Fragrant bunches of rosemary and thyme, hung to dry from the beams of a thatched monastery workshop. An old village healer, stirring mandrake into a simmering potion as her lovestruck client looks anxiously on. The nurse with an interest in botany, searching for a rare medicinal plant amongst ancient stones. Girls warding off evil spirits with curses from their Book of Shadows.
Any novel featuring such characters or scenes has me from the faded title on its well-thumbed front cover. An introverted and highly impressionable youngster, I always had my nose buried in a book, often sneaking reads by flashlight long past bedtime. I was entranced by the, er, charms of fantasy and historical fiction, especially if those stories involved herb-growing, mortar and pestle-wielding, spell-casting crones. I longed to be there with them, in that dimly-lit herbarium, grinding exotic cardamom to a fine powder and concocting chilblain-busting salves. My fascination with herbs and, more widely, things mystical and magickal, owes a great deal to these shiveringly evocative tales.
The very same volumes which kindled such sparks within me as a child and young adult still grace my dusty bookshelves today, alongside more recent and equally entertaining efforts. On the parchment below, in no particular order (I cherish them all), I hereby enscribe my seven favorite witchy works:
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Dell, 1958). A wise woman and her young apprentice, both social outcasts, face prejudice, ignorance and accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England. 1959 Newbery Medal winner for best American children’s literature.
- Double Spell by Janet Lunn (Peter Martin Associates, 1968). This spooky mystery involving an antique doll takes place in my native Toronto. Not a lot of witchery here, but … Toronto!
- Victoria by Barbara Brooks Wallace (Dell, 1972). A huge influence on my preteen self, this coming-of-age novel makes delicious use of an isolated boarding school, secret societies and a little black book.
- Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave / The Hollow Hills / The Last Enchantment (Hodder and Stoughton, 1970 / 1973 / 1979). The Arthurian legend masterfully told from the wizard’s perspective.
- Brother Cadfael, a 12th century crusader-turned-healer/monk, steeps herbs and solves murders in The Cadfael Chronicles, Ellis Peters’ prolific series, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (Macmillan, 1977). Perfectly interpreted for 1990s British TV by the great Derek Jacobi.
- Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) blends some of the best and most effective ingredients into the brew: plucky, resourceful woman, deserted English cottage, herb-filled stillroom, ghosts and a gall-darned happy ending. A clue to the book’s magickal motif comes from the heroine’s name – Geillis (Gilly) – a traditional moniker for a witch. Reference is made to real-life Geillis Duncane, who was tried for witchcraft in 16th century Edinburgh.
- Geillis Duncan appears again, this time alongside time-travelling healer Claire and her Scottish wonder, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, in Diana Gabaldon’s outrageously popular Outlander book and TV series (Delacore Press, 1991). [Haven’t heard enough about Outlander yet? Dinna fash! I may just mention it a wee bit more!]