The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is a novel exploring memory and childhood through the unnamed main character. The protagonist returns to his hometown for a funeral and rather than heading to the reception afterwards, he finds himself driving to his childhood home. Not quite finding what it is he is looking for, he suddenly finds himself driving down a dirt path to the house that marks the end of the lane, the Hempstock’s farmhouse. It is while sitting on the bench beside the pond at their farmhouse that he suddenly remembers his true childhood.
At seven years of age, the narrator meets the eleven year old girl, Lettie Hempstock, who lives in the house at the end of the lane. She lives there with her mother and grandmother, and it is not long before the narrator realizes that the three of them are not ordinary women. He travels with Lettie to bind a creature that Old Mrs. Hempstock (Lettie’s grandmother) calls a flea, but something goes wrong and the creature manages to travel out of the binding. The creature takes on the name Ursula Monkton and begins trying to give people the things she thinks they want, but all she does is ruin their lives slowly. Eventually the narrator escapes back to Lettie’s house, where the three Hempstock women plan how to get rid of the flea calling itself Ursula Monkton.
Lettie successfully calls down the “hunger birds” who devour the flea. However, there is something left of her in the narrator and the “birds” try to take him as well. Lettie shields the narrator with her body, taking the brunt force of their attack. By attacking Lettie, the “birds” violate an ancient pact, sending Old Mrs. Hempstock into a rage. Once the birds are departed, the two older Hempstock women tell the narrator that Lettie is not dead, but she is very badly hurt and needs time to heal. They give her to the pond on their farm which is at both times a pond and an infinite ocean.
It is here that the narrator’s memories stop and the story returns to him sitting on the bench. The older Hempstock women reveal that this is not the first time he has come back to the farm looking for answers, but that each time he comes he must forget that he has done so because it is better for him if he does not.
To use or not to use the book, that is the question:
On the surface, this novel does not seem to have anything to do with witches. In fact, I think the word appears a grand total of three times. However, there are some fundamental aspects of the Hempstock women that tie this book to the foundations surrounding witches and women.
1. The three Hempstock women represent the triple goddess: Lettie as maiden, Mrs. Hempstock as mother, and Old Mrs. Hempstock as crone.
2. Both the “heroes” and the “villain” are women, or use female identifiers, therefore showing the duality between helpful and harmful.
3. The Hempstock women represent safety and love and are associated with warmth and food throughout the entire book.
4. Lettie and her family are also associated with the pond/ocean which has healing properties but is also dangerous. The duality of the water in this novel also shows through in the contrast between the pond/ocean and the bathtub scene.
I think that the importance of this book comes from using some of those traditional aspects in a new light. The Hempstocks are not witches and neither is the flea, but they pay homage to a lot of traditional lore surrounding witches/women: water, food, the duality of harming/healing, and so on. Gaiman takes these traditional pieces and creates something new out of them which is part of what this class needs to be about. There needs to be a discussion on whether we have reached the time and space where witches/powerful women in fantasy/horror are transforming into something new that is not witch nor sorceress nor any of those well-worn titles. In addition to this novel, I think that Wytches by Scott Snyder, the quotes from Terry Pratchett, and The Witch directed by Robert Eggers will all be instrumental in this discussion. In more modern works, creators are allowed more play with what is a witch. Snyder and Eggers takes us back to something deeply old and evil, Pratchett hangs out the old notions of a witch to dry, and Gaiman cuts out small pieces to make a new patchwork quilt out of.
Overall, I think this book will be instrumental in being able to discuss the changes concerning “witches” in literature.