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The Book of Gothel: Memoir of a Witch


The Book of Gothel: Memoir of a Witch

Fairy tales enter our lives at a tender age, and the powerful symbols linger. Some of them are actually pretty threatening as well as misogynistic --- the fatal gingerbread house, the poisoned apple, the near-death sleep --- and the culprit is almost always a witch. They don’t call these guys Grimm for nothing!

I never gave up that childhood love and terror, so I’m always interested in a new retelling (favorites so far: Robin McKinley’s BEAUTY and SPINDLE’S END, and Naomi Novik’s SPINNING SILVER). In first-time novelist Mary McMyne’s THE BOOK OF GOTHEL, the raw material is Rapunzel (published by the Grimms in 1812), with all its familiar components: the tower, the prince, the sorceress who steals the baby and locks her up, and above all the endlessly long hair.

But this time, the heroes and villains aren’t quite the same.

McMyne’s framing device is a modern feminist academic’s discovery of a 13th-century illuminated manuscript in an ancient cellar in Germany’s Black Forest. It is an autobiography of sorts, a document written at age 83 by a midwife, herbalist and healer named Haelewise (“Mother Gothel” in the original Rapunzel story). She is very far from an evil witch; then again, she isn’t an ordinary woman, either, as Dr. Eisenberg finds out.

"THE BOOK OF GOTHEL is a colorful, entertaining tale.... Where McMyne’s writing really shines are the childbirth scenes.... Here she brings together the spiritual side of her story with the blood and guts of labor and delivery, and the effect is riveting."

From girlhood, Haelewise has always been different, subject to strange headaches and fits of unconsciousness. The inhabitants of her medieval town are suspicious, as villagers always are in fairy tales, warning of demonic possession, and her devout father is the same. He seeks to cure her by exorcism; her midwife mother, in contrast, seeks a remedy in the “hidden powers of root and leaf.”

At first, the plot follows the usual fairy-tale conventions: The good parent dies; the bad parent remarries, leaving the girl an outcast. The village turns against her --- all except for Matthäus, the wealthy local tailor’s son. But his father disapproves of Haelewise and insists he wed someone else. Her only consolation is her mother’s legacy: a small stone carving in the shape of a goddess, half bird and half human, and a crop of golden berries. Both seem to sharpen her supernatural gifts, her sense (especially when attending a birth with her mother) of “the secret world that shimmered beyond the world we knew.” The natural next step is to apprentice herself to Kunegunde, the wise-woman in the forest nearby, who turns out to be Haelewise’s grandmother. And, yes, she lives in a tower.

Once Haelewise leaves town, her path begins to cross that of more privileged characters, who until now have been mostly background: the abbess Hildegard of Bingen (a real-life composer and visionary, later canonized); queens and princesses with long golden braids and mystical powers; a murderous prince able to transform himself into a wolf. As if to underline fairy tales’ roots in local history and folk legend, other classic stories --- Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood --- are threaded into the narrative.

From Hildegard, Haelewise learns about the tension between the church and the hidden sphere of matriarchal ritual and magic. Christianity’s emphasis on God the Father meant that the Goddess-Mother got lost, surviving only in clandestine circles of women who practice the old arts. Her mother was a member, so is Kunegunde, and Haelewise’s dearest wish is to gain entrée to this charmed group.

In the process, she matures from a frightened misfit into a full-fledged fairy-tale heroine: She witnesses murder, takes revenge with a dagger, finds love both sexual and maternal, learns the meaning of sacrifice, and delves deeper into her otherworldly powers. In the end, we learn that the Rapunzel story is a myth: The ”sorceress” saved the child rather than stole her, and nobody was imprisoned.

THE BOOK OF GOTHEL is a colorful, entertaining tale. However, McMyne’s work does at times betray her lack of experience. She is ambitious, trying to fuse history with high fantasy, proto-feminist sentiments with romance fiction. She even slips in a Jewish settlement! It’s a lot for one book. I couldn’t tell the royals apart for a long time (the names sound the same: Albrecht, Ulrich, Ursilda….) and couldn’t figure out what the hell they had to do with Haelewise’s story. The pacing is too leisurely and the plot on the clunky/coincidental side (unearthly voices and occult visions become all-too-convenient shortcuts). Even in a fantasy, events should feel grounded in character and emotion.

The language, too, should read as authentic. Although it’s legitimate for the historical novelist to modernize her vocabulary to some degree, I think consistency is important: It won’t do to mix contemporary words with old-timey locutions. In this book, terms like paranoid or menses, not invented for hundreds of years, stick out, as do slang phrases like “Here you go” or “incredibly tasty.” Did medieval women talk about “perks” or say they were “gutted” by a disappointment or call their intimate garments “underpants”? I don’t think so.

The author is more successful at bringing themes of female oppression and empowerment into her book. Speaking of gossip in the village, Haelewise says, “There’s nothing like a woman alone to get stories going.” A princess contemplating abortion --- this is definitely a pro-choice fantasy! --- says, “I want the child, but I can’t foresee a life where I will be able to care for it.” In a passionate outburst, Haelewise tells the faithful Matthäus, “A woman doesn’t have to be pure to be good. Girls get angry. Mothers fight for their children.” I’d like to believe that there were smart, furious, rebellious women like Haelewise nearly a millennium ago, though written accounts of that period were all produced by men (Dr. Eisenberg refers to them as “sexist scribes”).

Where McMyne’s writing really shines are the childbirth scenes. (I almost believe she’s a trained midwife in real life, or perhaps a friend or family member.) Here she brings together the spiritual side of her story with the blood and guts of labor and delivery, and the effect is riveting. I always cry during the births in the TV series “Call the Midwife.” This parallel medieval drama has the same impact, and it made me feel the same way: awed and elated.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on August 5, 2022

The Book of Gothel: Memoir of a Witch
by Mary McMyne