Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown was set in the seventeenth century when witchcraft was considered a wholly evil practice that would send the practitioner directly to hell. This sets the stage for the story as Young Goodman Brown meets with the devil in a dark forest and attends what is described as a meeting of the damned where fires blaze and people stand around talking and singing. One might wonder what would happen if Young Goodman Brown found himself in our world today. Witchcraft is no longer considered a soul-endangering, ticket to hell, but is now mainstream entertainment for our children.
The first and most obvious way witchcraft has changed is in the way it is portrayed. In the time of Young Goodman Brown witchcraft is cloaked in scary things like a “canopy of fire” (4), and a hollowed out alter that contained “water, reddened by the lurid light, or was it blood” (5). Today witchcraft is viewed much differently, mostly thanks to J.K. Rowling. Her series of books, Harry Potter, center on a young wizard and his coming of age. Young witches go off to a boarding school in a completely different realm to learn their art. They have are taught that there is good and bad, and that they should err on the side of good. Another very important concept is that the witches in J.K. Rowlings books are not humans that follow Satan attempting to corrupt all other humans; they are just kids that happen to have magical tendencies. In contrast, the witches in Young Goodman Brown are people that have made a conscious decision to follow Satan and use him to “penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin” (4).
The second reason we see witchcraft so differently today can also be attributed to the Harry Potter books—education. In the seventeenth century children were taught to read from the bible. All of the blood, wrath, and exciting things they could imagine came from the bible. Today children are taught to read from generic, boring readers that are tossed to the side in lieu of video games and television shows. The Harry Potter books made children want to read—at least until the books were made into movies. Parents willingly buy books about wizards and witchcraft because they know their children will read them. There is no concern that their children are going to hell because they are reading about witchcraft because we know that witchcraft and dealing with the devil is not real. An additional way that witchcraft is very different between the seventeenth century and today is a reflection of how the government and religion have been separated. The Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”, meaning that no one may be persecuted for practicing any religion. Prior to this amendment government and religion were essentially the same, and the laws of the religion were the laws of the land. This meant that anyone in the community that did not believe the same things as the majority could be considered an outcast and hell-bound. Today things are different; one might find a Catholic church, a Synagogue, a Mosque, and a Baptist church all together in the same two mile stretch of road and there are rarely incidents between them. There are even groups of real ‘witches’ practicing in some places, though these are real, earth worshipping, Wiccan and Pagan witches and not make-believe, wand toting, magical witches in the Harry Potter books. These groups are able to believe and worship in the ways they choose because laws are in place to protect their rights. The things people believe today are very different from the things Young Goodman Brown believed in the seventeenth century. A bonfire in the woods accompanied by music is probably not a ritual practiced by witches to call forth Satan, but more likely a group of teenagers having a party. A book about witches and spell casting is not a sign that a child has been claimed by Satan, but a sign that the child reads. The biggest change is in the government and protection of the other religions.