To eat or not to eat the children!

What a terrible question to have circling in your psyche! How does Donna Jo Napoli lead readers to empathize with such witchly thoughts?

Title: The Magic Circle

Author: Donna Jo Napoli

Genre: fantasy

Pages: 118

Days to read it: 1

Synopsis: Midwife turned sorceress, the Ugly One, as the villagers call her, spends her life trying to heal others, trying to give her daughter a life of beauty and love that she never had herself. But, in order to heal, she must make a magic circle of protection and face the demons that bring sickness and misery. Because of her strong convictions in the purity and goodness of her own intentions, she is able to resist the demons’ temptations and instead, command them to reveal the cure to the illnesses she must treat. One day however, she lets her guard down and falls prey to her own foolish yearning for beauty, and she stretches beyond the ring of the magic circle where the devils snatch her up. This is where the true test of her wills begin. The Magic Circle is an emotionally wrought re-telling of the Hansel and Gretal fairytale, from the perspective of the evil Witch.


My daughter Eva, when she was ten years old, asked me, “How come there are so many wicked witches and evil stepmothers in fairy tales and no wicked warlocks and evil stepfathers?” My little feminist heart started beating fast. I decided to take the worst female character of fairy tales that I could find — and the witch of Hansel and Gretel was it, for what could be worse than eating human babies? — and try to understand her.

– Donna Jo Napoli (from this website)

I always enjoyed Donna Jo Napoli’s fairytale re-tellings. Has anyone read Zel? It was one of my favorite stories to read when I was younger. Her writing is so fluid and poetic. It can be read in one go, and the atmosphere of the novel leaves an imprint in your memories so you keep wanting to re-read her work! Naturally, I clamped my hands on this pocketbook the moment I saw it!

The Magic Circle is a little slippet of a novel that can be read in an hour, at most. As the reader you step into the hunchbacked form of the Ugly One, hearing the motivations and psychological struggles she must go through, being tempted by those raging devilish voices. I felt for the Ugly One (her actual name is not mentioned). Her heart was in the right place, but, every human being has that one ‘tragic flaw’ so to speak, that can overwhelm their lives. Hers happened to be a naive yearning for beauty and love and also for “goodness” (however idealistic that word is). She knows she can’t ever be beautiful, but she wants her daughter to have beauty and love -to have everything she doesn’t have.


This novel is set in medieval Europe, so you’ll get the witch trials, the paranoid villagers, the righteous priests. I hate reading about witch trials. It just irks me. All that need to punish and destroy in a painful way and justify it convieniently by “God’s Will”. All those last minute betrayals – the Ugly One had helped many of those villagers struggle from the point of death, yet, when it comes down to it, no one will say a thing in protest against such a cruel killing. In this case though, the Ugly One makes a selfless sacrifice in hopes of saving her daughter, so the point of the scene was not focused on the usual theme of paranoid fear reducing people to bloodthirsty irrationality.

I love how Donna Jo Napoli wrote about the compassion of the children. The children that the Ugly One saved from death, could never believe that she was the evil, child-eating “witch” that the adults and demons kept insisting she was. The children understood who she really was, and remembered the love and care she showed them. In the end, the children became her savior from the devils, and it was through the innocent compassion reflected in the eyes of the children that the Ugly One did not doubt she was good at heart, and could resist the voices of the devils saying otherwise.

It was heart-wrenching at times to read this little novel. Yes! In 100 pages, you, the reader, get tugged through the whole emotional sphere: love, hate, anger, happiness, yearning, resistance, sorrow. It all comes together to weave a beautiful, bittersweet tale. If you’re a fan of reading fairytale re-tellings, you should look around for this book and add it to your collection.


My shoes are brown, as is my cloak. It is the only cloak I have. I take off both shoes and cloak and stand in my white shift. Sorcerers should be dressed in white linen robes spun by pure young maidens. I wonder if most sorcerers are wealthy. But if one was wealthy, why would one dare to converse with the devils? Only desperation could make anyone draw a magic circle. Today, here among the white trunks of these straight trees, I am desperate.

And I wonder at my own desperation. I am desperate for beauty. I am overcome with the desperate desire to surround sweet Asa with jewels. To give her something as lovely as the gold ring of the wife of Otto of the West Forest. I laugh – jewels and candy. But that is not the desperation that draws me here now. The burgermeister’s child suffers. I will help this child. I must. I must free him of illness so he can savor candy, just as Asa savored the chocolate put on her tongue by Otto of the West Forest. I must see the pleasure in the child’s eyes as health returns. This will be my reward for meeting with the devils. I laugh again.

Random fact I learned: If you’re in shock, you don’t bleed as much.

Rating: 4/5 peppermints


– An interview about Donna Jo Napoli’s writing process at wordswimmer’s blog.

Other Reviews of this book:




  1. I love retold fairy tales, especially those from a new perspective. I never read one about Hansel and Gretel, though. Definitely going to look for this one. Thanks for the review!

  2. Well, I have to say, that is about the best reason for writing a fairy tale retelling that I ever heard.

    I remember reading several of Napoli’s books when I was much younger, and then my sister found Sirena in my room and threatened to tell our mother I was reading naughty grown-up books. Unless I did dishes for her or something. In retrospect I don’t think my mother would have cared at all, but at the time I was totally embarrassed and returned it to the library straight away and did my sister’s stupid dishes. Grrr.

  3. I’m with Jenny – after that explanation, how can I not read it?!

    The only book of hers I’ve read was Zel, and while some parts in the middle left me a bit meh, in the end I did like it. It was uncomfortable, but not in a bad way. I suspect I’d feel similarly about this one.

  4. Jeane – I love them too! You can imagine my excitement when I came across one that I haven’t heard about before! And by an author I love, too. I also can’t think of anything naughty about Sirena, maybe the cover of the book was a little on the scantily clad side? But she is a mermaid…
    Jenny – Was Sirena naughty? I don’t recall it being rated ‘R’ . haha your sister really knows how to get you to do things for her! In this case you’ve given in too easily to sibling pressures, I know I’ve definitely been tricked into doing things for my brothers and sisters once too many times and for stupid reasons.
    Allegra – I’ve never heard of Hush (will look for it now)! Sorry that you didn’t like the former – what didn’t you like about Zel? I know that when I first read it, I wasn’t too thrilled about it either, but later on, it sort of grew on me!
    Nymeth – It’s been a while since I’ve re-read it, and I don’t remember the middle bits, but strangely the overall feeling of the story has stuck with me. Funny how that happens. I must investigate why by re-reading it.

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