The Witches (book)
1st edition cover
|Awards||Whitbread Book Award (1993)|
The Witches is a children's book by the Norwegian-origined British author Roald Dahl, first published in London in 1983 by Jonathan Cape. The book, like many of Dahl's works, is illustrated by Quentin Blake. The story is partly set in Norway and partly in the United Kingdom, focusing on the experiences of a young boy and his Norwegian grandmother. Its content has made the book the frequent target of censors. It appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999, at number twenty-two. The book was adapted into an unabridged audio reading by Lynn Redgrave (ISBN 0-060-53616-0), a stage play and a two-part radio dramatisation for the BBC, a 1990 movie directed by Nicolas Roeg and an opera by Marcus Paus and Ole Paus.
The book's witches are revealed in the opening chapters to be a constant threat to global security. While they look and act like normal human women, they are secretly plotting to get rid of every single child on Earth. No other reason for this is given, other than a foul stench children produce for witches.
A seven year old boy goes to live with his cigar-smoking Norwegian grandmother after his parents are killed in a tragic car crash in the Norwegian mountains. The grandmother is a wonderful story teller, and she begins to tell him stories to help them "forget our great sadness." He loved all the stories, but he was enthralled by the ones about witches, which she says are "demons in human form", which seek to kill human children. She tells the boy that she knows of five children who were cursed by witches: a girl named Ranghild Hansen was seen with a tall woman and disappeared, Solveg Christiansen disappeared and then was found painted in a picture in her parent's living room, Birgit Svenson started to sprout feathers and turned into a hen, a boy named Harald was turned into stone, and another boy named Leif was turned into a porpoise and swam away.
Believing that 'you won't last a day in this world if you don't know how to spot a witch," she tells him that they always wear gloves because they have long, sharp, cat-like claws; they always wear wigs because they are bald; they have broad nostrils with pink and curvy rims; their pupils appear to be shifting red fire and white ice; they have a subtle limp because they have to fit their gigantic, toeless feet into tiny woman shoes; and they have blue spit. Witches are able to detect the particular 'stink waves" (odor) of children, especially those who bathe, and it is only dirt and grime which mask the odor enough for a child to go undetected by a witch. To a witch, a clean child smells like "dogs' droppings." While witches look like human women, they are actually "totally different animals, ... demons in human shape."
Per the parents' will, the boy and his grandmother have to return to England, where he was born and was in school, and where the house he is inheriting is located. The grandmother warns the boy to be on his guard, however, since English witches are known to be among the cruelest in the world. She says English witches turn children into slugs, fleas, and pheasants so that adults kill them. As the boy asks more questions, the grandmother reveals that witches in different countries have different customs; and that while the witches in each country have close affiliations with one another, they are not allowed to communicate with witches from other countries. She has heard, however, that witches in the United States will turn children into hot dogs in order to cause their parents to eat them. She says that the Grand Witch is the boss of all of the world's witches, and each year the Grand High Witch visits witch councils in every country. She is reported to have a machine that prints money from any country.
Shortly after arriving back in England, while the boy is working on the roof of the treehouse he has been building, the boy sees a strange woman in black staring up at him with an eerie smile. He notices her gums that look like raw meat and her gloves up to her elbows, and he realizes that she is a witch. When the witch offers him a snake to entice him, he climbs further up the tree and stays there, not daring to come down until his grandmother comes looking for him and verifies that the witch is gone. This persuades the boy and his grandmother to be especially wary; and he carefully scrutinizes all women to determine whether or not they might be witches.
When the grandmother later becomes ill with pneumonia, the doctor orders her to cancel a planned holiday in Norway. Instead, they go to a luxury hotel in Bournemouth on the southern English coast. The boy goes to train his pet mice in the hotel ballroom when the members of the "Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children" show up for their annual meeting. The boy notices one of the women reaching under her hair (with a gloved hand) to scratch at her scalp, and instantly realizes that the "RSPCC" is really the yearly convention of England's witches. A young woman shows up on stage, and removes her face mask to reveal a hideously deformed face underneath. The boy instantly recognizes her as the Grand High Witch. On her cue, the witches reveal their true, demonic forms: bald heads, clawed hands and toeless feet. The Grand High Witch was angry at her English minions' failure to destroy all of the country's children, and orders all of them exterminated by the end of the year. One brave or foolish witch states the obvious- that killing every child in the country is impossible- and the Grand High Witch instantly incinerates her using lasers which shoot from her eyes. The terrified witches do not dare to protest further....
To help them along, she unveils a master plan calling for the witches to purchase sweet shops (with "homemade" money given to them by the Grand High Witch by her money-making machine) and give away free chocolate (for the grand opening) laced with Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse Maker, a potion which will change anyone who eats it into a mouse at a specific time. The witches are instructed by the Grand High Witch to set the formula to activate at nine a.m. the day after the children have eaten the chocolate, when they are at school. The teachers, she hopes, will panic and kill the mice, thereby doing the witches' work for them. She warns her followers to only put one dose on each bit of candy that they sell. An overdose could break the delay barrier and even cause a child (especially an adult) to turn into a mouse instantly.
The Grand High Witch turns a gluttonous child named Bruno Jenkins (lured to the convention hall by the promise of free chocolate) into a mouse as a demonstration of her potion. The witches hurriedly put on their disguises as Bruno arrives. At precisely three thirty p.m., Bruno turns into a mouse. Shortly after, the witches smell the narrator's presence (The discovery had been delayed because he didn't regularly bath, the dirt preventing the witches smelling him immediately, but one witch got lucky at the last minute). After a long chase, he is quickly captured by the witches and turned into a mouse with an overdose of the formula which has the effect of instantly turning him into a mouse.
The formula turns out to have a lucky change: the transformed child retains his sentience, personality and even his voice. After tracking down Bruno, the transformed boy returns to his grandmother's hotel room and tells her what he has learned. He suggests turning the tables on the witches by slipping Formula 86 into their food. With some difficulty, he manages to get his hands on a bottle of the potion from the Grand High Witch's room. After a failed attempt to return Bruno to his parents, the grandmother takes Bruno and the narrator to dinner in her handbag, whereupon after ordering her meal she slips the narrator onto the floor, allowing him to run to the kitchen. He spies the witches coming in to dinner on his way and enters the kitchen, where he pours the potion into the soup intended for the witches' dinner. The witches all turn into mice within a few minutes, having had massive overdoses. The hotel staff panic and, unknowingly, end up killing all of England's witches.
Having returned home, the boy and his grandmother then concoct a plan to destroy all of the world's witches. Learning the location of the witches castle from the hotel's records, they will travel to the Grand High Witch's Norwegian castle (having stolen her notebook), use the potion to change her successor and retainers into mice, then release cats into the castle to kill them. Using the Grand High Witch's money-making machine and information on the whereabouts of all of the world's witches, they will repeat the process all over the world. The grandmother also reveals that as a mouse, the boy will probably only live about another nine years, but the boy doesn't mind it, because he doesn't want to live any longer than his grandmother.
Dahl's children's stories have been praised as often as challenged. For instance, three of Dahl's stories appear in Publisher's Weekly's 150 Bestselling Children's Books of all time (until the year 2000).
The prominence of violence has also been an issue.
Some critics consider the book sexist, with one stating that the book is how boys learn to become men who hate women.
Others see the book as presenting a more balanced message about learning to see past surface inspirations. One critic considers it an "unlikely source of inspiration for feminists.
In 1990 (the year Roald Dahl died), the book was adapted into a film starring Anjelica Huston and Rowan Atkinson and by director Nicolas Roeg and distributed by Warner Bros. In the film the boy is named Lucas (but mainly called "Luke") Eveshim, his grandmother Helga Eveshim, and The Grand High Witch Evangeline Ernst. The most notable difference from the book is that the boy is restored to human form at the end of the story by the Grand High Witch's assistant (a character who doesn't appear in the book), who had renounced her former evil. This was an ending that Dahl himself hated.
In 2008, the BBC broadcast a two-part dramatisation of the novel by Lucy Catherine and directed by Claire Grove. The cast included Margaret Tyzack as the Grandmother, Toby Jones as the Narrator, Ryan Watson as the Boy, Jordan Clarke as Bruno and Amanda Laurence as the Grand High Witch.
- "100 most frequently challenged books: 1990–1999 | ala.org/bbooks". Ala.org. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
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