The Witches (book)
1st edition cover
|Awards||Whitbread Book Award (1993)|
The Witches is a children's book by 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 in the world where the child-hating evil witches secretly exist.
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 evil witches are revealed in the opening chapters to be a hidden but constant threat. While they appear to look and act like normal human women, they obsessively despise and hate children.
An eight-year-old boy goes to live with his Norwegian grandmother after his parents are killed in a car crash. The grandmother is a wonderful story teller. He loved all the stories, but he was enthralled by the ones about witches, which she says are horrific creatures who seek to kill human children. She tells the boy that she knows of five children who were cursed by witches and tells him how to recognise them. While witches look like human women, they are actually "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, turning children into slugs and fleas 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 warns him to beware of the Grand Witch, the feared and diabolical leader of all of the world's witches, who each year visits their councils in every 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, 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. 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 sees through their disguise and realizes that it is really the yearly convention of England's witches. A young woman shows up on stage, and reveals herself as the Grand High Witch. On her cue, the other witches also show their true, demonic forms. The Grand High Witch orders her English minions orders to exterminate England's children by the end of the year. One brave or foolish witch states that killing every child in the country is impossible and the Grand High Witch instantly incinerates her and 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 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, as 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. Shortly after, the witches smell the narrator's presence. 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 the potion 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 helps the narrator sneak into 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 the Grand High Witch and all of England's witches.
Having returned home, the boy and his grandmother then devise a plan to rid the world of witches. Learning the location of the Grand High Witch's Norwegian castle, they will travel there and use the potion to change her successor and assistants into mice, then release cats to destroy them before they escape. Using the Grand High Witch's money-making machine and information on all the other witches in various countries, they will then try to track down and eradicate them 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 does not mind it, because he does not 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). However, The Witches was banned by some libraries due to perceived misogyny. It appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999, at number 22. 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, directed by Nicolas Roeg and distributed by Warner Bros. In the film the boy is named 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 does not appear in the book), who had renounced her former evil. Dahl regarded the film as "utterly appalling" because its contrasted with the book.
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.
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