The Witches (book)
1st edition cover
|Award(s)||Whitbread Book Award (1993)|
The Witches is a children's book by Roald Dahl, first published in London in 1983 by Jonathan Cape. The book, like many of Dahl's works, is illustrated by Quentin Blake. 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 a stage play and a two-part radio dramatisation for the BBC, and a 1990 movie directed by Nicolas Roeg.
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 single child on Earth. No other reason for this is given, other than a foul stench children produce for witches.
A young boy goes to stay with his grandmother after his parents are killed in a tragic car crash in the Norwegian mountains when they are on vacation. The boy is comforted by his grandmother, and then she says she will adopt him. The next night, she begins to warn him about witches, which she says are demons in human form, which seek to kill human children. Then, tells the boy that four of her childhood friends 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.
The next night, the grandmother tells her grandson the signs of how to recognise a witch: they always use gloves because they have long, sharp, cat-like claws, they always use wigs because they are bald, they have broad nostrils, 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.
The boy and his grandmother return to England, as per his parents' will. The grandmother warns the boy to be on his guard, since English witches are known to be among the cruellest in the world. She says English witches turn children into slugs, fleas, and pheasants so that adults kill them. She starts going of topic telling him witches in the United States will turn children into hot dogs for their parents to eat them and about the Grand High Witch of All the World. The Grand Witch is the boss of all of them. Each year the Grand High Witch visits witch councils all around the world in every country. She is supposed to have a machine that prints money from any country. Shortly afterward, the boy is building the roof on his treehouse and spots a strange woman in black staring up at him with an eerie smile. When he sees that she is wearing gloves, he instantly recognises her as a witch; and he also notices her inhuman lips and teeth; her gums resemble "raw meat." When the witch offers him a snake to entice him, he climbs up the tree which he is in and stays there until his grandmother comes and gets him for supper. This persuades the boy and his grandmother to be wary. The boy then becomes conscious of all women he encounters in public and studies them from a distance to check whether they are witches or not.
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 realises 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 recognises 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. After a long chase, he is quickly captured by the witches and turned into a mouse immediately 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 espies 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. 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 where abouts 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, while some feminists in Britain have claimed the story is sexist. The narrator says that all witches are women. But then, he does say immediately afterwards, 'I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women.' He also says that all ghouls are men, but adds that these are not nearly as bad or vile as witches. He later states that neither are really human but, nevertheless, continues to emphasise the sex of the witches throughout the tale. '
Film version 
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.
Radio adaptation 
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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