Monday, April 19, 2021

OzBusters! Why Does Water Melt The Wicked Witch?


“You are a wicked creature!” cried Dorothy. “You have no right to take my shoe from me.”

“I shall keep it, just the same,” said the Witch, laughing at her, “and someday I shall get the other one from you, too.”

This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.

Instantly the wicked woman gave a loud cry of fear, and then, as Dorothy looked at her in wonder, the Witch began to shrink and fall away.

“See what you have done!” she screamed. “In a minute I shall melt away.”

“I’m very sorry, indeed,” said Dorothy, who was truly frightened to see the Witch actually melting away like brown sugar before her very eyes.

“Didn’t you know water would be the end of me?” asked the Witch, in a wailing, despairing voice.

“Of course not,” answered Dorothy. “How should I?”

“Well, in a few minutes I shall be all melted, and you will have the castle to yourself. I have been wicked in my day, but I never thought a little girl like you would ever be able to melt me and end my wicked deeds. Look out—here I go!”

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted, shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor.

 In those words, L. Frank Baum described a unique death scene for a villain. But why does the Wicked Witch of the West "melt" when she's exposed to water?

Well, Oz is a magical world, right? Must just be what happens to wicked witches.

Well, or is it?

We don't meet a lot of other witches like the Wicked Witches of the East and West in Baum's books. The closest are Mombi and Blinkie and her cohorts from The Marvelous Land of Oz and The Scarecrow of Oz, respectively, who are described to be old women, just like those two. There's an unseen witch who Tommy Kwikstep assists who gives him a wish, but she never reappears. In The Tin Woodman of Oz and Glinda of Oz, we meet Yookoohoos and a Krumbic Witch, but these are described as being attractive witches.

I think the key thing is that Baum describes the Wicked Witches of the East and West as being very old. Shortly after the Wicked Witch of the East is killed by Dorothy's house, her body crumbles into dust to be blown away by the wind. When Toto bites the Wicked Witch of the West, she doesn't bleed as the book says that her blood is "dried up."

So, in the physics of Oz, it seems less like the Wicked Witch of the West "melted" and more like she absorbed the water and it's making her body break down. Which sounds like one awful way to go.

But is there anything greater behind this event?

It's a long held superstition that witches and other malevolent supernatural entities can't cross running water, which features in several stories in folklore around the world and pops up in Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow when Ichabod Crane believes he'll be safe once he crosses the bridge. A story in the Ozarks, where I live, concerns a monstrous wildcat who lives in a cave who chases a man on a wagon who sacrifices meat he'd had butchered in an attempt to slow it down. Once all the meat is gone, he finally crosses a creek, stopping the wildcat in its tracks.

However, there's an earlier connection to witches and water. This one is less folklore-y and more sad. During the Witch Trials in England and other European countries, a quick and easy way to get someone you didn't like killed was to accuse them of witchcraft. A number of people would confess as they'd been tortured and they decided they'd rather die than continue to be tortured.

There were a number of ways of execution, burned, hanged, pressed to death with stones. But one that's relevant to us was drowning the accused. If they sank, they weren't a witch. But if they floated, then they were a witch.

Charles McKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds discusses at length the Witch Trials, and was recently abridged by Sam Harris into Witch: A Tale of Terror. The latter volume reveals that the belief was that water was holy, partly because it could be sanctified into holy water. Thus, it would reject a witch, forcing them to float on the surface.

Too bad they didn't just weigh them to see if they weighed the same as a duck...

Would Baum have been familiar with this? McKay's book is from 1841 so it's entirely possible that Baum may have read it. I wouldn't be surprised if his mother in law Matilda Joslyn Gage read it.

However, as I said, the idea that water can repel a witch occurs in many stories, so the "melting" of the Wicked Witch of the West is easily an evolution on this idea regardless of if Baum read the book.