Donna Jo Napoli's The Magic Circle
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Not-So-Grimm Fairy Tale: Hansel and Gretel Deconstructed
The first of many excellent novelizations of classic fairy tales by this author, Donna Jo Napoli's The Magic Circle is the story of Hansel and Gretel as you've never read it before: from the witch's point of view.
As in all of Napoli's fairy tale narratives, there is an unwinding of expectations. Good and evil are not, in humans, absolutes. Our witch is, despite her failings, one of the most virtuous characters, protagonist or antagonist, most of us could ever hope to meet.
Beginning years before little Hansel and Gretel are even born, in a country far from Germany's Black Forest, this story is the tale of the Ugly Sorceress, an educated hunchback midwife who lives to bring beauty to her little, beloved daughter, Asa. To start, she is merely the Ugly One, an outsider from a foreign land, grudgingly accepted for her skillful hands, which always pull babies into the light and heal their little ailments.
Ugly One lives first to serve her daughter, and then to serve God, whose presence she feels at all times, whose large hands she imagines protecting her. With a pure heart, she works at her profession, accepting in payment items of beauty, like a perfect ribbon for her daughter's hair. Only when her neighbor Bala, who may or may not be the incarnation of the demon Baal, convinces her that she can better afford treasures for Asa if she works for the wealthy, does Ugly One become Ugly Sorceress, willingly doing battle against demons, with God on her side.
But the demons are vengeful. They do not like being commanded, and they trick Ugly Sorceress with the perfect ring for her now-grown daughter's hand, bringing her under their control. Fallen, she becomes the witch who flees to another land and builds a candy house that would have delighted the daughter she sacrificed herself to save. She must live alone, to resist the temptation given by demons to all witches: the compulsion to eat human children. Enter Hansel and Gretel.
This first-person narrative explores the evolution of the witch, beginning with her simple, practical faith. She understands the perils of her path and guards against vanity and pride. Only when she lets her guard down can the demons break through her piety and make her their servant. But the witch continues to foil them: she does everything in her power to keep from eating children. Although she no longer can sense the presence of an all-loving god, she refuses to succumb to evil.
For her strength, intelligence, and piety, the witch is redeemed. When Gretel pushes her into the fire, her action is motivated by pity, but conceived of by the witch herself, who loves Gretel and offers her own life for the girl's. This death is a happy ending for the witch who, although told she is damned, can hold at last a sacred stone and know that she is saved.
The symbolism in the story is woven around the holy and the unholy: the purity of an amethyst, the corruption of a cobweb. The candy of the candy house is both a tribute to the lost daughter and a testament to the witch's own ability to avoid temptation. It becomes sacred by its state of not being eaten. Even the eponymous magic circle of the title is not magic so much as it is holy: drawn with a pure, sacred object (a plaice fishbone works just as well as a blessed sword) and pure, sacred intent, its power holds the demons at bay, so long as the sorceress remains within its bounds. The limitations of the circle are the same as the limitations of self-denial. Temptation is a fact of life, The Magic Circle, tells us, and is often acted upon by ordinary men and women. It is the ability to resist the profane that sets apart the profound.
Read more of Monica's reviews.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.