Arriman Canker (better known as Arriman the Awful, Loather of Light and Wizard of the North) is a dark wizard in search of an heir after a gypsy fortune teller prophesies the coming of another wizard to Darkington Hall. Arriman is excited about the prospect of a pupil in the dark arts, but it takes his long-suffering castle staff to point out to him that the only way to beget a child is to take a wife. The village of Todcaster is full of witches, and surely one of them would make a suitable bride. But Arriman is picky — he only wants to marry the darkest witch there is. So a competition is declared: the witch who performs the blackest magic is the one that will become the future Mrs Canker and mistress of Darkington Hall.
The competition is declared, and the witches of Todcaster are beside themselves with excitement — except one. Belladonna, the youngest member of the coven, has fallen in love with Arriman at first sight, but knows that she can never win the contest. Belladonna is a white witch, which means that flowers burst to life under her feet, she’s surrounded in an aura of sweet-smelling perfume, and cute little baby animals follow her about. Think all the Disney Princesses rolled into one, and then coated in pixie dust. But then she happens upon a young orphan called Terence Mugg and his small earthworm pet called Rover, and suddenly realizes that she has the power of a black witch! Whisking the two of them away, they come to an agreement: Belladonna will allow Terence to stay with her, if Terence allows her to use Rover as a familiar during her display of black magic. But of course, she’s got competition — not just from her local witches — but from the regal and sinister enchantress Madame Olympia.
Belladonna is perhaps not the best female role model out there: she catches one glimpse of Arriman and is hopelessly smitten, spending the rest of the novel longing to comfort him, play with his hair and rub his feet (no, really) but she’s also kind-hearted and sweet-natured, and the romance itself is treated with a healthy dash of sarcasm and eye-rolling by the other characters (and Arriman himself turns out to be somewhat of a big softie) which helps to make up for it.
The best part about Which Witch? is of course the contest, in which the somewhat dim-witted witches of Todcaster attempt to impress their prospective husband and the other judges by performing acts of dark magic that don’t go according to plan. Mabel Wrack, Ethel Feedbag, Nancy and Nora Shouter, Mother Bloodwort, Madame Olympia, and finally Belladonna herself all get their chance to show off in their chosen fields. Not only is it all very funny, but there is an echo of familiarity to it all considering that Ibbotson draws upon real folklore and superstitions in order to shape the competition. This lends the story an unexpected depth and resonance, as when one of the witches attempts to change seven princesses into black swans:
“There is probably nothing sadder or more romantic in all magic than this spell. One minute you have these lively bright-eyed princesses with all life before them, and often a prince or two in the offing — and there comes this ghastly moment when their golden hair becomes black down, their rose-bud mouths become beaks, their pretty feet in silver slippers change into webbed toes … until at last the great black birds fly away into the sunset never to return.”
But this in fact leads to an odd sort of discrepancy within the text that I feel compelled to point out. These wizards and witches aren’t just “people with magic” who can choose to use their powers for either good or evil, as you’d see in the wizards of J.K. Rowling or Ursula le Guin. Ibbotson’s black witches aren’t “black” by choice; they are born this way and it’s in their very nature to be dark and spooky, just as it’s in Belladonna’s nature to be kind and lovely (no matter how much she may want to be black herself). Black witches are slimy and foul, white witches are beautiful and kind. All of them are born with a full set of teeth, none of them can shed tears, and all need animal-familiars in order to help them with their magic — in other words, they are not fully human, and are no friends to us mere mortals.
Arriman is rumoured to be “friends with Beelzebub himself” and tells the witches that: “What I am looking for is power, wickedness and evil. Darkness is all!” One of the witches finishes off her spell by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards; Mother Bloodwort cannot say the word “white” because: “she couldn’t bring herself to say the dreadful word — no black witch can” and we’re told that “like most witches, she hated happiness.”
As such, it’s a tad disconcerting in the final chapters of the book when the witches change from generically evil to the generalized “they’re not that bad.” Terence is happy among the witches, and we learn that: “Terence could stand the blackest magic and enjoy it, but unkindness and spite just finished him.” Really Terence? There’s no difference between “unkindness and spite” and black magic which involves: “blighting and smiting, blasting and wuthering and doing everything to keep darkness and sorcery alive in the land”?
Yes, I realize that I’m over-thinking this, and that Which Witch? isn’t meant to be some sort of treatise on good and evil. I found the Harry Potter detractors as ridiculous as every other sensible person did, and the fact that I’m mentioning this particular fault has more to do with the change in tone and attitude toward the witches which some children may find a tad confusing. Is this a reason not to read the book? Of course not. Everything is written in a light and comedic tone; and the black witches are meant to be taken about as seriously as the Adams Family. I’m giving it three and a half stars, because it’s fast-paced, inventive and very, very funny. The general tone is very much reminiscent of the humour in Diana Wynne Jones‘s The Chrestomanci Quartet — and of course, J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter (in fact, reading several of Ibbotson’s other children’s books makes it very clear that Rowling has drawn inspiration from her, what with her comedy-infused wizarding world).
It seems a little unfair to bring in a Harry Potter comparison, when in fact Eva Ibbotson’s books were published roughly a decade before little Harry hit the scene, but if your kids enjoyed Potter, then there’s plenty here to keep them happy.