Donna Jo Napoli’s trademark technique of fleshing out a fairytale is in fine display in The Magic Circle, her retelling of Hansel and Gretel. Napoli’s stories often reveal motivations behind some of the action that takes place in the traditional fairytales, reasoning out some of the fantastic elements and explaining the behaviour of the familiar characters; which usually results in the villain becoming more sympathetic and understandable. Such is certainly the case in The Magic Circle, in which she explores the background of Hansel and Gretel’s wicked witch.
The hunchback woman is known as the Ugly One by all her neighbours, but has the gift of healing which she uses to aid pregnant women and sick people in her medieval Europe community. She is the proud mother of a beautiful little girl called Asa, and enjoys her simple life as midwife in her country cottage. But her friend Bala has other ideas, getting her work with wealthy families and in researching demonic activity so that Ugly One may earn some more money — with much of the proceeds going to Bala of course.
Ugly One is unsure about extending her talents to exclude exorcisms, knowing the danger is extremely great, but as a devout Christian and a healer she feels compelled to comply with Bala’s wishes — surely God will aid her, and no harm will come to her if she places herself within a magic circle that will protect her from the demons’ tricks. After cleansing a little boy from a demon’s influence, Ugly One knows that she has found her new calling in life.
But once several years pass, her confidence in her own abilities grow and in a mistake that will haunt her forever, she is careless with the protective magic circle. What follows is an escalating series of events that has her transformed into a witch by the vengeful demons and tied to a stake by the terrified villagers. Bartering with the demons for her daughter’s life, Ugly One manages to use her newfound malevolent powers to escape and hide in the forest.
In Napoli’s book the term ‘witch’ is used in the traditional Christian sense, not the New Age one, so be prepared for a negative usage of the word (personally I found it quite refreshing this way — evil witches are so rare these days!) However, it’s not so black and white, for though Ugly One can no longer shed tears, bleed or sleep, has demons whispering in her ears and an appetite for children, she is determined to not give in to her weaknesses. Living in isolation, she manages to keep the demons at bay — until she hears the voices of two lost children outside her home…
Napoli’s story is poignant and thought-provoking, as she raises questions concerning the nature of evil, the will of God and the strength of the individual against temptation. Like all her other books, her spin on a traditional folktale is fascinating and will change your perception of Hansel and Gretel forever. Although her interpretation of the gingerbread house is a little weak and a revelation concerning Bala is raised only to be ignored, The Magic Circle is an intriguing little book. The demons and magical rituals mentioned are all based in real Biblical and Occult study (so you’ll learn something practical alongside the retold fairytale!) and its length means you can probably finish it within a day. Though it is not my favourite Napoli novel (that would have to be Zel and Spinners), The Magic Circle is a great little read.