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Jennifer Claessen on taking old stories and reworking them to fit a more modern world

Jennifer Claessen on taking old stories and reworking them to fit a more modern world

Merlin, the many storied wizard, is different in every version but he is always mostly male, mostly old, mostly wise. Why does wisdom always seem to come with a long white beard? Seems likely to rule ‘wisdom’ out all of us not prone to excellent facial hair.

And so, when editing the book that became The October Witches into clarity, the main character, Clemmie, became a witch with imposter syndrome. She is young, female and not wise at all. She is scared of her magic because she’s self-conscious, easily embarrassed and fed up of her family (qualities I often share to be honest). In The November Witches, her journey continues as she learns to use her voice and – always the hardest bit – share her true feelings with her family.

The initial concept of the A Month of Magic trilogy – that magic is seasonal and time-limited – came in a 4am flash. But before the flash there were years of thought. I’ve really struggled to call myself a writer (I do confess to it now though still awkwardly) but I’ve come to recognise the ‘brewing time’ as necessary. All that staring out the window day-dreaming that I did? Necessary work, it turns out.

My favourite VHS (yes, I’m that old) was The Sword in the Stone in which there is only one female character, Mim. She’s not exactly funny herself but she is a comedic character – you know the ones, we laugh at her but not with her. And I used to daydream a lot about Mim vs Merlin: wicked witch versus wise wizard. Which could be alliterative both ways round but yet – it was always a wise wizard somehow.

And so this trilogy first steals and then is extremely disrespectful to Arthurian legend. I’ve flipped genders, centred the coming-of-age of young women instead, made the ‘once and future’ king himself a punchline to running gag.

I think there are people out there for whom Arthur is their ‘Roman Empire’ (Iykyk, the Internet has been asking men how often they think about the Roman Empire: the answer is a lot). We hark back fondly to a time when damsels were damsels, heroes uncomplicated, knights all… shiny.

I don’t think I felt radical when taking these old stories and reworking them to fit a more modern world, I just wanted to be included. But there are no male characters in The October Witches and when a reviewer wrote that it was ‘quietly revolutionary’, I was proud of my messy covens of Merlyns and Morgans.

At a literary festival a fellow author asked me about my books and when I mentioned ‘Arthurian legend’ I got some very involved questions about my medieval sources. So my disclaimer should be that this isn’t deep Merlin, this is gateway Merlin (or Merlyn, as I have it). Myth and legend are unavoidable, everywhere you go in the world you trip up over old stories and they’re yours for the borrowing (cough – stealing).

Magic in this trilogy is a metaphor for changing, for growing up (you could play a game spotting how many magic references are ones about periods) and of course coming into your power.

But for Clemmie Merlyn and her coven, true power is not in their giddy and wild use of magic but in learning to share, work together and tell someone when you’re struggling. And while I’m still working on all of those things too, especially speaking up when things are hard, if women and girls can do that, then perhaps we might be even wiser than wizards.

The November Witches (A Month of Magic) was published by UCLan Publishing on 5 October 2023

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