Author Takeover: Irena Brignull on Why She Writes Witches

September 14, 2017

First, I was scared of them. Then I became curious. Now I write about them.


Mostly cast as the villain, often without rhyme or reason as to why, they’ve always seemed so mysterious. They are the opposite of damsels in distress, Sleeping Beautys, Cinderellas, Snow Whites. They are mistresses of their own fortunes. They have the power to change lives – their own and others’. They have magic.

But where did they come from? Who are their families? Particularly their fathers? Were they born with magic? Or did they learn it? Modern novels have started answering these questions. The most famous of these must be the beloved Hermione Granger – a three-dimensional, fully-realized character who is intelligent, studious, and governed by reason. Before her came the very different but also charmingly engaging Mildred of The Worst Witch. But these two girls are good witches – determined to help, not harm. They are a far cry from the witches of my childhood. Narnia’s White Witch is the embodiment of evil, casting a spell of never-ending winter across the land. The Grand High Witch in Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a demon in human form, determined to eliminate all children. The unnamed witches of Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel are just as inexplicably wicked. Perhaps it’s because of their mystifying nature that they so captivated and terrified me when I was a child. The one that left the greatest impression is the great Baba Yaga, who is presented in several tales in different guises, but the one I know her from is Bony Legs.

So these were the witches of my childhood, but in my teens I met Circe, Medea, Morgan le Fay, and Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. Then came The Crucible and, with that, an interest in the historical aspect of witchcraft. It seemed that it was not just literary witches that people feared, but real-life women too. The witch trials spanned centuries, killing tens of thousands of people. Men, women, and children were all brutally tortured and murdered. Perhaps because of their literary predecessors, it is the women who have stuck most in our collective minds. It might be fanciful, but I often wonder how many of these were ahead of their time – outspoken, unmarried, nonconformist, independent, extraordinary (like Joan of Arc, condemned as a witch by the Catholic Church). Were they punished for being different? Were they scapegoats for society’s insecurities?



It was with this in mind that I began my very first novel, The Hawkweed Prophecy. I tried to imagine the women who escaped these punishments, forming covens, living in secret, away from society. Having been so persecuted by men, they put sisterhood first, above romance and marriage. I wanted to explore what these female-only covens would be like. I found there was a lack of vanity, a self-sufficiency, an affinity for nature, a solidarity, and of course a great sense of sisterhood. The need for romantic and sexual love had been replaced by something more intoxicating – magic. But no society is perfect. There was also motherly ambition, female bullying and manipulation, retribution for anyone who tried to leave.

The Hawkweed story starts with a prophecy, inspired by the Weird Sisters of Macbeth. Only I wanted to put the witches at the forefront of the drama. I wanted them in the round, their flaws as well as their virtues. I wanted to elevate them beyond the evil villain. And I wanted to embrace and celebrate their talents. To me, as to so many, they are a metaphor for female power and the fear that still engenders around the world today.

These are my top ten witch inspirations. What are yours?

  • The Weird Sisters, Macbeth
  • Baba Yaga, Bony Legs
  • Jadis, the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Hermione Granger, Harry Potter books
  • Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West
  • Morgan Le Fay
  • Circe
  • The Witches of Eastwick
  • Serafina Pekkala, His Dark Materials
  • Minerva McGonagall, Harry Potter books

Irena Brignull is a successful screenwriter. Since working on the screenplay of The Boxtrolls, Irena has been writing an adaptation of The Little Prince directed by Mark Osborne and starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, and Marion Cotillard. Previously, Irena was a Script Executive at the BBC and then Head of Development at Dogstar Films, where she was the script editor on Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Bravo Two Zero to name a few. Irena holds a BA in English Literature from Oxford University. The second book in Brignull’s Hawkweed series, The Hawkweed Legacy, is available now.

  • Iain Walker

    8. is a little more than just a theory – it is (so far) the only explanation that works. The books don’t allow a consistent estimate for the student population of Hogwarts, but the least inconsistent number seems to be around 500-600 (which was also Rowling’s final figure), so the idea that Harry’s year is smaller than average is, if not explicitly canonical, then supported by the text to a high degree of probability. Couple that with two other facts:

    1. This is the population cohort born at the height of a vicious terrorist campaign bordering on a civil war, fought without borders, so that everyone is in the front line, and where the state is responding with increasing violence of its own.

    2. The normal demographic response for a population undergoing such trauma is for the birth rate to drop.

    If anything, your article may be under-estimating the tragedy. It’s not just that people were delaying starting families because of the insecurity of the times. People were being killed before they had the chance to reproduce. In fact, whole families were being wiped out. It’s only after Voldemort is defeated by Lily’s sacrifice that the birth rate would start recovering again. Which suggests that Ginny’s year would also be small (born in the last year of the war), the PoA intake would be slightly bigger (born at the very end or in the immediate aftermath), and Hogwarts would only regain its normal intake around GoF. This is indirectly supported by the books, where the Sortings in GoF and OotP are portrayed as going for a long time, as if there were more students to Sort (although Harry misses the Sortings in CoS and PoA, so unfortunately we can’t do a comparison).

    How much of this actually occurred to Rowling at the time is uncertain. She’s on record as saying that she initially envisaged there being more than forty in Harry’s year, and only came up with forty names so that she had something to work with. But then she went and wrote the books in such a way that there can’t plausibly be any more than around forty in the PS intake. Yet whether this was intentional or not, she still came up with a class-size that made perfect sense given her fictional society’s recent history and likely demographics.

  • Lupinfamily4ever

    Thank you for including Remus&Tonks and Teddy on to the list. They deserve to be awknowleged and I completely agree they’d have made perfect parents. If only. Still sad after all the years. :'((

  • tena

    don’t forget that some parents prefer homeschooling and there’s still a bunch of other schools…

    • Iain Walker

      One would then need to explain why, in Harry’s age cohort, more children are being homeschooled or sent to foreign schools instead of going to Hogwarts. A drop in the birth rate due to the First Voldemort War is still the simpler explanation.

      (Sorry, I assume that this was in response to the Harry’s-small-class-size issue.)