First the plague, and now, in 1507, famine reduces a small German village, hemmed in by forest, to a kind of concentration camp inhabited by living skeletons. For two years the crops have failed; people are starving. Grievances spew forth—a hen no longer lays eggs, a cow’s milk spoils. It’s obvious to all that someone has brought God’s punishment upon the land. When Friar Johannes Fuchs shows up armed with Malleus Maleficarum (an actual book published in 1485-6), all the demons of hell are loosed.
The friar speaks the word Hexe: witch. “I travel our land charged with the duty of ending the devil’s work begun in the hearts and souls of womenfolk,” he declares, announcing his intention “to ferret out the worst in women.” The game is already rigged.
Innocence is guilt, good is evil. That irony is at the heart of this fine and frightening novel. Speaking for the Holy Church, which speaks for God, the friar whips up fear, pagan superstition, and soul-searing mischief worse than anything witches might conjure. The step-by-step description of the friar’s inquisition is chilling.
Knowing about witch hunts, knowing the end of many witch trials, we know the essential story, and Mailman’s intense narrative moves relentlessly toward a wind-up it’s impossible not to see coming. The mad goings-on in Tierkinddorf, repeated for hundreds of years all across Europe and in our own Salem, proceed with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Good people, some with esoteric knowledge of healing herbs, some only forlorn outcasts, are thought to possess the power to disrupt the cycle of fertility in women and fields, drive game from the woods, turn men’s heads from their wives. For that, the witches must burn. Mailman’s richly detailed story has it all down cold.
The characterization of the story’s narrator is central to the hallucination and delusion that erupt in the village. An elderly woman whose mind slips on occasion, Güde isn’t always aware her actions invite suspicion, though she has more than sufficient wit to be a reliable narrator. Nevertheless, turned out of her house in the night, wandering in the snow-filled woods, her mind disordered by age, fear, cold, and hunger, Güde sees a woman floating in the air, hears chants, signs the devil’s book with her blood, ruts with creatures (including her dead husband), feasts on roast pig. She believes these events occur. Perception is reality; hallucination is dramatic event. Mailman manages illusion and reality, one of fiction’s grand themes, so adroitly it’s easy to believe it all happens.
“I flew over a clearing and saw moving shapes. I circled back and let myself drift on a current as I watched the wolves pad into a formation and then sit upon their haunches. Of one accord, they lifted their heads, exposing their throats, and howled. ... They rose upon their hind legs, and as I watched, their fur blanched and retreated. The sharp ears curled and shrank. The round eyes ovaled and developed whiteness around the borders. The claws lengthened and fattened: fingers. Below me, the gray and black fur became spun wool, and the white throats of the wolves were again the necks of men.”
Erika Mailman ’91, The Witch’s Trinity
In the historical sense, it did all happen—the author discovered a Massachusetts ancestor who twice stood trial for witchcraft—even when events in the novel feel as if they take place in the far-away and long-ago. Sentence constructions and rhythms are elevated just enough above modern English to sound foreign, archaic, even ceremonial as befits high drama. Metaphors drawn from Güde’s village life and the surrounding woods are primitive and earthy. It’s Mailman’s witchery with description and somber tone that compels belief in this world.
The Witch’s Trinity may sound like a children’s book title, but it’s hardly aiming to cash in on the success of the Harry Potter books. For sure, this novel is about specters and monsters, but none are supernatural. Reading Güde’s disturbing narrative is like watching a horror movie shot at night in black and white—the black of the night sky and woods, the white of the snow, the symbolic black and white robes of the friar whose mindset is terrifyingly black and white.
The witches never had a prayer.