I’ve read several of Eva Ibbotson’s books, and reviewed one for this blog. Which Witch? is perhaps one of her best known, possibly for its clever title. It was too one of her earliest, preceded only by The Great Ghost Rescue (of which I’d not heard before writing this review). The theme of this book is a comfortable one: the power of love, the dangers of an absence of love, and the power of love to transform a person. It is told with a twist, however. The protagonists are the wicked witches and wizards one would normally expect to find as antagonists. The true antagonist is another familiar antagonist type: a cruel authority figure who ought to be nurturing but is not, in this case a matron of an orphanage (see Miss Hannigan, see Miss Minchin, see even Professor Snape).
The handsome but wicked Arriman the Awful, wizard of the North, raised by most understanding parents who gave him every opportunity and encouraged his wickedness and power, finds himself aging. Arriman, too busy smiting and blighting, has done nothing to prepare for such an eventuality. He is told by a clairvoyant that an heir is coming, so he posts a three-headed Wizard Watcher at his gate but it seems in vain. Believing that he will have to take matters into his own hands, Arriman agrees very reluctantly to seek a wife, and holds a competition to determine the most wicked and therefore most eligible wife to bear him an heir. Within the coven is one white witch, Belladonna, who wishes to be black and accepted by the coven that shuns her for her whiteness.
Though the romance is theirs, I feel that the truly pivotal protagonist is Terrence, the unwanted orphan, abused by his matron. In his defense Belladonna performs the darkest magic that she has ever managed. The two of them decide that the factor enabling this blackness is Terrence’s pet worm, Rover. Belladonna takes Rover as a familiar, and Terrence begs to be brought along as her servant.
Terrence has the most fun he ever has and finds himself the most sought after he that ever has done by making himself useful to Belladonna, Arriman, and Arriman’s staff.
Stolen away, Terrence overhears the matron discussing the reasons for her abuse, enumerating the inexplicable oddities that he has displayed. In fright, he manages a spell of his own, and returning to Darkington Hall, takes his place as Arriman’s apprentice and heir, enabling the marriage of Arriman and Belladonna.
I openly admit to a love of books that play with the readers’ expectations and with POV particularly. The story to me was predictable but the familiarity of a predictable storyline can be sometimes just what the soul orders. Ibbotson here does nothing to disparage goodness or whiteness. In fact, Ibbotson writes to ease the fear of the paranormal and supernatural that haunted her according to her Goodreads bio. So parents ought not to find fault with the book on that account. Belladonna’s whiteness stands as an impediment to her marriage to the man that she loves, and love is the ultimate goal of every character within the book—expect perhaps Madame Olympia, who is painted as too black for even these black wizards and witches. The story’s black magic is negligible (there seem to be no consequences to Arriman’s smiting and blighting and it seems to happen primarily within the confines of his own property, Madame Olympia’s most foul magic has the power only to frighten and is not lasting) and punished (Nancy loses her twin Nora temporarily to a bottomless hole and so learns the value of family) and reversible (Terrence and Arriman put almost all to rights at the end). Ibbotson writes with her tongue in her cheek, using humor to reveal the world and its flaws.
I was somewhat disappointed by the emphasis Arriman places on physical appearance in his search for love and with the clichéd linkage between goodness and beauty and wickedness and ugliness in this book, but no so much as to toss the book aside.
Ibbotson, Eva. Which Witch? Illus. Annabel Large. New York: Puffin-Penguin, 2000. Originally published by Macmillan, 1979.
This review is not endorsed by Eva Ibbotson, her estate, Puffin Books, or Penguin Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.