In The Witch Wood…
Are female magic users witches? I always saw witches, in a classic fantasy setting, as being too attached to one particular geographical area to do much “adventuring.” Instead, I saw them as solitary, perhaps predatory, single women rooted in isolated, rural areas. Why would they leave their spot? Even if forced out, they would want to immediately settle in a similar place.
It’s fairly easy to see, given the amount of violence and the number of monsters found wandering in the wilderness, that any witch who managed to last on her own for any length of time – to remain alive in these conditions of almost constant and unrelieved danger – would have to become pretty powerful indeed. Not only that, but their struggle simply to fend off random threats would serve to turn their minds and psyches towards a starkly sinister cast – a conditioned frame of mind which would, in turn, make them serious threats to others.
The Judges Guild supplement Witches Court Marshes sought to present the “witch” character as a separate class, complete with its own spells, levels, varying schools, etc. While some of the material in this book is quite good (the spells), I don’t see the development of these kinds of characters happening in a socialized setting. Instead, I see the “wilderness witch” as a kind of cross between a primitive shaman and a magic user, forged by solitude and privation – and tempered by repeated and traumatic encounters with hideous dangers.
This isn’t to suggest that these almost “aboriginal” figures don’t have peers, or can’t recognize each other as such. But their meetings (“sabbats”?) would be infrequent. If they were more socially-oriented, and weren’t fundamentally alienated, they wouldn’t be witches to begin with – they’d move back into the framework of the typical rural communities found in the wilderness. Rather than seeking tutelage from other witches, I suspect that the wilderness witch would advance through her own solitary practices and gain experience as she struggled to survive in the harsh conditions of the wild.
The woods, with all its stark and myriad dangers, would become the catalyst and the womb from which the witch emerged both out of and into. Her apotheosis, it seems to me, would mean her assumption of, or final transformation into, a guiding, animating “genus loci” presence in the woods itself. In this sense, and from that height (or from those depths), she might serve to “initiate” the poor, insane woman (or girl) who found herself facing the same situation she once did. The trials such an initiate would be subject to would be nothing other than the threats presented by the malevolent creatures and whirling chaos explicit in the wilderness woods itself. What looked like fate or accidents might be, instead, a ceaseless rhythm of passages and initiations from one point to another. The monsters – giant centipedes, tribes of hobgoblins, huge snakes – might be revealed to be nothing more than the instruments of witches who had themselves passed “further into the trees.”