BOOK REVIEW: Which Witch, by Eva Ibbotson

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

I never was much of a person for hype. Whenever I encounter something that is being promoted as the latest must-have craze, I usually end up going in the opposite direction, either because I'm a natural-born skeptic, or I just don't want to be part of the herd mentality that stampedes after popular things.

It was years before I deigned to read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" because I could not imagine that the book was as good as people were saying it was. Then one day when I had some time to kill, I picked up a copy at the local library...and pretty much couldn't put it down again until I'd finished reading it. I wasn't just pleasantly surprised, I was blown away, and I'm a person who's read a lot of fantasy stories--J. K. Rowlings did something truly creative and unique, by setting her story about oddball witches and wizards in contemporary England, and making it funny.

Well, it turns out Ms. Rowling may not have been quite so original, after all.

The other day, while perusing the "discard" table at the library, I picked up a little dog-eared paperback with a colorful cover of cartoonishly ghastly witches and a nervous-looking wizard with a fierce moustache. The book bore the title "Which Witch?" and had the tag line, "A zestful adventure, perfect for fans of Harry Potter."

Okay, I'll bite.

Turns out, the story is about a young "black" wizard named Arriman Canker, who really enjoys blighting and smiting. When he was born, he had a full set of teeth, and so his surprised parents realized he was a wizard and changed his name from George to Arriman, after a terrible demon from Persian mythology. They wanted their son to be a very good wizard, and supported his education.

Arriman grew up quickly, found himself a sufficiently darksome estate, and aquired two servants--a one-eyed ogre who wore an eyepatch on his forehead so as not to put people off, and a human with a vestigal tail who thought he was a demon but served as Arriman's secretary. Arriman's house is also haunted by the ghost of a knight who killed all seven of his wives, then died of guilt.

For many years, Arriman was perfectly content to ravage the countryside, sending the thunder before the lightning and withering trees and crops and such, but after a while, the joy seemed to go out of the business for him, and he started thinking about retiring. Consulting a local gypsy woman, Arriman learns that a wizard greater than he will come to take his place, and so he creates a three-headed monster to watch for the advent of this wizard, so Arriman doesn't have to stand outside in all weather himself.

The Wizard-Watcher dolefully reports every night that no wizard cometh, so Arriman's two assistants try to talk him into getting married, and having a little dark wizard of his own to take up the family trade. Arriman is horrified at the idea of getting married, mostly because they all know that a wizard can only marry a witch.

To make matters worse, the coven in the local town is somewhat down on its luck--there are only seven witches instead of the requisite nine, and none of them are any good at anything. There's Mabel, whose mother had been a mermaid, and her octopus familiar named Doris; Ethel, the country witch, who greatly resembled her pet pig; the ill-tempered and quarrelling twins Nancy and Nora; Mother Bloodwort, who was so old and senile she often couldn't remember the spell to turn her back from being a coffee table; and the sickly, querulous Monalot.

The seventh witch was something of an embarrassment, because she was a White Witch, and couldn't do an evil spell to save her life; Belladona was pretty, gentle, considerate, and absolutely heartsick that flowers sprang up wherever she walked, and a crowd of adorable little forest creatures followed her everywhere.

Arriman appears before the coven to announce a contest, with the witch who can perform the blackest spell winning the honor of becoming Mrs. Canker. Several times the wizard tries to cut and run, after getting a look at the competitors, but his two faithful retainers hold him fast. What Arriman doesn't see, is Belladonna, who was off in the shadows, being unobtrusive.

But Belladonna sees Arriman, and instantly falls in love, yet despairs of being able to win because she simply cannot perform black magic. She tries to turn a typewriter into a nest of vipers, and makes a bowl of lovely begonias instead.

While Arriman withdraws to consult with his ghost about how to bump off his prospective wife, the two servants collect the witches for the contest. When they meet Belladonna, they are both delighted; their joy turns to fear when a new witch appears, a very cold and cruelly beautiful witch, wearing a necklace of human teeth, who claims to have bought out Monalot's cottage and so she now wishes to take part in the contest to become the Wizardess of the North.

While the contestants prepare, Belladonna goes for a walk, and meets a small boy mourning the death of his pet worm, Rover. In sympathy, Belladonna magicks the worm back to life, and subesquently finds out that the boy, Terence, is a virtual prisoner in an abusive orphanage.

Rescuing Terence by temporarily turning the wicked Matron into a tree, Belladonna asks whether the secretary could keep the boy around, and so Terence becomes Mr. Leadbetter's "nephew." Belladonna wants to keep Terence around because she believes that his pet worm is actually a very powerful familiar, which allows her to now perform dark magic--or else how could she have turned Matron into a tree?

The contest begins, judged by Arriman, a ghoul named Mr. Sniveler, and a genie named Mr. Chatterjee. The witches are required to wear identical robes and masks, mainly so that Arriman doesn't have to look at them.

One after another, each attempts a very dark spell, which of course goes awry. The only one to have any sort of success is the haughty Madame Olympia, who creates a swarm of loathesome rats that turn on each other and eat each other, with the last rat then eating itself. She retires to her private caravan believing herself to be the winner--especially after she steals Rover, the worm.

Belladonna, however, does not know Rover is missing; Terence, Mr. Leadbetter, and Lester the ogre concoct a plan to make Belladonna win, hiring an actor to portray the ghostly knight, whom Belladonna will attempt to raise from the dead. Arriman had been trying to raise Sir Simon for years, without success, and Belladonna knows that this would really favorably impress him--plus make her beloved wizard happy. The trio of conspirators do not tell Belladonna about the trick they're going to play, because they know she'd never go along with it.

Belladonna's turn comes on Halloween, and everything goes beautifully well--Sir Simon materializes through the tapestry in the Great Hall, Arriman declares the seventh witch the winner, and everyone (except the other six witches) is happy. Belladonna faints from the strain of performing her spell, and is carried to a room in the tower to recover.

The next day, when the reluctant Arriman discovers what Belladonna looks like, he is instantly swept off his feet with love--even moreso when it turns out that the actor hired to play Sir Simon never actually made it to the Hall, his van having gone off the road...which means Belladonna really did raise Sir Simon from the dead!

Or--did she? Wasn't Terence, hiding under the table, whispering the words of the incantation with her?

The monstrous Wizard-Watcher, returning from a well-deserved holiday on the Continent, excitedly tells Arriman that his replacement wizard "has cometh!" and points at little bespectacled Terence.

Arriman and Belladonna celebrate their wedding, granting wishes to the guests, and arranging for the incredibly boring Sir Simon to run off with the designing Madame Olympia. Terence is given Darkington Manor, and the Wizard-Watcher, depressed that he is now out of a job, is told that he must now watch over the Wizard, so everyone is happy.

It's a very funny, clever little book--and it was published in 1979--eighteen years before Harry Potter climbed aboard his first broomstick.

The author, the late Eva Ibbotson, was born in Vienna in 1925 to non-practicing Jewish parents. Her mother was a writer, and her father ran a fertility clinic and later became a controversial figure when it came out that he used his own sperm to inseminate up to 600 clients.

Eva's parents seperated in 1928, and she and her mother later fled Vienna during the rise of Adolph Hitler, settling in London. Training to become a physiologist, Eva was repulsed by the idea of experimenting on animals, and with relief set aside her scientific career after marrying her husband Alan Ibbotson in 1947.

She had a family and in the 1960's she returned to college, teaching briefly before embarking on her career as a writer.

Mrs. Ibbotson had a number of supernatural children's stories to her credit, most with a humorous theme, written mainly to dispel children's fear of scary things like witches and ghosts. She also wrote books for adults, and books which displayed her love for nature.

Another of her stories, "The Secret of Platform 13," was noticeably similar to "Platform 9 3/4" as used in J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter stories; Mrs. Ibbotson said that rather than suing for plagiarism, she'd like to shake Ms. Rowlings' hand, believing that "we all borrow from each other as writers"

Mrs. Ibbotson died in October of 2010, leaving behind an extensive catalog of well-loved and award-winning stories.