In Praise of “Mad” Madame Mim
While making my breakfast smoothie (seriously the best new thing about my food routine), I was joking with my partner about the sexy dance trope that’s found in many a cartoon (you know the one: lurid horns blow ratatatataaaaa and Jessica Rabbit slinks out or maybe someone turns into a wolf and howls?) and then we started talking about Disney’s 1963 movie, The Sword in the Stone. If you don’t remember one of the best Disney movies ever from your childhood, the story is based on the first book of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which was published as an independent story in 1938, and is the tale of the rise of King Arthur. Like Harry Potter, Arthur is a dude who is destined to be famous and got crapped on and kicked around by his foster father and brother, who nicknamed him the Wart. Merlin is a wizard who sees the Wart’s potential and decides to go teach him a thing or two about magic and the world. Merlin has a talking sentient owl named Archimedes. At one point in his training, Archimedes is teaching the Wart to fly as a sparrow and he loses control and lands in the chimney of the bog witch, the Magnificent Marvelous Mad Madame Mim.
Mim does this amazing performance to introduce herself [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwubUS6BOCo/] and at one point she also does the ratattatataaaa thing when she turns into a maiden who is, “beautiful, lovely and fair” and does a little dance where she swishes her hips and shimmies her shoulders. This was one of the first representations of female sexuality that I can remember as a kid, but looking back on it, it was just a means to an end for Mim — and that end was breaking the rules, doing what she felt like, and possibly tormenting Merlin for fun. I started thinking about Mim and how although the movie character was clearly written to embody some 1960s tropes about badly behaved women, she could actually be considered an early feminist role model. After all, there’s nothing society hates more than an unapologetic woman.
Marvelous “Mad” Madame Mim and mental health: Mim refers to herself as “mad,” but she is clearly not insane; instead she just doesn’t GAF and she likes doing black magic. She doesn’t obey whatever rules we’ve seen of magic or society because she willingly chooses not to.
Mim as hag figure: Mim is presented as a totally unrepentant hag figure, who can change her appearance at will. She proves to the Wart that she can become what we assume to be an attractive woman if she wants to, but chooses not to embody that form (she can also get “uglier yet” and turns her face into a pig-like creature, don’t even get me started on pig-symbolism; she gleefully refers to herself as an “ugly old creep”). I love this because she uses her appearance as a weapon, by changing it to suit the situation. It’s implied that her maiden persona is just a trick or a trap to get back at the male characters. Romance doesn’t play a role in her life; sex is a weapon. Her real power lies in her magical prowess and her rejection of social norms. She chooses to live alone and is obligated to no one. Merlin is also old, but because he’s an old man, he begs to be read as avuncular and wise.
Magical alignment: Merlin is more neutral good and Mim is more chaotic evil if we think about D&D alignment, which I often do. When we first meet Mim, she mistakes the Wart’s coughing for someone being sick and mirthfully wishes, “I do hope it’s serious!” She also uses her magic to do things like wither flowers, for which the Wart calls her terrible; she takes it as a compliment. She sings, “Black sorcery is my dish of tea — it comes easy to me!” I end up totally rooting for her and like halfway through this sequence I’m standing up and fist pumping.
Moral obligations toward society: Mim and Merlin both eschew the (very conservative, traditional, and misogynist) society of Dark Ages England for solitary life in the woods, but Mim does not appear to know or care about what happens to society. Merlin gives up his woodland sanctuary for a leaky tower and the uneasy hospitality of Sir Ector in order to help make the world a better place through helping Arthur come to power as King, buuuuut his mission isn’t totally selfless. He’s an irascible old man who wants society to live up to his expectations.
Magical ethics: Mim and Merlin are both magic users of equal power and cunning, but Merlin challenges the Wart’s upbringing by teaching him magic through endless moralistic lessons and book learning and Mim aims to show him that the only rules to magic are personal limitations and judgment. When the Wart naively calls Merlin the most powerful wizard in the world because he uses his magic for something good, she first decides to destroy him, and ends up challenging Merlin to a Wizards Duel.
During the duel, Mim and Merlin try to best each other by turning into animals. Mim makes the rules and breaks them, finally turning into a dragon (cheers break out from the direction of my chair). Who cares about rules? Mim holds her own during the duel until Merlin out-tricks her by becoming a rare disease (and it’s the Middle Ages, so he only knows this exists because he’s been to the future, so I feel like that’s cheating for sure?) [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_VpkXd1TKA]
Madame Mim is a figure that was important for me to witness as a youth because she did her own thing, didn’t embody traditional gender roles or beauty standards, and certainly didn’t care about being good, the way a lot of girls are taught to be good and obedient to the men in their lives. Even though Merlin ends up coming out on top, I think Mim was a way more fun, colorful, and dimensional character.
All images captured from The Sword in the Stone, courtesy Walt Disney
Originally published at www.verdantthought.space on April 13, 2017.