The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill is essentially a fairy tale that combines multiple story lines, while tugging at your heart strings from the very first page.
The mischievous and happy twins, Ned and Tam build a make-shift raft that will take them from the Great River to the sea. “The sea, Tam…. the sea!”
Unfortunately, a raft built by 7 year-old boys can hardly be deemed sea-worthy…
“The current separated the boys. The father couldn’t save them both. He kicked and swore, but as he reached one boy — the closer boy — his twin had been swept far down the length of the river and out of sight. […]
‘We should have known he’d bungle it,’ they said.
‘He saved the wrong one.'”
And so Ned, the wrong boy, lived — while Tam, the smart one, was carried away by the current and drowned. But his mother, Sister Witch, could not bear that one of her sons had died, while the other lay struggling for his life… so she did something she shouldn’t have: she used the magic kept under her care to keep her child alive.
Saving Ned’s life came at a cost to him — he barely grew, he was small and quiet, he stuttered:
“Words were his enemies. They rattled in his mouth like broken teeth, or tumbled off the page like scattered dust after a sneeze.”
… he also forgot how to read:
“There was a time when he could read. Both he and his brother could. Before. But then everything changed. Now, whenever Ned looked at the sign (or any writing for that matter), the letters seemed to wobble, shift, and scramble themselves. They wriggled like snakes and swarmed like locusts.”
The townspeople think him dim-witted… they are unkind. However, larger events come into play as the Queen comes to this little village while visiting different towns throughout her realm. Her family — the Queen’s nephew in particular — would love to see her dead. Fortunately, Sister Witch is able to save the Queen’s life… and is then invited to visit the castle. Using magic is exhausting for Sister Witch, and so she leaves the magic at home, safe within its little jar, and asks Ned to look after it. Unfortunately, the Bandit King comes along with his band of ruffians to take the magic — he is consumed by greed and power, and even threatens to kill Ned’s father to force Ned out of his home along with the jar of magic. But Ned discovers he can be brave… he cannot let his father die… he opens the jar, and the magic melds within his skin, burning, and itching, and causing so much pain. But it does not kill him. The real adventure begins!
The magic within Ned is volatile — constantly causing him to war within himself: Will he do what is right? Will he do what is selfish? Will he do what is best? Will he be merciful? Will he give into the power within him? Ned’s family has been keeping the magic good for generations… can he do the same? The magic requires a strong will to be kept in its place — it requires strong commanding words:
“A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed. And Ned was not a powerful boy.”
As he runs through the woods to escape the bandits, the Bandit King plots with the over-indulgent and power-hungry King Ott of a nearby kingdom against the Ned’s small village. He convinces King Ott to attack — now Ned has an even greater task ahead: he needs to save himself, and warn his people.
While lost in the woods, he meets a wolf… and Áine – the Bandit King’s daughter. Upon her death bed, Áine’s mother told her, “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his. And the wolf –” Well, she’d have to guess about the wolf.
Together, this trio runs through the woods, escaping bandits, making some difficult decisions, and taking care of one another. They learn to trust, they learn to care, and most of all, they learn about true friendship and sacrifices.
It is difficult to choose only one theme within this lovely tale of good versus evil. It is about friendship, it is about greed, it is about making the difficult choices, it is about forgiveness, and it is about accepting loss…
The Witch’s Boy is poetic in it’s repetition, melodic in it’s tone, and deep in it’s message. Ned undergoes many different transformations throughout the story: a mischievous boy, a mourning twin, a scared kidnapping victim, a commanding magician, a caring friend, a self-sacrificing person, an imposing kidnapper, a normal villager, and an adventurous wanderer….
After all, how else could the story end? “The sea, Tam… the sea!”