Friday, February 14, 2014

Nicholas Stuart Gray’s witch: Huddle

Nicolas Stuart Gray wrote a wonderful fantasy book for children called Over the Hills to Fabylon. I remember reading it when I was very young. It is out of print now; I have tried to find a copy from time to time without success. Even if it did come on the market, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford it.

I searched for it again recently just in case and found another of Stuart Gray’s books, one that I hadn’t read. The price was reasonable so I bought The Edge of Evening, which is a book of short stories.

It begins with The Sky-blue Whistling Spark, of which the main character is a witch called Huddle. The story is very light and only 13 pages long, but it contains and confirms some interesting and important points about witches.

The demons arrive
Huddle is a typical fairy tale witch, a skinny old woman with grey hair who lives in a damp, squalid cottage in a wood. She is bad tempered, proud and conceited. Most of her time is spent trying to bring off strong, black, interesting, successful magic: she wants to be a great and evil witch, one that people are afraid of.

Unfortunately, although she has enough innate ability to work small spells that bring minor misfortunes to her neighbours, she has not got what it takes to perform the really big stuff i.e. strong Black Magic. This level of spell casting is beyond her powers: her best efforts bring unexpected or no results. Her failures make her crosser and crosser; she eventually decides that she needs a demon to be her slave and instruct her in the performance of sorcery. Then she will be able to take her rightful place in the world.

Huddle successfully calls up a demon by following some complicated instructions in her grandmother’s old book of black magic spells, which she uses for the first time. His name is Victor, and he materialises in the form of a huge yellow cat. Unfortunately, she has not chosen her procedure wisely: the spell makes her the demon’s slave.

Victor compels her to work very hard for him: she slaves away at an assortment of household tasks, cleaning and refurbishing her cottage and preparing food according to his instructions. He then invites some friends, fellow demons, to come and stay in the cottage. They make themselves at home, and Huddle exhausts herself trying to keep up with their never ending and excessive demands for food, cooked and served to meet their requirements.

The demons set an impossible task
Eventually, tired, miserable and driven close to breaking point, Huddle tells them that she has had enough and wants them all to go. Victor tells her that there is only one way she can set herself free. He says that if she can get someone to seek and find the sky-blue whistling spark on her behalf, they will all go like lambs. He gives her just half an hour to find someone willing to help her.

Huddle is in despair: she knows very well that the local people hate her and call her a mean, spiteful, nasty, cross and lazy old witch. She is badly in need of help and she knows that she won’t get it. This is a time when friends are needed, and she hasn’t got any.

She goes out into the pouring rain on a hopeless quest to find someone who will help her. People she approaches avoid or laugh at her; some of them angrily drive her away. She gives up, sits down and thinks about her future of drudgery and slavery. Tired, lonely, in need of help that is not forthcoming from anyone, she cries and cries in sheer self-pity.

A ragged, rough looking soldier back from the wars approaches Huddle to see if she is hurt. She takes him for a beggar and is very rude to him. He replies that he is tired, wounded and hungry but no beggar: he does small jobs along the way in return for something to eat and drink. She tells him spitefully that he will get nothing from her and to go away and leave her alone. After telling Huddle that he only approached her out of fellow feeling and because he thought she might need help, he limps slowly away.

Huddle suddenly realises that the soldier was offering to help her; she runs after him, begs him to stop and apologises for her behaviour. She admits that she is a horrible old woman and that people have been right to hate her. She tells her story to the soldier, and says that she will deserve it if he too laughs or throws stones at her or runs away because of what she has done in the past and because she was so unkind to him. The soldier sees her as a poor, silly old woman who needs help, so he escorts her home to see if he can sort things out.

The soldier, whose name is Thomas, tells the demons that he is going to try to get them out. He knows he is not worth much nor up to much, but whatever the danger he will try to find the spark and free the old woman from their power. Victor informs Thomas that for him, the only way to free Huddle is to take her place as the demons’ slave.

After a long silence Thomas agrees to this, but Huddle refuses to allow it. She thanks him, but says it would be ridiculous for him to cook and clean – and knit – and that the work would wear him out. She would rather be a slave for the rest of her life than see such a decent, kind fellow saddled with the bunch of layabouts.

Huddle says she will get Thomas some food and give him her life’s savings, her blessings and her true thanks before sending him on his way, to think no more about her and her silly problems.

The demons depart
At this point, the sky-blue spark appears and whistles around the room. All the demons except for Victor get up and go. He offers to stay on and be an obedient slave, help her to make magic and teach her powerful spells – which was exactly what she had wanted in the first place.

Huddle rejects Victor’s offer, saying that she doesn’t want wicked demons about the place any more, and doesn’t want to be a witch and be involved with spells and sorcery any more. She would rather be an ordinary, kind person who has friends.

Victor tells Huddle that he is not wicked: he points out that he taught her how to keep house and cook properly, then he forced her to look for the spark, which represents living, hope and happiness. Victor then disappears.

Did they live happily together ever after?
The story ends with Huddle offering to take care of Thomas while he stays until he is well. She hopes to get by in future as she knows how to deal with minor ailments without using magic, just herbs. She hopes that people will forgive and trust her so that she can manage on her earnings from the small stuff.

Huddle finishes the affair by throwing all her black magic books into the fire to make a good blaze, and putting the kettle on for some tea.

She may not have got the rightful place in the world that she had hoped to achieve by performing strong black magic, but she did find a place that was right for her by coming to her senses and undergoing a change of heart.

Points for consideration
This touching little story demonstrates that it is possible for a witch to find salvation and redemption and create a life that is suitable for her as she really is; it shows how it is done.

She has to hit rock bottom, learn humility, face reality and see her life, her behaviour and herself as they really are. She has to cut her losses, give up unrealistic fantasies and plans, discard false values, stop wanting what she can’t have, appreciate what she does have, stop living the provisional life, start living in the present and make a new life for herself based on what she has and where and who she is now. She has to value good inner qualities over worldly externals and recognise an authentic, decent human being when she sees one. She has to give without any thought of return.

Miss Heckatty in Linwood Sleigh’s The Boy in the Ivy follows a similar path to Huddle’s: she faces up to some unwelcome truths about herself, gives up witchcraft and falls back on her academic career.

There is no introspection for either of these witches, no agonising over the wasted years when they followed the wrong path. Both seem to have got off relatively lightly.