It used to be the air was so thick with magic you could taste it on your tongue like ash. Witches lurked in every tangled wood and waited at every midnight-crossroad with sharp-toothed smiles. They conversed with dragons on lonely mountops and rode rowan-wood brooms across full moons; they charmed the stars to dance beside them on the solstice and rode to battle with familiars at their heels. It used to be witches were wild as crows and fearless as foxes, because magic blazed bright and the night was theirs.
Gender and womanhood is something that’s been on my mind a lot, lately. Specifically, how gender is applied to – and usually forced on – women. For most of my life, I’ve more or less identified as “woman-ish” but also agender, which was fine…. until I recognized that most of my sense of womanhood was tied up in threat and trauma. That was quite a bit less fine. Therefore, it was really fucking refreshing, if you’ll excuse my language, to find a book that let womanhood be synonymous with power. Specifically, the power of witchcraft. Certainly, motherhood is a key component of womanhood in The Once and Future Witches, but it’s very clear that it’s not the only way to be a woman. And neither is sex, for that matter. To Harrow, being a woman means to fight, to struggle, and to overcome any obstacle. It means freedom, strength, and connection. While I’m still not so sure that the womanhood we represent in our current day to day society is for me, I’ll confess that this version has a great deal more appeal. It’s a type of womanhood I’d like to see more of. It’s a womanhood that feels like it might – maybe – have room for me in it.
The Once and Future Witches is possibly the angriest book I have ever read in my life, which is very much something I can relate to. I, too, am angry – I’m angry that womanhood is a threat dangling over my head, I’m angry that it’s the source of trauma for me. I’m angry that I’ve been denied power, agency, and even basic respect. Often, I’m diminished for even implying that I’ve been denied these things. I’m told I’m imagining things, that sexism doesn’t exist even though I see its effects in my day to day life. It’s a man opening a training session with “Good morning, gentlemen!” and the abuse I went through when I was a mere child. Although Harrow’s prose is poetic and gorgeous as always, sheer fury seethes from the pages. This is a book about righteous, feminine anger. It is a book about tearing down the establishment that controls you and burning the fences they’ve built to cage you in. I don’t know if I am a woman, really, but perhaps I have the anger of one. I don’t know if I want my gender to be wrapped up in anger, but I can’t deny that it’s at the core of what womanhood has meant for me. It’s been fear, trauma, and, yes, a great deal of anger.
Set in 1893 during the womens’ suffrage movement, the book follows three sisters: James Juniper, Beatrice Belladonna, and Agnes Amaranth. Growing up, they were pressed down beneath the thumb of their no-good father. He abused them, hurt them, and generally did his damnedest to tear them apart from one another. In time, he succeeded. He sent Bella off to the ladies’ school where her burgeoning love of women could be beaten from her, drove Agnes away for her own safety, and ultimately pushed Juniper back into a corner until the only option she had left was murder.
But that wasn’t to last. Although they’d been torn asunder, threads strong and ancient bind them together into one.
The wayward sisters, hand in hand,
Burned and bound, our stolen crown
But what is lost, that can’t be found?
On the eve of the solstice, each of the three find themselves drawn to St George’s Square in New Salem, where they will change the world forever. What follows is a journey of self discovery, power, and, above all, choice. While each must follow the path that was set in stone long ago, that of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, they will do so in their own way.
At a glance, the way womens’ power is represented here feels limited. Are we truly only maidens, mothers, and crones? Is there no other option? However, as the book progresses, it becomes clearer that these archetypes are just that: archetypes. The breadth of womanhood within them is infinite and unbounded.
“I never liked being called the Crone. I’ve forgotten the name my mother gave me, but I’m sure it wasn’t that. And she’s no Maiden.” The Crone points her chin at the Maiden, who smiles in a distinctly unmaidenly fashion.
“I am a Mother, muses the armored woman. “But more, too.”
Bella resettles her spectacles. “But the spell to call back the Lost Way of Avalon. It required a maiden, a mother, and a crone, did it not?”
The Crone shrugs. “Every woman is usually at least one of those. Sometimes all three and a few others besides.”
Harrow discusses motherhood in a raw, brutal manner. Even Agnes herself doesn’t fully understand what motherhood means until she chooses it. While Agnes may not have made the choice to become pregnant, she stares at the bundle of pennyroyal in her hands and damn well makes the choice to stay that way. Pregnancy, alongside the choices to continue it or end it, are firmly in the realm of womens’ work and both are valid. As Agnes becomes a Mother in every sense, so too does she understand the prices she’ll pay for it and for her little girl.
Agnes already made the choice to forego motherhood once, earlier in her life. Her Mama Mags, her witchy grandmother, helped her back then. Now, she’s decided that she wants this. She wants her daughter to be born. She must become a warrior to protect her not only while she’s in her womb, but also to ensure that there is a world waiting for her after. Although she could make the choice to continue on the passive tradition of handing down witching in hidden rhymes and fairytales, she’s past that. Her daughter will have a world where she can stride across the land, become a leader or a general, live out her potential.
“Mothers are supposed to be weak, weepy creatures, women who give birth to their children and drift peacefully into death, but the Mother is none of those things. She’s the brave one, the ruthless one, the witch who traded the birthing-chamber for the battlefield, the kitchen for the knife. She is bloody Boadicea and heartless Hera, the mother who became a monster.”
Although she is, truly, a warrior, the thing that Agnes must learn is that being a warrior doesn’t mean relying solely on herself. Womanhood means connection and community. It means building up a network of trust; Agnes has always drawn a careful circle around herself, letting no one inside. Now, if she hopes to survive…. She needs to expand it. She cannot do it alone.
Her sister, Juniper, serves as a stark contrast. She represents the Maiden, fierce and free. She has always drawn others to her magnetically, trying hard to hold them tight and keep them close. She lost her sisters once and doesn’t plan to do so again.
“Maidens are supposed to be sweet, soft creatures who braid daisy crowns and turn themselves into laurel trees rather than suffer the loss of their innocence, but the Maiden is none of those things. She’s the fierce one, the feral one, the witch who lives free in the wild woods. She’s the siren and the selkie, the virgin and the valkyrie; Artemic and Athena. She’s the little girl in the red cloak who doesn’t run from the wolf by walk arm in arm with him deeper into the woods.”
Juniper is a woman who doesn’t require anything at all to claim womanhood. She is defined by the struggle, the freedom, and the battle. She runs the Wild Hunt with her sisters close at her side, taking them on a merry chase as they close in on their quarry. Yet, that will be her undoing – she needs help to stop her from running into trouble that even she cannot handle.
Bella, of course, is that help. She is the Crone.
“Old women are supposed to be doting and addled, absent-minded grandmothers who spoil their sons and keep soup bubbling on the stove-top, but the Crone is none of those things. She’s the canny one, the knowing one, the too-wise witch who knows the words to every curse and the ingredients for every poison. She is Baba Yaga and Black Anna; she is the wicked fairy who hands out curses rather than christening gifts.”
Being the Crone does not mean being elderly or even alone. To Bella, it means seeking knowledge in dark corners and taking the back roads. Sometimes, it even means following her heart and seeking forbidden knowledge of another sort – perhaps that which is to be found in the bed of another woman (I did mention there was sapphic pining!).
While these are certainly three archetypes seen over and over again in discussions of womanhood, Harrow is careful not to allow these to box in the women of her story. In the characters who run alongside and support the Eastwood sisters, we see a young trans woman who has run from her family, a wealthy heiress who is perfectly content to live out her days happy and childless, whores and prostitutes who make a living through their sexual power, and a black journalist who just wants Bella to understand her own innate power and bravery. Womanhood is not bound up in Maiden, Mother, and Crone – it is expansive, broad, and rooted in power and community.
Men, of course, have created a perversion of womens’ community. Where women bind themselves to one another like a quilt, becoming greater than the sum of their parts, men have bound others to them solely so that they can take. That toxic web must be unraveled, lest all of society serve to prop up a figurehead that takes and takes and never gives an ounce in return.
It is only when Juniper, Bella, and Agnes come together with all the women of New Salem (and a few of the men too!) that they can overcome the barriers society has erected in their path and claim the power that was always theirs. To be a woman is not to be a Maiden, a Mother, or a Crone… but to be part of a community. It is to work with your sisters as one, it is to burn and fight and struggle. When the chains come off, it’s to bite even the hand that fed you if it’s also the hand that held you down. Womanhood is to be free and together.
To destroy that leeching, poisoned creation, the women of New Salem will have to give up all the safety and security they’ve ever enjoyed. Even in the end, when it seems the only way to win it to give it all up and sacrifice all that you hold dear… your sisters will be there to catch you and bind you tight to their breasts.
About the Author
I’ve been a student and a teacher, a farm-worker and a cashier, an ice-cream-scooper and a 9-to-5 office-dweller. I’ve lived in tents and cars, cramped city apartments and lonely cabins, and spent a summer in a really sweet ’79 VW Vanagon Westfalia. I have library cards in at least five states.
Now I’m a full-time writer living in with my husband and two semi-feral kids in Berea, Kentucky. It is, I’m very sure, the best of all possible worlds.
My writing is represented by Kate McKean at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.