Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Real Witches Versus True Blood

Why is it that whenever a fictional portrayal of magick becomes popular real practitioners seem to come out of the woodwork complaining that said portrayal is unrealistic? To my way of thinking people who get upset that fiction is fictional have way too much free time. While I will explain to beginning students that real magick is not like what you see in Harry Potter, that's mostly so they won't obsess about things like pronouncing words exactly correctly. I certainly have no problem with J. K. Rowling's books or their popularity - they're fantasy novels, and there are very few such novels that present magick with anything resembling realism.

The latest incarnation of this phenomenon surrounds the HBO television series True Blood, which this season features a coven of Wiccans opposing the vampires. Naturally, real witches are complaining about how unrealistically the witches on the show are portrayed - as opposed to, I suppose, the other denizens of the True Blood universe such as vampires, shapeshifters, fairies, werewolves, werepanthers, maenads, and so forth. As fan of campy horror films I do enjoy the show, but part of me keeps waiting for Djinni or Wendigos or who knows what else to show up that has nothing whatsoever to do with vampire folklore.

The series' fourth season has focused on Marnie Stonebrook (Fiona Shaw), a seemingly harmless medium and leader of a Wiccan group who becomes the physical conduit for Antonia, a long dead witch who is hellbent on vengeance against vampires who persecuted and burned her at the stake.

Marnie winds up as the mouthpiece for Antonia's spell to drive the bloodsuckers of fictional "True Blood" town Bon Temps into the daylight. And that sort of deadly revenge, say some modern-day witches, is what gives witchcraft a bad name.

"I'm absolutely disappointed with the portrayal of Marnie," said one witch -- and professor of biology at a college in New England -- who goes by the magickal name Taarna RavenHawk.

"When Marnie gives up her 'power within,' which is a witch's ability to practice the craft without harming others, it allows possession by Antonia who becomes the controlling entity. Marnie lets it happen. It's unconscionable a witch would act this way."

Because witches don't cast spells for revenge? Really? Based on the e-mail correspondence I receive from this site I would guess that money spells and love spells are probably more popular, but curses are up there too. Anybody who's lived in a town that's endured a "witch war" will tell you that witches most certainly do cast curses.

Elaanie Stormbender, a witch and mother of five who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, said all the members of the small community of witches to which she belongs are displeased with Marnie's behavior. "When witches invoke a spirit, they take precautions and retain full control to banish," she said. "Marnie didn't stay in control, so she's entirely to blame for giving herself over to being possessed."

Marnie's behavior also feeds into some people's fears about witches tampering with forces beyond their control, and the character's recklessness only reinforces this fear, said Stormbender.

While that's an accurate assessment of Marnie's actions, I don't think the show's writers are trying to frame it as a good thing - they're trying to show how much of a problem it is, especially in the latest episode.

Christopher Penczak, co-founder and president of The Temple of Witchcraft, a religious nonprofit organization based in southern New Hampshire that teaches witchcraft to students worldwide, also had concerns about Marnie's negative impact on the overall reputation of witches.

"Marnie does communicate with the dead but she comes into witchcraft lacking groundedness," said Penczak, author of "The Inner Temple of Witchcraft: Magick, Meditation and Psychic Development. "A witch who gets good training usually learns to balance that with discipline, strength and focus. I would have liked to see a witch who was more competent and had a clearer sense of will and purpose."

Another red flag for Penczak is how Marnie has begged spirits to enter her. He said modern-day witches don't look for spirits indiscriminately. In fact, they are very specific about what they want to summon. "They'd never say 'I'm opening the door to whoever wants to come through,'" Penczak said.

Being a witch is hard work, too, and a key complaint about Marnie is that she makes her job seem way too easy. Moreover, she actually raised the dead -- something real witches don't do. They just communicate with those who have passed on.

Well yeah, because real witches can't raise the dead. It's a technical issue, not an ethical one. But as far as inviting spirits goes it is true that the method here looks more like spiritualism than any style of witchcraft that I'm familiar with.

Suzanne, also known as Moon, a witch in Atlanta, Georgia, who declined to give her last name, has observed Marnie's huge appeal through the local online forum for solitary pagan practitioners that she created and manages.

"Since the new season of 'True Blood' began, I've seen an increase in new members who are in their teens and may be easily impressed by Marnie's display of power," she said. "It's dangerous when viewers think witchcraft, as Marnie does it, is so easy. For this reason she's a bad example."

And so is just about every other fantasy novel ever published. Just say a couple of magic words and you can do all sorts of stuff. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone you see an eleven-year-old Hermione repairing a broken pair of glasses, levitating a feather, and summoning sunlight out of nowhere pretty much on her first attempts just by pronouncing the proper phrases correctly. She studies a lot, but still it all comes remarkably easily. And that's the way fantasy novel universes work. True Blood is no different in that regard. Just as a point, how do we know that if vampires existed witches wouldn't be able to control them easily with spells? It's one of those meaningless questions like whether or not Balrogs have wings.

My advice to anyone bothered by unrealistic literary and media portrayals of magick is to write their own novel or film in which the magick can be more accurately represented. I did. Otherwise the whole argument is silly and pointless, because it should be self-evident that fiction will always be fiction.

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Anonymous said...

I'm a person, and I'm outraged that almost every book I read has people wrong. They are filled with people doing things I can't do, and things I wouldn't do! I think from now on I should go on a campaign to get accurate portrayal of people in fiction!

Ananael Qaa said...

There you go! That's a cause we can all believe in!

The funny thing is that there's a big market for books about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but I've never personally seen the appeal. I'm supposed to want to read about somebody who works at a job, comes home, watches television, goes to sleep, and then gets up the next day and does it again? I certainly don't want to spend my time reading about anyone whose life is less interesting than mine.