My Longer Read of the Week: The Witches

Recently, I’ve just finished reading (or perhaps, more accurately, rereading) The Witches by Roald Dahl with a student I teach on a one-to-one basis. As with all good books, a subsequent reading has revealed even more than the first one! (Please note that further down the post I will give some spoilers so if you don’t want to know what happens, please be careful!)

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The plot is fairly simple. After the death of his parents, a boy moves in with his grandmother in Norway, where he hears tales and warnings about child-hating witches and what they do to the children they come across. When the boy and his grandmother go to England, so the boy can attend school, his grandmother becomes ill and the doctor recommends a period of recuperation by the sea in Bournemouth. While they stay at the Hotel Magnificent, the boy comes across a strange group of women, allegedly from the RSPCC (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). However, it soon becomes clear that rather than protect children, their aim is to rid England of them forever.

Until I came to write this review, I hadn’t really noticed that the boy narrator didn’t have a name. Interestingly, the two main characters are anonymous – referred to simply as The Boy and Grandmother. The other characters in the book have names – such as the ever-hungry glutton Bruno and the wickedest witch of them all – The Grand High Witch. I’d love to know why Dahl left them nameless, when all of his other books, featuring child heroes, are named after these brave children. Perhaps he wanted the emphasis to remain on the witches?

Moving on, it is easy to see why this book continues to be featured in lists of the scariest children’s books around. I came to it in my teens and was pleasantly surprised by how horrifying some of the details are (I’m a massive ghost-story and supernatural fiction fan). For me, one of the most terrifying aspects, if I were a child, is the fact that children cannot necessarily know who is a witch and who isn’t. In other Roald Dahl books, the baddies are obvious, such as the child-eating giants in The BFG, the disgusting married couple of The Twits but, as Grandmother explains, it is very difficult indeed to identify the evil witch. This picture is used as an example:

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Which is the witch? – illustration by Quentin Blake

Witches are very good at making themselves look like normal women – often pretty, smiley, friendly. The only clues are in their disguise: witches always wear gloves to hide their horrible hands and nails. Shoes hide the fact that they have no toes. But many women wear shoes and gloves so how can this help? They also wear wigs because witches are bald. But how can you tell what is a wig and what isn’t? Some have larger than normal nostrils, but so do some women, anyway. You need to check if they have blue spit… but if you get close enough to see that, you’re probably doomed.

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The Grand High Witch with all her bald cronies

Children are also in danger because they smell strongly of dogs’ droppings to witches – and the cleaner they are the smellier they are. Grandmother advocates infrequent bathing as a result, which might go down very well with many children! 

Despite all of Grandmother’s warnings and the boy’s care, he still is discovered not just by one witch but an entire convention and falls victim to their latest act of cruelty – to turn all the children of England into mice. One might think that the aim of the story after this is to find some sort of cure for the boy but he declares he’s pretty happy as a mouse. He can go where people can’t, he won’t have to go back to school, and he can use his tail as a trapeze! However, as he later realises, mice don’t live for long and his Grandmother reckons that nine years is a realistic and optimistic estimate of his lifespan. I think most children would be terrified at the idea of their own mortality but the boy is happy with this prognosis, as this is as long as his Grandmother can expect to live and he wouldn’t want to be around without her.

Reading this book again made me realise just how scary this book is for children! I’d certainly recommend it more for children aged nine upwards, who can take a little terror, unless they are very sensitive. Quentin Blake’s marvellous illustrations alone could give you nightmares:

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The Grand High Witch,
with her mask off 

It remains the only children’s book of Roald Dahl’s that my daughter has not read because of the illustrations alone. Admittedly, much of it isn’t as horrific as the drawing above suggests but as an adult the most frightening aspect I would have thought is the idea of the boy remaining a mouse (many other books and authors would have resolved this act with the discovery of an antidote) and dying far too prematurely as a result. Dahl explains the boy’s sanguine philosophy well, and we do believe him when he says life isn’t worth it without his grandmother by his side. Perhaps I am looking at it with an adult’s fear of mortality!

You can expect all the Roald Dahl trademarks in this books – fun, inventive language, gruesome details that children love, larger than life characters and obvious goodies and baddies. A perfect recipe for children, who love to see caricatures commit evil, as long as they are punished suitable for their crimes. And a message that life doesn’t always resolve itself in the way we might think, but perhaps that’s OK anyway. 

2 comments

  1. i am a year 5 student in ecuador and we are learning about blogs so this is my first comment in a website but this book is really funny and it make want to buy it because what child want to stay as a mouse! so that make me laugh a lot

    Like

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