nemiroff, ‘The Lighthouse Director Robert Eggers Teases What the Seagull Means,’ Collider [Accessed 5/12/22]; Padraig Cotter, ‘The Witch’s Black Philip Explained,’ Screenrant [Accessed 5/12/22].
Growing up, I always loved wizards. All the most epic stories seemed to have them: mysterious wanderers dispensing arcane wisdom and providing just the right information at just the right time to just the right person. Wizards—in particular white male wizards—enjoy a distinct privilege in contemporary Fantasy literature. They are part of a larger trend identified by Helen Young as “habits of whiteness” within the genre. Wizards are often presented as mythic, almost godlike, figures who wield cosmic power and inevitably play a pivotal role in the narrative even if only from the periphery.
Witches, on the other hand, get the short end of the magic wand. From early medieval characterizations of Odin and Merlin to modern Fantasy figures such as Gandalf and Dumbledore, wizened male magic-users are repeatedly glorified, often leaving the more pejorative treatments for characterizations of magical women, especially witches. This wizard male privilege reinforces an ancient tradition of misogyny that likewise reaches back to the classical Greco-Roman myths of Medea and medieval tales of Morgan Le Fay, and which extends to include modern antagonists such as the Land of Oz’s infamous Wicked Witch of the West and Narnia’s White Witch, Jadis. This intersectional blog continues our recent series on magic which has recently explored issues of plague-related magical thinking, late medieval necromancy and sexist witch-stereotypes.
When you think of a wizard, what comes to mind? Probably some grandfatherly magician, a devout guardian of arcane knowledge and power—incorruptible and undaunted—who will face any foe and sacrifice everything for the greater good. These brilliant men are often benevolent and trustworthy advisors, stewarding from their ivory towers and steering the destinies of younger heroes. Someone like this:
This image of Gandalf from Peter Jackson’s film adaptions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit highlights the way in which wizards are visually represented: wizened, powerful and good. This positive treatment of wisemen can be trace in the Abrahamic tradition to figures such as Moses, with his staff, curses and divine knowledge, to the three Magi—zoroastrian priests from Persia—who come to visit Christ and recognize his divinity by astrology. In the medieval tradition, King Arthur’s trusty magician Merlin is credited for building Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth fanciful Historia regum Britanniae helping to cement Merlin thereafter as an almost archetypal wizard throughout Europe. The Old Norse-Icelandic god of war and occult knowledge, Odin, likewise provides a similar image of a wise man who knows the secret runes and can therefore harness its power and magic. Even in sagas recorded centuries after Christianization, Odin is often still portrayed as generally wise and powerful.
The images of the noble wizard as a knowledgeable magician is later carried forward and adapted from characters such as the early modern Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest to iconic wizards from contemporary Fantasy literature such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf and J.K. Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore. Wizards are principally characterized as knowledge-keepers and their power comes from their supreme intellect and years of devoted study—especially their command over magic words and occult language—emphasizing arcane wisdom and magical literacy above all. They are mentors. They are sages. Sometime they are prophets or even saviors (from Mallory’s Merlin saving an infant King Arthur to Rawling’s Dumbledore saving an infant Harry Potter).
Throughout literary history, wizards are most often of the alchemist and astronomer sort. Of course, there are also the characteristically evil sorcerers (who often take the title of “dark lord”), which include Fantasy archvillains—such as Tolkien’s Sauron or Rawling’s Voldemort. The evil sorcerer trope also encompasses complicated, conflicted or converted wizards, such as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and Severus Snape in Harry Potter, in addition to lesser known mages such Ged from Earthsea and Raistlin Majere from Dragonlance. Most modern examples of evil sorcerers and “dark lords” are monsterized or racialized (often both), and depicted as inhuman in the fashion of a witch.
The evil sorcerer caricature likewise overlaps with a medieval magical tradition known as necromancy, which often involves imitation and perversion of the Christian mass and church ritual, with the goal of summoning and controlling demons. For this reason, Richard Kieckhefer describes this form a of magic as “demonic” but it is no less learned than other arcane and magical arts, and probably for this reason, necromancers are likewise more often gendered male. Indeed, Gandalf’s mysterious archnemesis in the Hobbit is ambiguously referred to as simply “the Necromancer” who comes from the east and requires a team of elves and wizards to handle.
Now, when you think of a witch, what comes to mind? Probably a withered, old hag—a wicked crone—a gnarled and twisted monster. These terrifying women will enchant or deceive anyone who wanders into their woods, intent on bewitching men or cannibalizing children. Someone like this:
This image above is from Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s TheWitches (1983), a telling example from modern literature which perpetuates the demonization and dehumanization of those women labeled witches. The gendered monsterization of certain women on the periphery of society—in particular midwives, spinster, healers and widows—had real world consequences. During the early modern witch-hunts throughout Europe, women were disproportionately the targets of witchcraft accusations and executions. Moreover, prophetic male mystics from the Middle Ages, such as Joachim of Fiore (1202 CE) and Nostradamus (1566 CE), were widely revered as wise men, whereas prophetic female mystics, such as Marguerite Porete (1310 CE) and Joan of Arc (1431 CE), are much more frequently burned at the stake under pretense of witchcraft and heresy. The early modern witch-hunts, which remain one of history’s largest scale gender-specific example of institutionalized misogyny and female persecution. Women were overwhelmingly the target of witchcraft accusations and trials in both Europe and New England, and historians such as Brian Levack estimate that there were over 100,000 trials and that “European communities executed about 60,000 witches during the early modern period,” making it the most significant and alarming historical instance of gendercide in Europe.
Ancient and medieval lore generally regards witches with suspicion and witchcraft with hostility. Indeed, in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas (c. 1100-1500 CE), witchcraft (known as seiðr) is almost always dangerous and frequently linked to heroes’ deaths. Much earlier, Medea is portrayed as sometimes helpful though oftentimes harmful, observable in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE). Similarly, Morgan Le Fay is an enigmatic character, who is primarily characterized as a great healer in early romances such as those by Chrétien de Troyes (1191 CE), though she is treated more pejoratively by the likes of later medieval authors such as Thomas Mallory in his Le Morte d’Arthur (1485 CE). Both Medea and Morgan contribute to the image of a glamorous witch, one which is balanced by the more regular image of the decrepit, wicked witch epitomized by Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters in Macbeth (1606 CE). Sometime witches are not one or the other, but rather both simultaneously hideous and enchanting, such as the witch in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400 CE).
Witch-stereotypes, discussed at length by Levack, emphasize how witches operated on the fringes of society. Their magic is generally regarded as primarily folkloric and herbal in nature, derived from specific ingredients and powerful concoctions, connecting them to what Kieckheifer refers to as “natural magic” that centers on unlocking the occult powers of nature. Indeed, witches may be beautiful or ugly—but whatever the case they are almost always conniving and treacherous—a far cry from presentations of wizards as kind embodiments of timeless wisdom.
Although witches never got a fair shake, things get exceptionally worse following Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer’s publication of the infamous Malleus maleficarum “The Hammer of Witches” (1487), which codifies witch-stereotypes in an effort to provide an inquisitor’s guide to witch-hunting prior to the Protestant Reformation and the major outbreaks of witch-hunting hysteria in places like England and Germany. The Malleus characterizes witchcraft as a form of demonic magic and outlines specific behaviors and rituals in which witches allegedly engaged, in particular the dreaded witch’s sabbath, depicted as a massive gathering in the forest in which evil spells and orgies with demons were purportedly standard practice.
Although thousands of women and men were accused and executed under pretense of witchcraft across Europe, in the United States, witch hunting and hysteria is often discussed in isolation as a brief phenomenon resulting from a combination of religious fundamentalism and political rivalry in New England. This horrific episode in early American history was further popularized by Arthur Miller’s Crucible, which recounts the Salem witch trials. Although the American witch trials pale in comparison to their European counterparts, the increased racialization of witchcraft in the “New World” can be observed from the treatment of Tituba, an African slave and the first woman accused of witchcraft in New England, to later myths surrounding figures such as Marie Laveau, the famous Louisiana Creole herbalist, midwife and practitioner of Voodoo.
The standard, monsterized, racialized and genderized image of a wicked witch—crafted from a culmination of ancient, medieval and modern stereotypes—has expanded in contemporary popular culture, and white wizard male privilege looms as large as ever. Modern literary examples further demonize witches and folktales, such as Russian stories of the conflict between the benevolent winter-wizard Morozko, a grandfather winter character, and the notorious Baba Yaga, who remains one of the most popular witches in modern Russia. Again, the patriarchal image of a white wizard is complemented by his adversary, the wicked, old witch-woman who lurks in the forest and preys on children.
This blog aims to illustrate the magical double standards embedded in respective idolization of wizards and demonization of witches throughout Western literary history which persists today and are continually displayed in the visual rhetoric of modern representations of magic-using women and men.
One way to demonstrate this tradition of misogyny with respect to gendered magic, which I am identifying as wizard male privilege, is to view some depictions of witches and wizards from popular literature juxtaposed against each other:
Prospero and Sycorax from William Shakespeare’s Tempest:
Perhaps as important as Moses, Merlin or Odin in establishing wizard-stereotypes and white male wizard privilege is the character of Prospero from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As his Weird Sisters epitomize literary witch-stereotypes, Prospero represents an archetypal wizard—a brilliant man of pure heart, who prizes learning and knowledge above all—and whose arcane knowledge allows him to control spirits of the island, like Ariel, and defeat the former ruler of the island—the evil and racialized witch Sycorax, who is mother to the monster Caliban. Like Salem’s Tituba, Sycorax represents an early modern racialization of witches, which served to uphold European colonialism, genocide and slavery during the early modern era.
The Wizard of Oz & the Wicked Witch of the West from Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz.
This classic pair are a distinctly American wizard and witch, and they are dramatized in one of the first color motion pictures (1939). Since the film played up the use of color, the prominent image of green-skinned witch—a racialization and monsterization of her—has become almost ubiquitous in visual depictions contributing to the development of witch-stereotypes in American popular culture. However, Baum’s TheWizard of Oz novel, which does not feature green-skinned wicked witches, also offers an alternative to witch-stereotypes by providing “good witches” to balance the wicked ones. These good witches are as beautiful and wonderful as wicked witches are hideous and horrific, and notably these good witches are white, while their wicked counterparts are non-white. While TheWizard of Oz includes the possibility of good witches, nevertheless to be regarded as other, weird or nonconformist is condemnable and “wicked” by definition of witch stereotypes and gendered beauty standards in the film, a point which invites further inquiry regarding the issue of gender normativity in images of “good” and “wicked” witches in the TheWizard of Oz.
Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit & Jadis (the White Witch), from C.S. Lewis’ Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:
Comparing Gandalf and Jadis is, of course, limited in so far as they are characters from different books by different authors. Nonetheless, Tolkien and Lewis—both members of the literary group known as the “Inklings”—in some ways share literary tastes and interests, being two of the most influential modern Fantasy authors and close friends. The Odinic Gandalf, perhaps even more than Merlin, serves as an archetypal wizard in modern literature and popular culture, while Jadis (better known as the “White Witch”) is the usurping “Queen of Narnia” who is simultaneously beauteous and hideous, but above all dangerous, like the Hans Christen Andersen’s Snow Queen upon whom she is based. Gandalf’s transformation from a “grey wanderer” to the “white wizard” marks the pinnacle of his divine power actualized by his Christlike death and resurrection. Both Gandalf and Jadis contribute significantly at an important time to the development of modern wizard and witch stereotypes in contemporary Fantasy literature.
Merlin & Mad Madam Mim from Disney’s Sword in the Stone:
Depictions of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay as magical adversaries have continued, and usually the standard wizard and witch stereotypes apply. However, in Disney’s adaption of T.S. White’s Once and Future King, Merlin’s rival sorceress, Mad Madam Mim, is even more stereotypical in her representation, following in line with a general trend in Disney films which repeatedly cast villainous women in these terms. The two nemeses engage in a “wizard’s duel” where they transform into various creatures and attack each other, and rather predictably, Mim cheats but Merlin nevertheless outsmarts her. Mim is by no means the only Disney witch, but rather just one iteration of many, and with very few—very recent—exceptions, in Disney films, witches are treacherous and evil.
Indeed, what Disney films have done in terms of upholding witch-stereotypes is plainly horrendous. From the earliest witch stepmother, the wicked queen from Snow White, to subsequent witches such as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Ursula from Little Mermaid and Mother Gothel from Tangled, the evil witch-antagonist has been a featured favorite. The metamorphic woman—simultaneously seductive and decrepit—is a stock villain appearing frequently in Disney’s films, which regularly present sexist and racist depictions of witches and wizards. The witch-antagonist often represents a challenge to the established order: she is powerful and independent, which of course makes her dangerous. To my mind, this is probably the most egregious example of latent misogyny embedded in Disney’s films and the visual rhetoric undoubtedly continues to impact generations of girls and boys.
Disney has similarly upheld white male wizard privilege at virtually every turn. Disney antagonists are often racialized sorcerers, such as the ambitious royal vizier Jafar and Dr. Facilier “Mr. Shadow” from the Princess and the Frog (2009). Both are characteristically evil, while older and whiter magic-users like Merlin and King Trident from the Little Mermaid (1989) are depicted as distinctly “good” in that they are patriarchal stewards of the status quo and established order. This is a blatantly observable trend of white supremacy in Disney films, which repeatedly portray racialized and orientalized spellcasters as villains.
Schmendrick & Mommy Fortuna from Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn:
This classic Fantasy story, brought to motion pictures by Rankin & Bass, centers on the journeys of a wandering unicorn in search of her kin. Along the way, an old witch—Mommy Fortuna—enchants the unicorn with a spell and captures her in order to use the creature in her “Midnight Carnival” as a spectacle. Mommy Fortuna is a classic crone, complete with an ominous raven and a brutish henchman. However, luckily for the unicorn, there is also a magician, the young and fumbling Schmendrick, who not only helps her escape from Mommy Fortuna (who is eaten by a harpy also freed during their escape), but is her trusted companion, advisor and friend throughout her travels. He serves her faithfully until at last they discover the truth about whether or not she is the last unicorn. Schmendrick is a bit of a fool but good, through and through, while Mommy Fortuna is greedy, fraudulent and opportunistic.
Albus Dumbledore and Bellatrix Lestrange from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter:
J.K. Rowling more than any modern Fantasy author explores, adapts, and upholds wizard and witch-stereotypes in both the book and film versions of the Harry Potter series. In her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when describing the origins of Hogwarts, Rowling briefly contextualizes her magical school with a historical reference to the early modern witch-hunts, stating that “They [Godrich Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Raven Claw and Salazar Slytherin] built this castle together, far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution” (“Chapter 9: The Writing on the Wall”). While she may be emphasizing that women received the vast majority of the accusations and persecution, by listing “witches” before “wizards” in this passage, this point is never made explicitly. Nevertheless, Rowling elevates witches to their rightful place alongside their distinguished wizard counterparts in halls of Hogwarts and the broader wizarding world of Harry Potter.
However, it is worth noting that, although Rowling is a woman, both her main protagonist and the most powerful of her “good” wizards are male magic-users. In her characterization of the wise headmaster and superstar wizard, Albus Dumbledore, she reinforces every white wizard stereotype, following directly in Gandalf’s footsteps. On the other hand, Belletrix Lestrange—whose French-sounding name recalls the medieval Morgan Le Fay—represents a caricature of witch-stereotypes as she is one of the most murderous of Voldemort’s evil gang known as Death-eaters. Of course, it could be argued that Dumbledore and Lestrange represent as likely a pairing as professor Minerva McGonagall and Voldemort (though in reverse), which may be true, but even in the later comparison male privilege is maintained as the dark lord (although an equal match for Dumbledore) could easily outperform even the most powerful witch at Hogwarts.
The Greenseer (Three-Eyed Raven) & Melisandre from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire:
In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones television series based on the books, again usual tropes are employed with respect of wizards and witches. The mystical and mysterious Greenseer, who resides in the roots of a Weirwood tree far north of the Wall appears like Merlin in his cave, becoming one with the land itself. In the film adaptation, he is primarily known as the “Three-eyed Raven” because he appears frequently to Bran Stark as a raven with a foreseeing third eye. The Greenseer is a traditional wizard in many ways: he is an ancient, wise and thoroughly “good” mentor, who selflessly sacrifices himself to save mankind and pass on his position to Bran.
Alternatively, the “Red Woman” Melisandre is a fire priestess of Rh’llor, the monotheistic God of Light, and she is a much more ethically complicated figure. Like her shape-shifty literary predecessors, Melisandre is sexualized and seductive, but she is also ancient, and her beauty is, in truth, nothing more than a glamor illusion as her authentic form is that of an old crone. Although she seems to have some regret by the end of the film series, Melisandre, nevertheless, burns many innocent people in the name of her religion—at times even immolating children—to gain power and favor with her god. For Melisandre, the ends always justify the means, as she is willing sacrificing whomever she believes benefits her cause most. Her final self-combustion marks her personal defeat but does not save or benefit anyone else.
Deckard Cain and the witch Adria from Blizzard’s Diablo:
Wizard and witch stereotypes have unsurprisingly infiltrated the world of Fantasy gaming as well. In Blizzard’s Diablo game, there is a classic white wizard, Deckard Cain, who is introduced as an omniscient loremaster able to identify any magical item and weapon. Cain starts off seemingly rather old and feeble, if knowledgeable, but in each iteration of Diablo, he gets wiser and more powerful, counted as the “last Horadrim” and final member of this guild of arcane scholars. His character is a fixture of the Diablo games, where he repeatedly serves as a steadfast white wizard figure.
After raising Adria’s orphaned daughter, Leah, “Uncle Deckard” is rescued by the player in Diablo III and once more offers his sagely wisdom. Cain’s noble death at the end of Act I is the direct result of his refusal to conceded to the witch Magda’s demand that he “use his Horadric powers” to reforge a heavenly sword of the angel, Tyrael. Magda is represented as a Maleficent-like fairy-witch, and she ultimately kills Cain and kidnaps the wounded angel. She reappears later as a game boss for the player to battle. After Leah unleashes a magical blast causing Magda to retreat, Cain uses his final ounce of strength to save the world by remaking the angel’s sword, a feat only a Horadrim could accomplish, and the player is then charged with the task of uniting the celestial weapon with its wielder.
Adria, the witch who lives in her hut at the edge of the village, Tristram, experiences a very different characterization. She starts off as essentially a potion merchant, who seems altogether neutral and thereby helpful to the player. Adria later returns to the storyline in Diablo III, where her character takes a grim turn for the worse into misogynistic witch-stereotypes. Adria is reportedly impregnated by the player character from the original Diablo (assumed to be male, despite a female rouge character option in the first game), and is thereby sexualized as often occurs with representations of witches. After pretending to support the player’s efforts, Adria unveils that she copulated with Diablo himself and that Leah is therefore demonic offspring.
This aligns Adria’s character with prescriptions of witches’ behavior in the Malleus, especially the section of the treatise that purports to answer a blatantly misogynistic—fantastical and grotesque—theological question: Quo ad maleficas cum daemonibus concurrentes: Cur mulieres amplius inueniantur hac haeresi infectae quam viri “With respect to witches copulating with demons: Why is it that women are more susceptible to be infected by this heresy than men?” (Part I, Question VI). After Leah’s big paternity reveal, Adria uses a black soulstone and sacrifices her own daughter to bring Diablo back into the moral world. Although the witch escapes, in the subsequent expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, she meets her end after transforming into a demon and fighting against the player as a game boss.
Also, in Diablo III, there is the inclusion of a peripheral character Zoltun Kulle, who is a mad wizard striving to become a dark lord. Kulle comes from the kingdom of Caldeum, represented as a stereotypical Middle Eastern realm and named “the jewel of the East.” From the onset, Kulle is depicted as an evil, Jafar-like sorcerer. Although Kulle was a formidable wizard in life and one of the founders of the Horadrim, he is corrupted by the power of the black soulstone and becomes a monster, who continues to haunt and terrorize from beyond the grave. Like with Adria, after working for a while together, the orientalized wizard betrays the player and becomes a game boss. Indeed, DiabloIII upholds—with the characters of Deckard Cain, Adria and Zoltun Kulle—virtually every gender and racial stereotype with respect to competing characterizations of magic-users in Fantasy literature and popular medievalism.
These selected examples are but a few, and there are abundant others that could be added to further demonstrate the sexist and racist rhetoric embedded in depictions of wicked witches, dark sorcerers, and white wizards. From just this brief and incomplete review of literary representations of witches and wizards, it is clear that sexist and racist stereotypes have not only endured but have deepened since ancient and medieval times. White wizard male privilege continues to thrive in contemporary Fantasy literature, film and games. This cannot be ignored because these stock characterizations reinforce problematic gender and racial stereotypes. They misrepresent, and in a sense seem even to validate, the historical tragedy of early modern witch-hunting in Europe—one of the most widespread and gendered-specific persecution of women in history. Like the “dark lord” and evil sorcerer exceptions, the modern “good witch” exception relies largely on visual rhetoric, primarily drawn from the character of Glinda, who is coded white and defined in contrast to the green Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz film (1937).
In modern times, the new age religion known as Wicca offers a feminist reclaiming and rebuke of conventional characterization of witches by understanding witchcraft instead as a symbol of female autonomy and empowerment. This theme is popularized in contemporary revisionist literary reimaginations such as Gregory Maguire’s revisionist novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West which casts Glinda as the villain and the once wicked witch is given the name Elphaba, transformed into an underdog protagonist—the misunderstood victim of systemic prejudices and unfortunate circumstances. Of course, even very recent films featuring witches that in some ways seem to fall into this recent literary trend, such as Robert Egger’s The VVitch: A New England Folktale (2015) and Aguirre-Sacasa’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), perpetuate many problematic witch-stereotypes,
While reparative portraits of wizards and witches do exist—such interpretations mark the exceptions that prove the rule. The internalized rule remains one of white wizard male privilege, a sexist and racist double-standard demonstrated by the uneven and repeatedly monsterized treatment of witches and female magic-users.
While Wicca and other modern practices of witchcraft seek to redefine witches a symbol of woman power, on the other hand, the way in which “wizard” has become appropriated by certain groups, who seem to recognize the implicit sexist and racist rhetoric conveyed by images of white male wizards in modern medievalism, is much more troubling. As has been widely discussed, especially by medievalists of color, white supremacists and alt-right groups readily appropriate medieval images and symbols in their efforts to perpetuate the erroneous narrative that the Middle Ages was a homogeneous historical period. This myth has been repeatedly debunked by scholars but nonetheless persists especially in groups who identify as white nationalist. Indeed, the most infamous American white supremacist group—the nefarious Klu Klux Klan—has long been leveraging this fallacious rhetorical presentation of the Middle Ages as uniformly white since the end of slavery in the United States, and among their most exalted titles include the designations of Grand Wizard and Imperial Wizard.
Wizard will likely remain a fixture in Fantasy literature and popular medievalism. And, until there is more room for wizards of every color in the genre, and witches that can be both good and powerful without prescribing to heteronormative gender stereotypes, white wizard male privilege—a literary example of both misogyny and white supremacy—will no doubt persist.
Richard Fahey PhD in English University of Notre Dame
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