THE WITCH AND THE PRIEST
This novel by Hilda Lewis is one of the best I have ever read about witchcraft.
The period is early in the seventeenth century, a few years after King James I had initiated the ferocious nation-wide witch-hunt. During it not only were scores of witches hanged, but also many hundred elderly women, mostly living alone and keeping some small animal as a pet, who were entirely innocent, although unpopular, and fell victims to the malicious accusations of their neighbours.
The story opens with the soul-searching of an elderly, intelligent and comfortably off village parson, the Reverend Samuel Fleming. He had been one of three magistrates who, a year or so earlier, had sent to trial a mother and her two daughters accused of witchcraft. Ever since he has been troubled by questioning whether he had really been right to do so.
One day on an afternoon stroll he goes to the now ruined and desolate cottage of Joan Flower, the mother witch. Her ghost appears to him, not old, grey-haired and wrinkled, as she had been when she died of a heart-attack before being tried, but as he had first known her – a young and lovely girl to whom he had secretly felt himself attracted.
During this strange interview, and numerous subsequent ones, for which Joan’s ghost comes to him at the rectory, she gives him a full account of her life. She tells him of her unhappy marriage, her many adulteries, and how, after her husband’s death, poverty caused her to become both a whore and a witch.
She describes in detail the licentious Sabbats; the agonies of delight she experienced when the Devil made love to her; how she presented her two daughters to him. and later the three of them cast spells that tortured and murdered the two young sons of the Earl of Rutland.
The daughters provide a fascinating contrast. Margaret, the eldest, has a beautiful face and figure, but she is stupid and cowardly. Although lechery has tempted her into becoming a witch, she tends to regret it, and hankers, from time to time, to return to the Christian faith. Philippa, on the other hand, is skinny and ill-favoured, but splendidly courageous. She is fanatically devoted to the Devil, with his cult of unbridled lust and committing every form of evil.
Quite early in the story we learn that Joan Flower is in Limbo. Having sold her soul to Satan she cannot be received into Heaven. Yet, just before her death, she repudiated the Devil, so is refused by him the promised joys of Hell. She is therefore condemned to continue as an earthbound spirit for all eternity.
There is only one means of escape for her – that is to declare her repentance for all the evil she has done; since the mercy of God is infinite. But she is reluctant to do this because she considers that the ignorant Christians, and particularly fanatical followers of that Faith, do more evil than those who worship the Old God.
In consequence, the story develops into a desperate battle between her doubts about the reliability of the Christian God, in view of His complete indifference to the fate of His followers when, in dire trouble, they pray in vain for His help, and the old priest’s determined endeavours to set her free by persuading her to ask God’s forgiveness.
The resistance of the witch to placing her trust in the Christian God is very understandable when she describes the utterly horrifying conditions in which He leaves those who have faith in Him to rot while awaiting trial, often for months, in prison; and even sometimes die there although they are innocent.
The book is very well written and intensely interesting. It should provoke deep thought in all who read it and cause them always to temper justice with mercy.