Sep 24, 2008

A Mirror for Witches, by Esther Forbes

Janet Lewis thought highly of the fiction of Esther Forbes, an author best known nowadays for her fine children’s book set in the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain. One of my books for summer reading was Forbes’s A Mirror for Witches, which Lewis recommended to readers in the book Rediscoveries some years back. What did I discover? A very fine novel on the Salem witch trials that should not be forgotten, that might even be highly important. The novel might truly deserve to last – that is, to command our attention as one of the finest novels we have. I believe Lewis might have been right that A Mirror for Witches is deserving of rediscovery.

The book concerns our sense that the events in Salem 300 years ago were incredible and singular. Forbes surely knew that we would be drawn to the story she tells and her manner of telling it simply because most American readers find it bewildering that so many people could have been caught up in the ignorance and mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. (Without question, general incredulity might have diminished in light of the bizarre sex crime scares in the US about 15 years ago.) The novel appears well researched, as evidenced, in part, by its selection for the college textbook, What Happened at Salem? (out of print), which was edited by the fine historian David Levin (once Yvor Winters’s colleague at Stanford). In my considered judgment, the book is exceptionally well written, in a style that is profound, moving, and sharply appropriate to its purpose.

Forbes’s tale concerns the fictional Doll Bilby, a young woman who was adopted by an American-to-be as a small child after seeing her own parents burned alive as witches in France. The man who adopts her, a sympathetic ship’s master, is drawn to Doll’s merrily unruly temperament, which was, Forbes makes clear, shaped by the distress of watching her parents being executed in such a ghastly manner. The intellectual and psychological devastation Doll seems to have suffered, however, does not lead Forbes to a modern take on demon possession. In Doll’s era, mental illness was often seen as evidence of possession by demons, and anyone so controlled must either be in league with them or at least be highly dangerous to everyone else. Forbes portrays Doll as truly possessed; Doll believes it herself. Forbes’s accomplished exposition, written in the style of the 17th century (slightly modernized), evokes both the time and the place and the thoughts and feelings of her characters so powerfully and accurately that we feel as though we have been transported back to colonial times and can thereby more deeply, fully, and sympathetically fathom the colonial mind that brought about the Salem trials. Allow me to quote one important and moving passage of the novel that strikes me as central to its themes. This is part of the scene in which Doll first discerns that she has been in league with demons, whose reality she never doubted, but whose presence she had not yet known fully or clearly:

Now was she no longer alone in this sad world, for her god (that is, Satan) had come to succor her, or had at least sent her a messenger. She asked him which he was, Satan or lesser demon. At the mention of Satan’s name, he bowed his head reverently. He admitted that he was but one of many fallen angels who had left Paradise with the Awful Prince. At first she was cast down, for she had hoped to hear that it was the Prince himself. But she looked again, and marked how handsome a man he was and of what a fine ruddy complexion. She saw how strong were his shoulders, and how arched and strong his chest. She was thankful then that Satan had not seen fit tom send her merely some ancient hag or talking cat, ram, or little green bird, but this stalwart demon. She thought, “He can protect me even from the hate of Mrs. Hannah.” She though, in her utter damnable folly, “He can protect me from the Wrath of God.”

The whole barn fell into the cellar hole. As she looked towards this glowing pit, she thought of that vaster and crueller bonfire in which her soul would burn forever. She thought well to ask him a little concerning those pains which she later must suffer. He laughed at her. There would be, he said, no pain. Those who served Satan faithfully in this world were never burned in Hell. Was not Satan Kind of Hell? Why should he burn those who loved and obeyed him? She was stuffed full of lunatic theology. The only souls that suffered in Hell were such of God’s subjects as had angered Him and yet made no pact of service with Satan....

I could discuss this one wonderfully composed passage at length, for there is much to ponder here, from the author’s voice to the complex meaning of the passage. I quote it just to whet your appetite, though I also want you to see how Forbes delves so deeply into her subject matter that it become a full reality to her readers.

I believe it was this sense of transport that Forbes was trying to achieve. She was not trying to tell us that she believes in demons -- and that we ought to as well. She was trying to fathom what it really felt and feels like to believe in demons so deeply that it could steer people who so believe into unwitting error. By recreating the form, atmosphere, and tone of a seventeenth-century chapbook, in which sinister events are presented as though they are literally true, the 20th-century reader is brought up short, startled with the trueness of other conceptions of life and the world. Reader will take one of several stances on the meaning of the short, violent life of Doll Bilby, "who took a fiend to love." But Forbes wanted something much more, to get us to see that outwardly outlandish beliefs of bygone ages were once really reality, penetrating to every corner of life, deeply influencing, perhaps overmastering, all thought and feeling. I believe that Forbes’s theme can help us in many ways to understand those who are different from us and better comprehend our own past, the essential beliefs of others, and how beliefs shape who we are and what we do. Forbes does no overt moralizing on Doll’s case, though Doll is, of course, condemned. Forbes’s moral is to guide us to a much deeper understanding of human beliefs about the supernatural. The sharply, expertly controlled tone conveys powerful insights into how a young girl could have been be destroyed by ignorance and prejudice that was beyond the full control of those who were ignorant and prejudiced. The story amounts to tragedy. Forbes’s tragic treatment of this theme suggests that, rather than feeling superior to the countless dupes and fools we can prop up from our past, we must look closely and conscientiously at how we are ignorant and prejudiced.

Finally, one of the ideas that lies in the background of the novel, as we see it from our age, was once so deeply believed that it cannot even credibly come into play in the novel. This is the idea that a government has a right and a moral duty to kill those who hold noxious ideas. Forbes could not even explore this theme, so deeply was this view held in the time of the Salem trials. Another novel I have been meaning to recommend as one of my own “rediscoveries” gets to the heart of this matter, Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels. Does anyone else know this very fine novel (by an author of children’s books, too)?

Esther Forbes’s A Mirror for Witches is a truly superb American novel, perhaps even great (I will be pondering that issue) that has been long forgotten. Please check it out.


Ben Kilpela said...

Very recently, I ran across a fascinating short article on the causes of witch killings in early modern times at "Slate":

Economic difficulties, brought on by bad weather and poor harvests, are not matters that come into Esther Forbes's examination of witchcraft in any way. Is this yet another sign of our near total ignorance of what most deeply influences our thoughts, beliefs, and actions? The article presents a truly fascinating hypothesis to contemplate. Economics reaches yet deeper into history. What would believers in witchcraft and demons of Doll Bilby's times have said of this kind of study? Hmmm.

Ben Kilpela said...

I have been informed of another very recent essay on Forbes's novel on another blog. This essay was written by a professor at Texas A&M and contains many interesting and insightful comments:

Season C. said...

Because you mentioned it in your essay,I picked up the book Rediscoveries today. I wanted to read Jane Lewis' thoughts on Mirror for Witches. There's no article of the kind, although there is one on Lewis's book The Wife of Martin Guerre. Is there another book by the same name (Rediscoveries)? Or were you thinking of something else? Not trying to be critical, you just piqued my interest. I am so impressed by Mirror every time I read it, and there's not much out there about it.