Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Amber Witch

The Amber Witch
The Amber Witch, by Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Little Bookroom, by Eleanor Farjeon.  In the foreword, she talks about how she was allowed to read anything she wanted as a child, and names some of the stranger things she read: "...and one called The Amber Witch that was not in the least like the witches I was used to in the fairy-tales I loved."  I always thought I'd like to read that story too and when I was in college I found it in a collection of Victorian ghost stories published by Dover.  I've had it ever since, though I have not read it in a very long time.

The Amber Witch is not really a ghost story.  It's sort of Gothic.  It's really a literary hoax written by Meinhold in order to embarrass some scholars he disagreed with, who claimed that the Bible was a collection of legends, and they could see that from internal evidence.  He figured that if he wrote a story and claimed that it was a historical document, but that he had filled in some of the missing material, they would drive themselves crazy trying to figure out which bits were which and they'd never guess that he had made up the whole thing.  Everyone believed his story and when he told the truth in the second edition, many people still wouldn't believe it.  So Meinhold used a popular literary trope in fiction and said this time it was real, but it was still fictional!

The story is an account written by a German priest of the trial of his own daughter, who is accused of witchcraft.  The narrator is amusingly (irritatingly?  realistically?) written to be a bit fussy and extremely proud of his Latin learning, so there is Latin sprinkled liberally throughout.  The girl, Mary, is beautiful, virtuous, and highly intelligent, and the local sheriff accuses her of witchcraft when she refuses to become his mistress.  He uses his former mistress, who really is a witch, as an accomplice.  The sheriff figures Mary will give in and he will save her, but of course she refuses.

This all happens during the Thirty Years' War, in the first half of the 17th century.  As it happens my younger daughter had just read about that war in her history book, so I actually had a bit of background knowledge!  It really tickled her that I was reading about the same King of Sweden that she had just been telling me about.

The Amber Witch became quite popular.  It was translated into English and sold well throughout the Victorian period.  There was even an opera!

I think it's really pretty obvious that the story is all fiction.  It's got an improbably lovely heroine, a true love, a villain, a happier ending than most witch trials probably had--it's a short novel.  I would have thought the scholars would have noticed that.  I do think it's an interesting book though; if you're willing to put up with the narrator, it's a neat piece of literary history.

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