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Deborah Harkness And A Discovery Of Witches

Harry Potter for grown-ups. A history professor takes on the world of witches.

Once upon a time, science and the supernatural were pretty much the same thing. The stars, Haley’s Comet, eclipses, mysterious diseases, chemical reactions, it all seemed pretty paranormal to the wizards and monks and scholars who studied them.

Historian Deborah Harkness has thought a lot about the science and the supernatural. Now, she’s written her first novel, a fantasy about modern-day scholarly witches & research scientist vampires fighting great battles in our midst. And it has become a runaway best-seller.

This hour, On Point: Writer Deborah Harkness and A Discovery of Witches.

- Jane Clayson

 Guest:

Deborah Harkness, professor of history at the University of Southern California. Her new novel is “A Discovery of Witches.”

Excerpt: A Discovery of Witches

by Deborah Harkness

The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable. To an ordinary historian, it would have looked no different from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, ancient and worn. But I knew there was something odd about it from the moment I collected it.

Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room was deserted on this late-September afternoon, and requests for library materials were filled quickly now that the summer crush of visiting scholars was over and the madness of the fall term had not yet begun. Even so, I was surprised when Sean stopped me at the call desk.

“Dr. Bishop, your manuscripts are up,” he whispered, voice tinged with a touch of mischief. The front of his argyle sweater was streaked with the rusty traces of old leather bindings, and he brushed at it self-consciously. A lock of sandy hair tumbled over his forehead when he did.

“Thanks,” I said, flashing him a grateful smile. I was flagrantly disregarding the rules limiting the number of books a scholar could call in a single day. Sean, who’d shared many a drink with me in the pink-stuccoed pub across the street in our graduate-student days, had been filling my requests without complaint for more than a week. “And stop calling me Dr. Bishop. I always think you’re talking to someone else.”

He grinned back and slid the manuscripts—all containing fine examples of alchemical illustrations from the Bodleian’s collections—over his battered oak desk, each one tucked into a protective gray cardboard box. “Oh, there’s one more.” Sean disappeared into the cage for a moment and returned with a thick, quarto-size manuscript bound simply in mottled calfskin. He laid it on top of the pile and stooped to inspect it. The thin gold rims of his glasses sparked in the dim light provided by the old bronze reading lamp that was attached to a shelf. “This one’s not been called up for a while. I’ll make a note that it needs to be boxed after you return it.”

“Do you want me to remind you?”

“No. Already made a note here.” Sean tapped his head with his fingertips.

“Your mind must be better organized than mine.” My smile widened.

Sean looked at me shyly and tugged on the call slip, but it remained where it was, lodged between the cover and the first pages. “This one doesn’t want to let go,” he commented.

Muffled voices chattered in my ear, intruding on the familiar hush of the room.

“Did you hear that?” I looked around, puzzled by the strange sounds.

“What?” Sean replied, looking up from the manuscript.

Traces of gilt shone along its edges and caught my eye. But those faded touches of gold could not account for a faint, iridescent shimmer that seemed to be escaping from between the pages. I blinked.

“Nothing.” I hastily drew the manuscript toward me, my skin prickling when it made contact with the leather. Sean’s fingers were still holding the call slip, and now it slid easily out of the binding’s grasp. I hoisted the volumes into my arms and tucked them under my chin, assailed by a whiff of the uncanny that drove away the library’s familiar smell of pencil shavings and floor wax.

“Diana? Are you okay?” Sean asked with a concerned frown.

“Fine. Just a bit tired,” I replied, lowering the books away from my nose.

I walked quickly through the original, fifteenth-century part of the library, past the rows of Elizabethan reading desks with their three ascending bookshelves and scarred writing surfaces. Between them, Gothic windows directed the reader’s attention up to the coffered ceilings, where bright paint and gilding picked out the details of the university’s crest of three crowns and open book and where its motto, “God is my illumination,” was proclaimed repeatedly from on high.

Another American academic, Gillian Chamberlain, was my sole companion in the library on this Friday night. A classicist who taught at Bryn Mawr, Gillian spent her time poring over scraps of papyrus sandwiched between sheets of glass. I sped past her, trying to avoid eye contact, but the creaking of the old floor gave me away.

My skin tingled as it always did when another witch looked at me.

“Diana?” she called from the gloom. I smothered a sigh and stopped.

“Hi, Gillian.” Unaccountably possessive of my hoard of manuscripts, I remained as far from the
witch as possible and angled my body so they weren’t in her line of sight.

“What are you doing for Mabon?” Gillian was always stopping by my desk to ask me to spend time with my “sisters” while I was in town. With the Wiccan celebrations of the autumn equinox just days away, she was redoubling her efforts to bring me into the Oxford coven.

“Working,” I said promptly.

“There are some very nice witches here, you know,” Gillian said with prim disapproval. “You really should join us on Monday.”

“Thanks. I’ll think about it,” I said, already moving in the direction of the Selden End, the airy seventeenth-century addition that ran perpendicular to main axis of Duke Humfrey’s. “I’m working on a conference paper, though, so don’t count on it.” My aunt Sarah had always warned me it wasn’t possible for one witch to lie to another, but that hadn’t stopped me from trying.

Gillian made a sympathetic noise, but her eyes followed me.

Back at my familiar seat facing the arched, leaded windows, I resisted the temptation to dump the manuscripts on the table and wipe my hands. Instead, mindful of their age, I lowered the stack carefully.

The manuscript that had appeared to tug on its call slip lay on top of the pile. Stamped in gilt on the spine was a coat of arms belonging to Elias Ashmole, a seventeenth-century book collector and alchemist whose books and papers had come to the Bodleian from the Ashmolean Museum in the nineteenth century, along with the number 782. I reached out, touching the brown leather.

A mild shock made me withdraw my fingers quickly, but not quickly enough. The tingling traveled up my arms, lifting my skin into tiny goose pimples, then spread across my shoulders, tensing the muscles in my back and neck. These sensations quickly receded, but they left behind a hollow feeling of unmet desire. Shaken, I stepped away from the library table.

Even at a safe distance, this manuscript was challenging me— threatening the walls I’d erected to separate my career as a scholar from my birthright as the last of the Bishop witches.

(Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Copyright © 2011 by Deborah Harkness.)

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  • Cat

    Oooooo, sounds like a good story. Can’t wait to read it!!

  • Allthatsparkles Jules

    It’s a romance novel. I was not prepared for that. I enjoyed the book–even though it’s not my preferred genre–but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s TWILIGHT for grownups, not Harry Potter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

    Nice premise for a novel. Too bad it will have to take a back seat to my assigned reading, my backlist of novels, and the second draft rewrite of my own novel.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

    (I’m reading WUTHERING HEIGHTS right now–great book!)

  • Lydandy

    I loved this book! Equal parts history, mystery, romance, and fantasy…Harkness’ style is appealing to a mature reader and anyone with a historian’s background. I’ve even been casting the movie in my mind, not something I typically do. Can’t wait for book 2!

    • Ruth C.

      Glad I’m not the only one who immediately thought this would be a great movie. Who should play Matthew? I’d love to see someone who is not a star get a break in this role, but you know that won’t happen.

  • Ed

    It’s a worrying phenomenon that our culture is so interested in vampires, witches, etc. Spirituality, yes, of course, but why these dark forces?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

      Because the “dark forces”—under which you may appropriately include fictitious vampires but not real-life, historical witches—are as much a part of our spiritual history as anything else, and in some ways may in fact be more life-affirming than “forces of light” because they (like Goth culture) do not fear death (or life!) in the same sense that our heavily Christianized world typically does.

      • new civility

        Nonsense

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

          How so? “Nonsense” is a fair judgment–if you can back it up with some reasoning.

  • Gerald Fnord

    One of the differences between naturalism and supernaturalism is that naturalism works on the assumption that the universe basically doesn’t care about us—the ‘laws’ of nature work the same for us whether we’re good, bad, or indifferent.

    This is unsatisfactory for many of us, many of whom can’t suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a religion. On the other hand, science is nearly universally badly-taught, making it badly understood if at all.

    So, for those for whom science is too hard and religion too thoroughly debunked, this ground-level supernaturalism seems satisfactory.

    One wrinkle, though: getting rid of the notion of ‘witchcraft’ was motivated largely by the desire to not torture and kill unlucky or unpopular women quite as much as before…please also consider a world in ‘magical thinking’ really worked: you might _really_ have made X die by not loving them enough….

  • KathyVT

    I’m looking forward to reading the book! It’s unfortunate so many people equate witchcraft, mysticism, herblore, astrology, etc., as “dark forces.” They were not evil magic, but were more of a way of interpreting the world around them.

  • Gerald Fnord

    Please also see “Nightwatch” (Sergei Lukyanenko) and its sequels, and “The Atrocity Archive” and its sequels (Charles Stross) for the natural and the supernatural co-mingling, especially the Stross book, and James Morrow’s “The Last Witchfinder” for a novel set as the supernatural started to give ground—I think the author might especially like the latter.

  • Kyle Gould

    UGH. There’s so much more to contemporary fantasy than Twilight and Harry Potter. Go read some Brandon Sanderson or Patrick Rothfuss George R. R. Martin and educate yourselves. That’s real fantasy.

  • Ed

    Do people read about evil creatures, etc., because they really don’t think that evil exists?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

      Evil certainly exists as human-to-human behavior–it is one of the end-results of selfishness, which is a universal quality but one that humans can either embrace (which is the purpose of most conservative philosophy: to justify selfishness) or work at rejecting (via altruism, Jesus-like neighborly love, and liberalism). But you ask the question as though you believed that Evil (capital E) was a Force or Entity in the universe.

      • Brb

        More nonsense

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

          Again, how so?

  • steve

    I’m in the middle of my own book and have been doing research on ‘Ascended Masters’…wondering if you have come across St. Germaine in your travels?
    thanks, steve

  • Kevin

    Great discussion. Look forward to looking at the historical aspects that you intertwine into your book. In relation to the supernatural and quantum physics, I am a member of the American Society of Dowsers and consider myself a neophite, even after 8 years of practicing various aspects of dowsing. What started as finding water has lead me to incredible eye-opening experiences. If you want to explore this area for yourself, there are local meetings everywhere and these meetings can be found along with workshops, the annual conference here in Vermont, Speakers, etc. Look on the ASD Website: http://www.dowsers.org/
    Thanks and good luck, Kevin from Craftsbury, Vt.

  • Ed

    Witchcraft essentially is a sin against the First Commandment: though shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him alone.

    • Anonymous

      The show is discussing another work of fiction this hour.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

      Ahh. I should have known. The subtlety of reality really isn’t your cup of tea, eh?

      Here’s a simple question: if there really is a Lord thy God worthy of the name, why would He be jealous/insecure enough to require worship?

      • Brb

        Where does it say “require”?

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

          “thou shalt” sounds like a requirement to me

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

          My initial reply refers to God’s requirement of worship from His creation. I think you meant: why should God require worship in order to exist? My answer would be: God would not … so why should God demand it? Mere ego-stroking? Or perhaps God does require worship in order to exist, feeds on it, starves without it.

    • Ben

      The entire American way of life is violation of most of the 10 commandments.

      war = killing
      commerce = lusting after neighbors possesions
      US territory = stolen from the natives
      work-free sunday? Maybe in Utah-Idaho
      american idol?
      74% don’t attend church weekly

      I’m also pretty sure the bible also says: “judge not, lest you be judged.”

    • Deklouise

      Goddess worship and matriarchies, may be tied into witchcraft, and they were the first religions…way before Christianity. The book sounds fascinating.

  • http://ibelieveinbutter.wordpress.com Soli

    This reminds me some of a book one of my friends released last year: Daughters of the Witching Hill. Historical fiction based on the witches at Pendle Hill in England, and also well documents the clash between country Catholicism and the coming of the Reformation to England.

  • steve

    in respose to Ed and John
    both are narratives, scripted interpretations seen through the lens of history, that are of the great and ineffable Mystery..

  • Ed

    One thing to remember about witches and vampires, even in their fictional forms, is that these are creatures that hate God.

    • Anonymous

      Which other creatures “even in their fictional forms” hate god? Leprechauns, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, devils, angels, elves, ghosts, hobbits, nymphs, gnomes, orcs, pixies, Smurfs?

      • Ben

        I heard batman really hates superman. But wonderwoman is such a nasty gossip who can know for sure?

    • Kenny81215

      I’m not sure they hate God… maybe some of his fans.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Hendrickson/1652586055 Joshua Hendrickson

      If there is a God worthy of the name, whether certain creatures hate Him or love Him ought to be a matter of utter indifference.

    • Zeno

      Sarah Palin has been trying to get the witches removed from her body..at least she was trying to when she was governor, using some kind of witch doctor.

      I don’t know who she would see to get a smurf removed.

    • Jfbulmer11

      That is absolutely not true. I read this book, and I don’t recall Mathew or Diana talk about hating God. Or the Cullens from Twilight either. Other works of fiction have certainly cast witches and vampires as evil, but not every case. Witches love the Goddess, but even that can be argued as the Divine Feminine form of God. Besides haven’t you heard of “Glinda the Good Witch” from the “Wizard of OZ”? There was a line in “Hellboy”, the movie which says to effect “it’s not what you were born, but the choices you make which determine whether you are good or evil.”

  • Mick Riffs

    The Ghosthunters TV show has documented much evidence that Ghosts are a reality. Which of the other many “myths’ and “legends” are actually a part of our reality? I think an informed, open minded individual would like to know. We should endeavor to answer these mysteries as part of our journey through life. This enlightenment and understanding is far more important than the pursuit of wealth or power that seem drive the modern world away from spiritualism, tolerance and understanding. (mick.riffs in Nashville)

    • steve

      Yes Mike, the novel that I’m currently writing is not so loosely based on an experience that I had over the course of a six year stint as a job coach for handicapped adults in a circa 1680′s building. Once a homestead it morphed over the years finally becoming a beautiful Inn. I began that job as a hardened cynic to anything paranormal and left after it was sold, a very firm believer! What happened there has been more then grist for my writers mill. The journey down that rabbit hole has given me a much broader understanding of the milleau of which we exist-more than the apparent third world reality with all its density and pit falls of cultural dumb-down!

  • MabonBorn

    I love the excerpt and can’t wait to read the book. As a witch from a family tradition that includes my four sisters and mother, I love stories that deal with hereditary witches and the science and nature of Wicca.

    I have to say I find it very sad that some of the Christian comments about your book are so threatened and hateful, suffering a witch to live etc. Don’t we have enough hate in the world related to religious differences already ? Can’t we all just respect our different beliefs in the divine?

    Congratulations on your successful work.

  • Christine

    I smiled when the author mentioned an ancient author named Jane Roberts. An author by the same name of this past century penned many books by a channelled entity called Seth. These books were written down verbatim and after Jane’s passing, in 1984, some 30,000 of her manuscripts were accepted to the Yale Sterling Library as being one of the most complete records of a channeled entity.I was there with a group in Oct 2001 and the curator told us that the entirety of the collection was kept on site–rather than warehoused–because these writings were so frequently requested.
    I have been reading these volumes since I was in my 20′s because the information resonated so much to my feelings about the connection between the conscious and unconscious- or ‘magical’ world. In the 80′s and 90′s I would ‘glaze’ over some of the chapters not understanding what Seth was talking about. I knew I needed to study the advanced theoretical sciences of Quantum and String Theory and other newer ideas. I was thrilled when Brian Green’s “The Elegant Universe” came out, and since have become a great fan of Michio Kaku and other theoretical scientists. Finally these very smart scientists have decided that there are an infinite number of dimensions. I agree.
    There is much interesting information available, both from ‘real’ individuals like Ekhard Tolle, to various channelled entities not physically present-such as Elias, P’ta Kris, the Hicks group, and many others. There are many styles and different presentations. In my view none are ‘evil’ . Fear and misunderstanding is what creates the idea of evil.
    I feel that the old embedded ideas of witchcraft, devils, spirits, angels, ghosts and ‘evilness’ are all interpretations–or misinterpretations– of what we feel and ultimately know inside: that there is more to this world than meets the physical eye.
    Thank you for your interview. I will check out your book.

  • KY Highlander

    The original question for this blog was: “Why the current interest in magic-related books and screen media?” My answer would be that it provides escapism from the known evils of the real world. Deborah said she thought vampires would be knowledgeable in science and banking and she chose science. I suppose that’s true if you want to make the vampire a pseudo-hero. I think of them as closer to bankers (and business CEOs), living off the life-blood (money) of the innocent. Werewolves? You choose – military; mercenaries, violent criminals, etc. depending on how much of a “dark force” you want to associate with them. Zombies? That’s easy. We’re seeing more and more drug dependency; mindless behavior and violence in search of the next “fix.” Witches? I favor scientists here. If you could take any modern gadget back in time, (ala A Connecticut Yankee…) you would be hailed as a wizard or witch and either worshiped or killed depending upon the time and place you traveled to. Who doesn’t wish they could wiggle their nose and get what they want? Sure beats studying science texts. Science requires work, determination, and intelligence. Magic requires belief. I tell my students that most magic shows are just science that the magician knows and the audience doesn’t (or at least, doesn’t associate with that act), mixed with a dose of distraction.

  • Dave

    As supernatural fiction with an academic setting, I’ll be interested to see how it compares with (is indebted to) the work of the great M.R. James. I can’t help being reminded of his story “The Tractate Middoth”!

  • Michele

    Ed,

    There is no Light without Dark.

  • http://okelle.wordpress.com Frances Donovan (aka Okelle)

    As a witch myself, I resent being placed in the same category as vampires and werewolves. Witches practice an earth-based spirituality which may or may not be affiliated with a more organized religion such as Wicca, or Unitarian Universalism. If Ms. Harkness wants to know what we do for a living, perhaps she should ask one of us instead of assuming that we are made-up creatures who do not exist. It’s at times like these that I feel deeply for the indignant Catholics who chafe at the sensationalistic portrayal of their religion in books and movies such as _The Davinci Code_.

    • Greyfox150

      A bunch of woman burning sage, praying to “spirits” and invoking nonsense is far less interesting than characters that have amazing fantastical abilities. It just translates better in entertainment, sorry to say.

    • historian of science

      Modern-day witches are rightly sensitive to the long history of witchcraft trials, persecution and inaccurate/misleading representations, but this is a work of fiction set in a different world. It has little to do with actual witches; Harkness’s witches are actually a species/race rather than a religion. For whatever it’s worth, as a pagan reader I felt that her portrayal of witches was sensitive, with well developed, realistically flawed and likable characters.

      I hope no one is turning to Dan Brown for illumination on anything but wooden writing!

  • http://okelle.wordpress.com Frances Donovan (aka Okelle)

    As a witch myself, I resent being placed in the same category as vampires and werewolves. Witches practice an earth-based spirituality which may or may not be affiliated with a more organized religion such as Wicca, or Unitarian Universalism. If Ms. Harkness wants to know what we do for a living, perhaps she should ask one of us instead of assuming that we are made-up creatures who do not exist. It’s at times like these that I feel deeply for the indignant Catholics who chafe at the sensationalistic portrayal of their religion in books and movies such as _The Davinci Code_.

  • Dshaky

    Oh God, not another cutesy book about those adorable vampires, witches and werewolves.

    When will the public’s appetite for this drivel end?

  • Michael B. Snyder

    As a fan of the Merlin’s Descendents novels of Irene Radford, the Adept novels by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris and more vampire novels than I can count, I look forward to reading Ms Harkness’ book.

  • Ed

    I guess part of the problem is that we’re using the same words but thinking of different things. I’m talking about spiritual beings that take on forms of vampires, etc. Others are talking about human-life beings who are fictional and who have some vampire, witch, etc., characteristics. And then there are the people who call themselves these things and practice these things to some extent.

  • heafnerj

    The guest’s comment on Einstein and science in general are disingenous in that she implies “good” scientists are willing to suspend reality in order to pursue “mystery.” No credible scientist will ever do that. She invokes both Newton and Einstein but neither needed the supernatural to articulate their physics. Finally, by definition, science doesn’t deal with the “unknowable.” Religion does, but not science. PLEASE don’t attempt to join fiction and science. The end result never works, and only confuses people such as herself who do not understand science to begin with. I teach undergraduate physics and astronomy and I see the damage such woo does every day.

    • historian of science

      You seem to have a very narrow view of science! As mentioned at the beginning of the interview, Dr. Harkness, too, is a professor — her background is in the history of science and medicine, and she’s well qualified to discuss the relationship between science, religion and magic. This is most clearly illustrated by an Elizabethan man whom she’s studied at length: John Dee made significant contributions in the fields of mathematics, navigation and astronomy… but also devoted a great deal of time and energy to esoteric philosophy, conversations with angels and (like Newton) alchemy. Sure, our contemporary perspective situates science and religion at opposite ends of the spectrum, but this is a fairly recent development. So is the term “science,” for that matter.

      Rather than claiming that science doesn’t deal with the “unknowable,” it might be more helpful to state that it represents an attempt to make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live. Some of that sense stems from things that used to be perceived as “supernatural” or “occult” (Newton’s gravity is a good example here, as is what Einstein termed “spooky action at a distance”). Who is to say that our present beliefs won’t someday seem as outrageous as Dee’s spirit communications?

      I am not particularly interested in the recent glut of supernatural fiction, but it does say something about enduring popular interest in the mysteries science has yet to unravel. Harkness’s new book is a clever, enjoyable page-turner that shouldn’t make your job any more difficult if you’re doing it well. If it gets more people interested in history, in science, in learning… surely we all win?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ellen-Lincourt/100001650014339 Ellen Lincourt

    This fascination with vampires and witches is probably about our discomfort with evil. We’ve domesticated all that was once the embodiments of evil to human mind. But evil has become so hard to see and so we now make cuddly, loveable characters from them. In addition, vampires say more about our fear of death and more importantly aging.

  • Anonymous

    When I first saw this I thought: “Oh God yet another book about vampires.” To its credit the vampires in this one are not all attractive teens suffering from angst.

    So anyway there is an inherent contradiction here. If these witches and vampires do not possess and supernatural powers than what makes them any different from any other scientists? If they do possess supernatural powers than there is science for supernatural witches and vampires, and a different science for everyone else.

    So far as has ever been credibly demonstrated there is only one science and it does not involve the supernatural.

    • Smash311

      A word to consider: Fiction.
      That is what the book is. Fiction.

    • bsbBelize

      Why the leap from “witches” to vampires?  Have you not heard of good witches? 

  • Ed

    I’m not so worried about it’s being dark, it’s just that if it’s not dark, you’re not talking about real witches, warewolves, etc.

  • Aradia

    Oh boy! I want to read this!

    • Cadbury1980

      You should read it. Its brilliant

  • Cadbury1980

    This book is amazing. I was hooked within the first few pages. I have now read the book 4 times, and can’t wait for the next installment. Lets hope Warner Brothers does it justice when (and if ) they make it.

  • bsbBelize

    I have just finished viewing the marvelous DVD set: Women and Spirituality: The Goddess Trilogy and hoped tht OnPoint had had a program on Goddesses. The above excerpt had whet my appetite!

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