Pagans have a complicated relationship with fictional magic and magicians.
For many of us, they were our first exposure to a world beyond the ordinary. Fictional magic can be inspiring, even if we know what we do bears little resemblance to what our TV and movie counterparts can do. Last year I put together a list of 12 Movies to Inspire Your Magic. It was quite popular, though some people didn’t approve of it. Fictional magic can be fun and fun is good, especially during stressful times like these.
But some of the fictional witches and wizards we love don’t exactly have our sense of ethics. We love their style, their confidence, and their power, even though we wouldn’t do what they do even if we could… probably… maybe…
And some of them are just plain evil, but we love them anyway. It’s complicated – don’t judge.
Full disclosure: I completely stole this idea from a blogger called Sadie the Goat, who wrote Fictional Cops I Love, Ranked by How Guilty I, as an Anarchist, Feel For Loving Them. Now, an anarchist is supposed to hate cops, or at least want them to not be cops anymore. So this isn’t quite the same thing. But the idea was too good not to adapt to fictional magicians, and so I did.
Here are 11 (actually 12) fictional witches and wizards I love, ranked and divided into five categories of increasing guilt.
I suppose I should warn you that there are spoilers in here, but nothing more recent than Season 6 of Game of Thrones in 2016. And if you haven’t heard that one by now, you probably don’t care.
Guilty? I am them!
11. Hermione Granger (Harry Potter). I’ve never understood the claim that boys won’t read or watch stories with strong female characters. They will if you make them relatable. And there is no fictional witch or wizard of any gender I relate to more than Hermione.
Muggle-born. Excellent in school and obsesses over grades. Nerdy. Not very athletic. Insufferable know-it-all. Prefers to follow instructions, but more than willing to experiment and see what happens when necessary, even if it may go badly.
Hermione is a female character written by a woman – there are some areas where I don’t relate to her. But not many. For all practical purposes when I see Hermione on screen I see myself and I feel zero guilt for loving her.
10. Willow Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In the early seasons I related to Willow even more than to Hermione. Not only was she a fellow bookish nerd, she got picked on by the cool kids (the cool kids at my school were actually pretty cool – the bullies were not) and her lack of dating skills were almost as bad as mine. And she was the witch I wanted to be. But much of Willow’s story in the later seasons revolved around her bisexuality – that’s something we don’t share, even though I loved the Willow – Tara storylines.
I didn’t like the “magic = drugs” comparison, but I loved Dark Willow, probably more than I should. She wasn’t just magic, she was grief-driven rage – pure justice untempered by mercy. No restoration, no rehabilitation, just good old fashioned revenge. It’s attractive. There have been two times in my magical career when I seriously considered “going Dark Willow” on someone. I wrote about one of them, including why ultimately I didn’t.
So now the guilt begins…
9. Merlin (King Arthur). Many people have played Merlin over the years, but for me there is only one: Nicol Williamson in Excalibur (1981). He’s as much Druid as wizard, sharing wisdom and lore as often as he works magic. There’s as much power in his words as there is in his staff. He can see more than he can do, and that frustrates and saddens him – I think that’s what makes him so relatable. And he’s just a bit crazy.
But he takes the newborn Arthur from his mother without the first regret, and his carelessness allows Morgana to imprison him. Merlin is an achievable role model, but he’s not a perfect role model.
8. Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet (Practical Magic). They’re two fictional witches, but for the purposes of this list they’re one role model. They’re old (though Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest were younger when Practical Magic was made than I am now <sigh>), they know exactly who and what they are, and they really don’t care what anybody thinks about them. When it’s all on the line, they know what it takes to work the spell to save the day.
I borrowed one of Aunt Jet’s best lines for a blog post title in 2015: “You can’t practice witchcraft while you look down your nose at it.”
But for two confident and capable witches, they resigned themselves to the family curse all too easily.
Out of my league
7. Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings). If Gandalf isn’t the greatest wizard in all of fantasy and magical fiction, I don’t know who is. I give J.R.R. Tolkien credit – for a character with almost God-like powers, Gandalf is surprisingly human. He is wise, powerful, and confident, but he makes mistakes and when he does, he admits it and moves on. He is both firm and compassionate.But Gandalf is unattainable. With work and practice I can have Merlin’s bardic skills and the Aunts’ confidence. Gandalf is a wizard too far.
I’ve never read the books – I’ve only seen the movies. So I’m sure someone is going to pop in and tell me how I’ve got Gandalf all wrong. If that’s you, the comments section is open. But I feel a little guilty for loving someone who is far more than I can ever be.
6. Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter). “Albus Dumbledore is a great wizard!” So said Severus Snape himself. A powerful magician, a dedicated teacher, and willing to defy the government to do what needed to be done – in dramatic fashion. In the words of Kingsley Shacklebolt “You may not like him, Minister, but you can’t deny – Dumbledore’s got style!”
Dumbledore was ultimately willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. He was also willing to sacrifice anyone else who got in the way of his plans, including his sister. And while he was a father figure to Harry Potter, he prepared him to be a sacrifice as well.
Albus Dumbledore is a reminder that doing the wrong thing for the right reason is still doing the wrong thing.
I love you but I shouldn’t
The witches and wizards in the first three categories are good people who have serious flaws. As with real people, we can emulate their good points and avoid their bad ones.
The characters in these next two categories are not good people. But I love them anyway.
5. Angelique Bouchard (Dark Shadows). Eva Green was great in the 2012 Dark Shadows movie and Lysette Anthony might have been good in the too-brief 1991 prime time remake, but for me Angelique will always be Lara Parker, from the original soap opera. She was my first exposure to witchcraft. I was fascinated – and curious. Now, I was all of 5 years old when I first saw Angelique, but I intuitively understood two things. One, the kind of witchcraft she did was fictional, not real. And two, there was a reality behind the fiction. It would take me 26 years to find it.
It would be easy to write off my attraction as a childhood celebrity crush. It would also be wrong. Dark Shadows gave me my first celebrity crush – Victoria Winters, played by Alexandra Moltke. My love for Angelique always came from her witchcraft.
4. Nancy Downs (The Craft). Is there any movie that’s as loved and as hated as The Craft? I fall into both categories – I loved the first two thirds of the movie and I hated the final third. I loved Nancy’s goth look and I loved the way she stood up to the bullies. She had power and she was a leader. So she bent the rules a bit. We’d all do it if we could, right? And did anybody really mind that she killed Chris? (It’s a movie, people – you’re allowed to kill people who need killing!)
But Nancy took it too far. She didn’t respect her God, she turned on her friends, and she went up against a witch who turned out to be more powerful than she thought. When you play with magical forces you don’t respect, sometimes you end up in a very bad situation.
3. Melisandre (Game of Thrones). Melisandre is a priest rather than a wizard or witch, but she’s an occasionally-excellent magician, so she’s on this list. She’s an evangelist for her God, which I totally get. But her God isn’t exactly someone I care to worship. He’s a little too fond of human sacrifice… which Melisandre is all too happy to give him.
Her divination skills are rather lacking – burning the Princess Shireen doesn’t bring Stannis Baratheon the victory. On the other hand, she brought Jon Snow back from the dead, so she’s got something going for her.
We don’t have her full story yet, and we may not get it. For now, I love her beauty and her power, but I feel guilty about the way she uses it.
2. Fiona Goode (American Horror Story – Coven). Fiona is a villain who’s easy to hate. She’s vain, shallow, and narcissistic. She kills without a second thought. But she’s not the Supreme for nothing – she’s rolling in power and she revels in using it.
I love her for one line in the whole season: “when witches don’t fight, we burn.”
I hate myself for loving you
1. Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter). Several years ago when the Harry Potter movies were still in progress, I was in a theatre to see another movie. There was a life-sized standup cardboard cutout of Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix in the lobby. I looked at it, and looked at it, and looked at it again. Then I turned to my wife and said “I know she’s evil, and I know she’s crazy, but damn she’s sexy!”
Unlike the other fictional witches and wizards on this list, Bellatrix Lestrange has no redeeming qualities. She’s a pure blood and proud of it. She’s Voldemort’s most loyal follower. She killed Sirius Black and gloated about it. She tortured Hermione, and you know how I feel about Hermione. She’s evil, and Molly Weasley did the Wizarding World a great service when she killed her.
And I don’t care. Much of the attraction is Helena Bonham Carter dressed to gothic perfection and portraying Bellatrix just right. A lesser actor could have made her cartoonish or ordinary. More is the combination of magical power and the complete lack of reservation about using it.
Part is the realization of just how delicate a balance many of us walk between empathy and psychopathy, and how easy it would be to cross the line.
I hate myself for loving Bellatrix, but I love her just the same.