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Literature / Which Witch?

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Which Witch? is a 1979 children's fantasy novel by Eva Ibbotson.

Arriman Canker, otherwise known as Arriman the Awful, Loather of Light and Wizard of the North, is getting worried. He's starting to get up there in years, and has no black wizard to pass his legacy on to. A no-nonsense fortune teller insists that one with even more potential than Arriman is on the way, but there's no sign of him ever making an appearance. Thus, though he's not too keen on the idea, Arriman decides to marry a black witch so that he can produce an heir the old-fashioned way.

Of the witches in the area, the pickings are slim. His options are Mabel Wrack (the daughter of a mermaid-turned-human), eternally bickering twins Nancy and Nora Shouter, the uncouth Ethel Feedbag, the ever-befuddled Mother Bloodworth, sinister Madame Olympia, and sweet Belladonna. To choose, Arriman proposes a contest for them: they must all perform acts of black magic for him, and whoever does the most evil thing will be his wife.

Meanwhile, for Belladonna, it's Love at First Sight when she sees Arriman. She's determined to win at all costs, but there's a minor setback: she's not a dark witch at all. In fact, she's a white witch, who can only perform good magic. But luck seems on her side when she meets an orphan boy named Terrence Mugg, whose pet worm, Rover, appears to be Belladonna's familiar, capable of giving her dark magic. With Terrence and Rover on her side, Belladonna is certain to win. But will she come out on top, when one of the group resorts to underhanded methods to win?

Trope examples:

  • Affably Evil: Most of the evil characters in the book are either Laughably Evil or this. The trope is particularly strong with Arriman, though: Though he is known as one of the worst black wizards in the world, he's generally pretty genial and polite. He has a tendency towards temper tantrums or petty revenge when he's annoyed, but he's a decent employer to his servants, a gracious host to his guests, and, in the end, both a loving husband to Belladonna and good mentor to Terrence.
  • Alliterative Family: Nancy and Nora.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Belladonna is hated by pretty much every other witch in the coven, because she's a good witch. The only one who's at all kind to her is Mother Bloodworth, and even she isn't too comfortable talking about Belladonna's... differences.
  • Autocannibalism: The finale of Madame Olympia's musical performance piece, giant plague rats attack and eat each other and the last one standing eats itself.
  • Bad Is Good and Good Is Bad: Belladonna is a good witch, who is ashamed of her magic, and wants to be more evil. She is overjoyed when she manages to turn the blossoms that spontaneously grew in her tent into bloodstained thumbscrews. When someone suggests that she cheat in the dark-magic-competition for the dark wizard Arriman's hand, he reasons that "cheating is evil, and he wants evil, so that's fine".
  • Be as Unhelpful as Possible: Esmeralda the gypsy assures Arriman that a new dark wizard is coming, but can't tell him when or where this successor will come and is very rude about the whole thing.
  • Beautiful Singing Voice: Played for Laughs. Belladonna has a gorgeous singing voice; it comes with being a white witch. She even causes birds to sing more beautifully than before, by just walking by.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Played with. Belladonna, the only white witch, is beautiful while most of the dark witches are hideous. But Madame Olympia, the nastiest of the dark witches, is beautiful too (although the narration points out that she's officially an enchantress, like Circe or Morgan le Fay—they're beautiful, but "it is an evil beauty"), and Arriman, who is the darkest wizard of England, is very handsome, and Belladonna aspires to be evil.
  • Berserk Button: Neither of the twins take it well when Ethel suggests that their chicken laid an ordinary egg. Also, later in the book, Arriman nearly throws a fit when he learns that Belladonna intended to perform necromancy for him, which was the one thing he couldn't manage and wasn't happy about it.
  • Beta Couple: The resurrected Sir Simon is paired off with Madame Olympia, who didn't win the hand of the dark wizard. They fall in love remarkably fast, due to the machinations of the dark wizard's servants, who think they'd be a good match. It helps that each is already planning to kill each other, as one is The Bluebeard and the other a Black Widow.
  • The Bluebeard: Parodied with Sir Simon Montpelier, whose murdering of his seven wives ends up being Played for Laughs. When he comes back to life, he does absolutely nothing but talk about how he killed the wives, until everyone is desperate to be rid of him.
  • Black Widow: Madame Olympia, who went through quite a few husbands, all dead or disappeared in mysterious circumstances...
  • Bottomless Pit: In one challenge, a witch tears the bottom out of a pit, creating a hole into which something can truly fall forever (It's explicitly described as NOT being the same thing as "a hole that comes out in Australia"). It's treated as Serious Business and a major feat of Black Magic, provoking a scream of torment from the pit itself.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Wizard Watcher. It was created to inform Arriman of his successor's arrival, and after being off on vacation for most of the story comes back and immediately reveals it to be Terrence on first sight. Nobody had any clue of Terrence's true identity, including Terrence himself, until Terrence figured it out and returned to Arriman's home.
  • Cute Witch: Belladonna. Though she's somewhat older than the traditional Cute Witches (she's at least in her twenties), she definitely fits the trope — she's certainly much too sweet, pure and innocent to classify as a Hot Witch, even though she has the beauty.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Arriman the Awful, Loather of Light and Wizard of the North, is really a nice guy despite the whole black-magic thing.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: All six of the witches agree that Madame Olympia is a horrible, vile woman. Yes, they're nasty people (except Belladonna) who delight in causing unhappiness and pain, but none of them are murderous cheats like her.
  • Evil Is Petty: The dark witches tend to do nasty things to people just because they can, or because they hate the sight of happiness. In her Establishing Character Moment, Mabel magics a beach full of stinging jellyfish, just out of annoyance at the sight of children happily swimming there. A more malicious example happens at the end, where Madame Olympia steals Rover to ensure her victory, then intends to burn the poor thing just because she's angry she lost. She also makes it clear that she intends to show up later to poison Belladonna, for beating her in the contest.
    • We find out that Matron hates Terrence and goes out of her way to be horrible to him (up to and including trying to kill his pet worm) is because when he was a baby, he once bit her finger.
  • Evil Laugh: Mother Bloodworth tries to do one, but can only manage a rather unimpressive "tee hee!" Madame Olympia is much better at it; even Arriman is impressed by her deep, hoarse laugh.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Parodied. Arriman is a very dark, very evil sorcerer, but his evil acts are more of a Poke the Poodle. It's a children's book, so he obviously can't be too evil. Played a bit straighter with one of the witches, who is more powerful than Arriman himself, and wears a necklace made out of the teeth of her deceased husbands. (Of one, they never found a body, but a bald werewolf with milky blue eyes appeared after he went missing ...)
  • Exact Words: A lot of the magic in the story runs on this, which means a lot of fuss for Arriman (who has to acquire materials, like corpses, princesses) and accounts for a great deal of Loophole Abuse.
    • All the witches in the contest technically accomplish their feats, it’s just that the first two witches have bad luck and the next two get hampered by their own issues. Mabel summons a kraken that turns out to be a baby, Ethel imprisons someone in a tree but he turns out to enjoy it and doesn't want to get out, Nancy creates a bottomless pit but pushes her sister into it and is disqualified, Mother Bloodworth turns a set of princesses into birds but turns into a coffee table and is disqualified. Only Madame Olympia and Belladonna actually succeed to pull off their feats accurately and successfully.
    • When Lester suggests that Belladonna cheat in the competition, he reasons that "cheating is evil, and he wants evil ".
    • The Wizard Watcher is created to watch for the arrival of a new wizard. Once Terrence appears, its job is done, but Belladonna gives it a new duty: to watch over the new wizard.
  • Familiar: Every witch save Belladonna has one. Unusually, none of the witches has a cat familiar — instead we see an octopus, a pig, two chickens, a box of flies, a sheep, an aardvark, and a worm, though it turns out that last one isn't.
  • First Gray Hair: Arriman's first gray hair kicks off the plot, acting as a reminder that he won't be around forever and needs to get serious about getting an heir.
  • Forced Transformation: Poor Mother Bloodworth has a tendency to transform into a coffee table when she gets stressed or upset. Unfortunately, she's also extremely forgetful, which means she has a hard time remembering the counter-spell.
  • Foreshadowing: Belladonna states that she feels blacker when Terence is around. Terence is later revealed to be the new Wizard.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Belladonna, who is beloved by pretty much every animal she comes across.
  • Gentle Giant: Lester the ogre.
  • Gratuitous Princess: Played for laughs; Mother Bloodworth just needs seven princesses for her hypnosis spell, but the ones Arriman manages to find are as far removed from the Princess Classic as possible.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Belladonna is an innocent white witch who's as kind and good as they come, so she fittingly has golden hair.
  • Henpecked Husband: Ethel Feedbag summons a put-on husband and his obnoxious family to imprison in trees. He begs to stay in his tree as it’s pretty much rescuing him from his family, so it works against her.
  • Heroic BSoD: Well, Nancy isn't exactly heroic, but she goes through this after Nora falls into the bottomless pit that Nancy herself created. She becomes near-catatonic, never leaving her tent and barely talking. This is finally reversed when Terrence undoes the spell and rescues Nora from her fate.
  • Hypnotize the Captive: The seven princesses that Mother Bloodworth tries to turn into black swans have all been hypnotized into compliance by Arriman. Though the German one is still aware enough of her surroundings that she can complain when the transformations don't go the way they're supposed to.
  • Intergenerational Friendship:
    • Terrence and Belladonna become fast friends, though he's a child and she's an adult.
    • Belladonna and Mother Bloodworth also count. Mother Bloodworth is old enough to be Belladonna's grandmother, but she's the only other witch who actually gets along with Belladonna.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Mother Bloodworth brags about her former beauty, and spends most of the book trying to remember a spell to make her young and gorgeous again. In a surprisingly sweet moment, her wish at Arriman and Belladonna's wedding is to have the spell given to her—but once she casts it, she looks at herself in the mirror and decides she'd much rather be her old, forgetful self than so young. The narration reveals that she lived out the rest of her days quite happily.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: Mabel sets about summoning the Kraken, and sure enough the Kraken puts in an appearance. It's only a baby, though, about the size of a handbag, and needs a babysitter.
  • Loophole Abuse: Because most of the witches Arriman encounters are hideous and inept, he goes out of his way to invoke this so he won’t marry any of the first five witches in the competition. It only fails with the last two, who are sufficiently beautiful and manage to suitably impress him with their power.
    • Madame Olympia exploits this to enter the competition. The rules state that all "witches of Todcaster" are to participate, so she forces Myrtle (a banshee who was supposed to be the seventh witch in the contest, but was too sick to come along) to sell her her home and thus technically become a witch living in the area, allowing her to join.
  • Love at First Sight: Belladonna falls for Arriman the instant she lays eyes on him (as do most of the other witches). It works the other way too, with Arriman falling in love with Belladonna the instant he looks at her and wanting to marry her "tomorrow at the latest". Also seen with the genie judge and one of the princesses turned into a black swan (really a penguin).
  • Magic Feather: Terrence thinks his pet worm is magical; it turns out that it's a normal worm, the magic came from Terrence all along.
  • Makeup Is Evil: Madame Olympia owns a beauty parlor. She enchants her products so that they really do make the customers look incredibly beautiful at first, but then they wear off and leave the people uglier than before, forcing them to keep coming back again and again.
  • Mama Bear: The thing that pushes Belladonna to do the first remotely black thing in her life is watching Matron (who had tried to squish Rover, earlier) yell at Terrence and try to drag him away. It angers Belladonna so much that she halts Matron by turning her partially into a tree.
  • Meaningful Name: Belladonna zigzags this. The name refers to a deadly plant, so it would be perfect for an evil witch...but she's as kind and good as they come, so it's much closer to the literal translation, "beautiful lady" — which she is.
    • Arriman appears to be named after Ahriman, one form of the name of the spirit of evil in Zoroastrianism. Arriman is of course the master of black magic (even if he is quite nice as a person).
  • Minion with an F in Evil: Before becoming Arriman's assistant, Mr. Leadbetter thought he was a demon of some kind, because he had a small devil-like tail. Since he figured this was the case, he tried to rob banks for some time. It didn't work out.
  • Mister Muffykins: Sir Simon claims that he murdered one of his seven wives because she had a 'little dog that yapped.'
  • Morphic Resonance: When Arriman transforms himself and Lester into a fox and a rabbit, respectively, Arriman’s fox form is described as, “unusually handsome…with a great bushy autumn-colored tail”, while Lester as a rabbit still has one eye.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Nancy, after throwing her sister into the bottomless pit she created.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Arriman's servants agree to most of his ideas, even if they don't think much of them. Subverted near the end though, when they conspire to rig his tournament so that Belladonna will win, because they think she's the best and most deserving candidate.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Arriman is named for Ahriman, a God of Evil in Persian mythology. This is explicitly stated; his parents chose this name to invoke this trope.
  • Nice Guy: Terrence. Surprising, considering that he's destined to be come an evil darker wizard than Arriman...
  • Pair the Spares: Rather amusingly done between Sir Simon and Madame Olympia. To keep them both from causing problems in Arriman and Belladonna's marriage, their wedding drinks are spiked with love potion so they fall for each other. There's some debate as to which one would kill off the other.
  • Pet the Dog: Though Mother Bloodworth is at least nominally an evil witch, she's generally kind to Belladonna — even if she finds her white magic uncomfortable. That's because she's the only witch who has the patience to help her with her dementia.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Mother Bloodworth. She's so old she can't remember things properly, and she has a Running Gag of turning into a coffee table throughout the story. However, she is more caring and reasonable to Belladonna than the other witches. And at the end of the story she gets a second chance for youth and beauty, and surprisingly rejects it, preferring to stay a forgetful old hag who can't do real harm.
  • Shipper on Deck: Lester, Mr. Leadbetter and Terrence are all convinced that Belladonna is the most suitable to be Arriman's wife. To their endless delight they're correct.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: When Arriman finally meets Belladonna, his new bride, they instantly start calling each other pet names and wanting to be wed the next day at the latest. Arriman's assistant is not amused.
  • Single-Minded Twins: Nancy and Nora are identical, have exactly the same animals as familiars, and constantly bicker about the same subject matter.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: The Wizard Watcher tends to talk like this.
    Middle Head: He cometh not from the north.
    Left Head: He cometh not from the west, neither.
    Right Head: Nor from the east doesn't he cometh. And our feet are freezing.
    • This is followed up by them relaying those messages to Arriman, along with "We think you've been taken for a ride."
  • Tall, Dark, and Snarky: Arriman the Awful. Not quite as snarky as other examples, but he has his moments.
  • Transflormation:
    • Ethel Feedbag's feat for the competition is to imprison three Muggles in three trees.
    • Terrence inflicts this on Matron at the climax.
  • Tsundere: Arriman is extremely capricious to his staff and doesn't want the little kraken around, but actually he's very attached to both.
  • Vain Sorceress: Madame Olympia, who is by far the most sinister and dangerous of the witches — but also the most beautiful one, other than Belladonna.
    • Also fittingly as mundane profession she runs a beauty salon where she employs her magic to con women into relentlessly buy her products.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Nora and Nancy Shouter are an identical twin version of this. They never get along and are always arguing, but boy do they love never getting along and always arguing. When Nora is Legally Dead thanks to falling down the bottomless pit Nancy created, Nancy falls into depression because without her sister life has no meaning for her. Luckily, Nora turns out to be Not Quite Dead.
  • Working-Class People Are Morons: Initially played straight with Ethel Feedbag, who is very working class and not very bright, but it turns out she does have her areas of expertise (she's the only one who can tell at a glance that the egg laid by a chicken familiar is just a normal egg and not a magical one).