Rats (literary ones) have been a big influence on me. From James Herbert’s horror stories at an age when I shouldn’t have been reading them to Alan Moore’s use of a rat king as a fearsome science-fiction weapon in The Ballad of Halo Jones, they’ve been present in many of my formative genre reading experiences.
It was no different when I came across fantasy, and discovered a book that contained one of the most memorable use of rats I’ve ever read. It still sticks in the mind with incredibly clarity now, and I first read it over thirty years ago. The sequence was so disturbing to me that I read it many times over because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It fascinated me to find something so grotesque in a book of light comic fantasy, and it taught me something new: behind every happy tale there lurks a darkness that fantasy can confront, particularly when it’s aimed at children.
For Which Witch? is aimed squarely at children, and contains so much enjoyable, clever humour for those of a young age. Written in 1979, it has dated in some respects. But so have I, so I’m not going to hold that against it. It’s the product of the imagination of Eva Ibbotson, a wonderful writer who was born in Austria and moved to London in 1934, at the age of nine. She spent the rest of her life in the UK, and Which Witch? has a keen eye for details of British life, such as teatime and crumbling stately homes and wellies caked in manure. And even orphaned boys with thick round glasses who end up living in magical company, come to think of it. Here’s the set-up:
Belladonna is a white witch. She belongs to the coven in her small home town, which features some horrendously unpleasant witches who practise black magic. They’re cruel to Belladonna but she puts up with it because she desperately wants to do black magic instead of white, particularly since the big wizard in the area (who is called Arriman the Awful) is looking for a wife, and has organised a competition to find one. The witch who can perform an act of outstandingly evil magic will be declared the winner. All this is happening just as the glamorous and scary Madame Olympia has moved into the area – a witch of phenomenal power who wears a string of human teeth around her neck that she’d like to add to.
There are lots of spells cast during the competition to win Arriman’s hand in marriage, most of which don’t go according to plan in very entertaining ways. This is, first and foremost, comic fantasy. But then we come to Madame Olympia’s spell. We come to the rats.
I won’t give away any more. All I’ll add is that Which Witch? qualifies for me as the best of British fantasy because it uses elements of the genre we are familiar with in brilliantly engaging ways. The humour is so sharp and sweet, and there’s a lightness and warmth to the characterisation as we learn a new magic system and come across creatures such as ghosts, genies, a cyclops and even a kraken. But it’s at its most effective at the moment when it reveals all of these things to be the packaging around a dark, hard bite of something more horrific. It’s a shock to the system to find in its pages an exploration of truly black magic but it’s the necessary flipside, for me, to all that’s gone before. It gives the book a balanced, pleasing shape. A great fantasy novel explores many imaginative aspects of ‘what if…?’ within the world it creates because each question raised and answered honestly deepens the experience of the reader. What if a coven of witches lived in a small town in England and cast silly spells? What if one of them was a witch so white and good and pure that baby birds nested in her hair? In that case, what if the opposite of that also existed?
Which Witch? doesn’t cheat the reader of their answers. It explores all sides of the magic it creates. I remain drawn to the darkness it gives – the rats, lurking within. But whether you’re interested in white or black magic, what’s more important is that they’re shown to be part of the same force. We’re all in the fantasy together.
Those rats were a big influence on me. I learned that a good story isn’t ever just about the black or the white. If I believe in darkness then I have to believe in light, too. In the best fantasy, one doesn’t exist without the other.
Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon in 1974, and currently lives in West Sussex, UK. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, McSweeney