Name of Book: The Magic Circle
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books
Audience: Ages 10 and up
Summary: Author Donna Jo Napoli provides different voices and perspectives in her re-fashioning of well known fairy tales such as The Frog Prince and Hansel and Gretel. The Magic Circle is a dark yet uplifting retelling of the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel from the witch’s point of view. The reader learns the ugly and evil witch was once a kind and well respected midwife. Through the corrupt influences of a neighbor, the midwife is drawn into demonic powers so that she might increase her ability as a healer. The price she must pay is a wicked and insatiable appetite for human flesh. The “witch” is desperate to avoid this evil. The Magic Circle is a story of the witch’s struggle to overcome evil and, through the innocent children Hansel and Gretel, find redemption and release.
Literary elements at work in the story: Donna Jo Napoli artfully weaves a tale that engages the curious. The reader anxiously reads to uncover the “other side of the story” of Hansel and Gretel. The setting is gritty – one can almost feel the dirt under foot of the midwife’s small home, smell the smoke of the cook-fire, hear the shrill voice of her vicious neighbor as she taunts, “Ugly One.” This is a story of how a well-meaning healer spirals down into her own magic circle. It is a story of her struggle living alone in an enchanted forest, slowly creating a cottage made of candy and other sweets. Napoli keeps the suspense taut up to the inevitable ending, an ending that brings both release and redemption.
(How) does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? The premise of this story is perspective. Western culture is familiar with the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale and if not, the theme of the wicked stepmother is certainly familiar. Cultures throughout the world have stories that are rooted in the pervasive evils that surround innocent children. In The Magic Circle, the author extracts an element of evil, the witch, and reveals the struggles she endures with her demons. In doing so, Napoli exposes that we are all subject to struggle with our own demons.
Theological conversation partners: The longer one walks around within this story the more intriguing it becomes. Both The Magic Circle and many of the well-known Brothers’ Grimm fairy tales are rife with menacing and constant evil. Using this re-telling of a fairy tale would be a fun way to explore two themes that run throughout the scriptures – sin and redemption.
Faith Talk Questions: The following is a suggestion for a two session study with tweens that uses this story in addition to Bible study:
- Session 1: The Creepy and Crawly Things in the Old Testament. Designed to be for information gathering and brief discussion. The students look up various passages that relate to the following themes:
- Magic in the Old Testament (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Daniel, 1 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel). Witch of Endor, Sorcerers / sorceress, Baal, Bel / Marduk, Asherah, Dagon, Pharaoh’s magicians
- Cannibalism and other gross things in the OT (Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Jeremiah, Ezekiel)
1.Did you there so many creepy crawly stories in the Bible?
2.Many of these stories relate how the Israelites became involved with witches or pagan gods. Why do you suppose these are included?
3.After reading of the struggles of these ancient people, God’s Chosen People, how do you feel about your own struggles?
4.Can you identify when the midwife The Magic Circle became a witch? After reading this book, do you view her as evil or as a person struggling to overcome personal demons?
- Session 2: It All Works out in the end… Redemption in the Bible
- Redemption in the OT (Children of Israel redeemed from the house of slavery; redeemed from sin – Yom Kippur, atonement, burnt offering.)
- Redemption in the NT – Christ redeemed us from under the Law
1.How can evil be redeemed by good?
2.How can one recognize evil in oneself?
3.In The Magic Circle, how is the witch redeemed? Explore the relationship between Gretel and the witch.
4.Open discussion about sin and redemption
This review was written by Union Presbyterian Seminary student Cheryl Couch-Thomas.
The Magic Circle by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.