Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 3: Witches and Magical Beings
"Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Not long ago I was listening to a review of Brave in which the reviewer said he didn't like that he didn't know if the witch was good or bad. In Disney, of course, witches are almost always evil, and if they're good, they're called something else (hence the title of this installment). In folk and fairytales, witches are often neutral or even helpful, though of course bad witches still exist. In fact, there's a pretty even mix of alignments in magical beings. Simply expecting a witch to be either "good" or "bad" is something that's almost entirely Disney's doing, as even in the more modern editions of the European fairytales from which Disney movies come the magical beings come in all points on the morality spectrum.
When you think of a Disney witch, you probably think of the evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film version of the Queen after her transformation is the exact image we have of a witch, solely minus the broom. In the Grimms' tale, the queen is not explicitly stated to be a witch, and her first attempt to kill Snow White involves lacing her into a corset too tightly to stop her breathing - no magic at all there. Her second and third attempts use "all the witchcraft in her power," and she creates a poisoned comb and finally the famed poisoned apple. Despite her use of witchcraft, she is not called a witch once in the story. In the film, Grumpy refers to her as a witch once, and Doc refers to the queen's witchcraft, but otherwise she is referred to as the Queen. Nevertheless, she clearly reads as a witch, and a very, very evil one at that.
In Tangled, we don't really see Mother Gothel as a witch. She's never referred to as a witch, she doesn't really engage in witchcraft or magic (the flower business isn't really any of her own doing). Versions of the Grimms' "Rapunzel" alternately refer to her as the enchantress or the witch. Later editions give her the name Mother Gothel, but the 1812 edition solely names her the enchantress. However, despite being explicitly called an enchantress, she doesn't perform any enchanting in the story. We're not told how the tower was built so perhaps there was some magic there, but we don't know for sure. She never enchants Rapunzel, she never casts a spell on the prince (the prince's eyes are pricked by thorns when he is pushed from the tower). But we're clearly supposed to read her as evil, as a thief of a baby, as the enemy of Rapunzel's and the prince's happiness. In Tangled, Mother Gothel is clearly evil, and despite being coded as a witch in a few shots (see above picture), we really don't think of her as a witch. Both the Queen and Mother Gothel are evil; the Queen is a witch despite never being called one, and Gothel is called a witch despite not really being one. "Witch" in this situation is a synonym for "evil."
I mentioned Mother Gothel is referred to as both a witch and an enchantress in different versions of "Rapunzel," and I think on that note it is interesting to think about this character from Beauty and the Beast. Credited as "The Enchantress," we first see her as a "hag," or a witch. She isn't referred to as an enchantress until her transformation. Whether or not she's evil depends on your interpretation of the tale, and recently I've seen her almost exclusively referred to as evil. Compare this to the Queen from Snow White, who is beautiful before her transformation, but her witchcraft doesn't really come into play until her transformation. When we first see the enchantress from Beauty and the Beast, she's coded as a witch and referred to as a hag which is often used as a synonym for "witch." We know she's a witch by the time she transforms. With the Queen we could probably suspect she's a witch before she transforms, but the Enchantress is the opposite: the beautiful Queen becomes an ugly evil witch, the Enchantress is an ugly witch who transforms into a beautiful and possibly evil being.
Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent is not a witch; she and Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather are all fairies. Maleficent is obviously an evil fairy, while the latter three are collectively referred to as the Three Good Fairies. In Perrault's "La Belle au Bois Dormant," they are referred to as fairies, but in the Grimms' "Briar Rose," they are Wise Women. In both cases, all are good except the sole evil one who curses the princess. They are all magical beings, not really witches, but the imagery of the witch is still used to differentiate good from evil. The film Maleficent has a witch's familiar: her raven Diablo. Her green skin tone evokes another famous witch who was her predecessor (The Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, and Sleeping Beauty was in 1959). Marc Davis's beautiful character design incorporates lots of evil imagery, but there is some definite influence in there from the popular images of witches. The Three Good Fairies and Maleficent are all fairies, but it's immediately recognizable which ones are good and which one is evil.
The Three Good Fairies are joined by another good fairy: Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. Though all are clearly good magical beings, the Three Good Fairies aren't as crucial to the plot as the Fairy Godmother. Flora and Fauna's gifts of beauty and song just aren't as important to the story as the Fairy Godmother's gifts to get Cinderella to the ball. Merriweather's gift changing Maleficent's curse of death to a long sleep is clearly important, but I don't think it's fair to say these characters are on the same level. Cinderella's Fairy Godmother fills the role of a helper, which is a commonly-used folk and fairytale role. In fact, I would put the Fairy Godmother in the same category as two other characters that may not be apparent at first glance:
In their respective Disney films, the Fairy Godmother is a good "witch" (using the term loosely here), Brave's witch is a neutral witch, and The Little Mermaid's Ursula is a bad witch. However, they all fill the same role in the story. What comes immediately to mind to me is the character Mouse Woman used in several Native American folktales. She isn't necessarily good or bad; she helps good characters, who still fear her, knowing her powers, and for bad characters she will sometimes do nothing and sometimes get in their way. Overall, though, she's neutral. The Fairy Godmother is clearly seen as a good character in the Disney film, but in the Cinderella stories that involve a magical being, she is probably most accurately called neutral-good. Perrault's version aside, Cinderella is usually the heroine of her own story, and while the magical being helps her, it's Cinderella herself that does the heavy lifting, so to speak. Brave's witch, likewise, simply gives Merida the assistance for which she came; the way Merida puts it into use causes havoc, but the witch herself didn't curse her or Elinor, or directly cause anything truly bad to happen. In the end it turns out well, thanks to Merida, but the witch was more or less a plot device to get things moving.
Ursula in The Little Mermaid is, obviously, the villain of the piece (sidebar: I wish we knew exactly what it was that she did to get banished from the court. Triton is actually awful and I bet Ursula pointed that out in one way or another and Triton kicked her out for that. This is NOT a plea for a woobifying Ursula spin-off a la Maleficent, please dear God no. I'm just saying I would probably hang out with Ursula. She knows what's up.), but in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," the witch isn't present past changing the protagonist into a human. She warns the titular mermaid in no uncertain terms that it is a terrible idea and it will be awful, but the witch herself isn't evil or even doing any harm; she does what the protagonist asks of her. And it turns out exactly as the witch said, and those familiar with the story know how tragic it is, but the witch herself is neutral. All three of these helper characters simply do what is asked of them. You could make an argument that Cinderella didn't technically ask for what the Fairy Godmother gave her in the movie, but in most of the fairytale versions she does at the very least ask for the dress. But these witches, to answer Glinda's quote up there at the top of this post, are neither good nor bad. Not all characters have to be either good or bad, and indeed that would be really boring. Disney has a tendency to make these characters either clearly good or clearly bad, but going back to the fairytales gives a more nuanced story.