Grand High Witch
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|The Grand High Witch|
|First appearance||The Witches (1983)|
|Created by||Roald Dahl|
|Aliases||The Grand High Witch of All The World, "Evangeline Ernst"|
The Grand High Witch of All The World or just the Grand High Witch is a title given to the leader of all witches on Planet Earth, according to Roald Dahl's 1983 book The Witches. The Grand High Witch is also the main antagonist of the book and the film. Described as being "without mercy," she travels around the world summoning all the witches of whatever country she is in, giving congratulations or punishments according to the witches' success in their ultimate mission: destroying children. She teaches them such schemes as trapping children inside paintings, turning them into slugs so they can be "squished" or (it is rumoured) turning American children into hot dogs so that they will be eaten by their own parents. She is said to own a counterfeit machine that leaves her no problem in traveling wherever she likes, or helping her lesser witches financially if she feels they need some assistance in their quest to eliminate all things juvenile.
Role in the story
The Grand High Witch within this story is noted for being particularly intolerant and demanding. At a yearly meeting of her English minions in a hotel, she demands that all of England's children be exterminated by the next annual meeting. When one brave or foolish witch claims this is impossible, the Grand High Witch tauntingly versifies her minion's impertinence and uselessness and burns her to oblivion by directing lasers from her eyes; a punishment all witches fear, and one known in their community as "getting fried", which happens to one witch everytime a meeting happens.
The Grand High Witch then explains that the elimination of children will be easily accomplished if all the witches set up in trade as sweetshop owners. All of the sweets they sell will have been treated with a potion she has created, "Formula 86: Delayed Action Mouse Maker", that will turn anyone who consumes it into a mouse. This, she says, will convince parents and schoolteachers to kill the children, mistaking them for genuine pests. The witches and the story's narrator, himself a child, then witness a young boy, Bruno Jenkins, who has previously been fed some potion-inserted chocolate, enter the room, whereupon he is changed into a mouse to demonstrate the potion's effect. In the Dining Room, one witch drinks the soup first (after the narrator put the Formula in) and transforms into a mouse. She warns the other witches not to drink the soup, but the Grand High Witch mistakens her as an ordinary mouse, and "kills" the mouse.
The witches, satisfied that they will meet their leader's demands to destroy all children in England, are about to leave when one of the witches then picks up the scent of the story's narrator. They corner him in the meeting hall and force-feed him the potion, and attempt, when he becomes a mouse, to crush him; but he escapes and finds Bruno again. The two mice then find their way back to the room occupied by the narrator's grandmother. Later, the narrator steals the potion, infiltrates the hotel's kitchen, and slips the potion in the witches' soup. All the witches, including the Grand High Witch, are transformed into mice and instantly are chopped to pieces by the cooks. The narrator and his grandmother, realizing that, as with queen bees, when the leader dies there is always going to be another individual who will take over the role of leadership, thereafter plan to move into the Grand High Witch's castle and use it as a base to track down the other witches, so as to spike their food as well, turn them into mice and destroy them with cats.
The Grand High Witch is described as being "without mercy", "the most evil woman in creation" and "the most evil and appalling woman in the world": one who utterly detests children, disdaining the oblivion of one child per week for each of the eighty-five witches in England as "no use", and indifferent as to whether or not adults are turned into mice and destroyed in the process. She is impatient, volatile, aggressive, and tyrannical, caring nothing as to how her demands are carried out provided they are obeyed and leave no trace of witches being involved. While furious at those who contradict or offer nothing constructive to her plans, she displays a favourable, if terse, attitude towards those witches- particularly "the ancient ones"- who have served her well over the years and eliminated many children, even supplying them with ready-made potion so that they may keep up with their younger counterparts. Her "real" name is never mentioned in the book. She resides in a castle in Norway, where she is known as a wealthy baroness, and operates her business mostly from there. She finances her devious plans with a machine that can make practically any currency in the world. While she forbids lesser witches from contacting their fellows in other countries, she uses her enormous wealth to fund her schemes and journey from place to place to contact them herself. In each country, she books into a hotel, summoning all the native witches and passes them off as a party of ordinary, good-natured women. For this year's meeting, the witches of England style themselves (ironically) as the RSPCC, with the Grand High Witch posing as the chairwoman.
Like all witches within the story's universe, the Grand High Witch has no toes or hair, and has clawed hands. Strangely, she does not remove her wig, gloves, or shoes at any point within the story, perhaps suggesting she has more to hide. She does, however, during her audience with the witches, remove a highly realistic mask from her face, revealing her features to look like "something rotten" and "worm-eaten". She has a somewhat guttural accent (hence her pronunciation of England as "Inkland") that gives her "difficulty" in pronouncing the letters "R" ("rrr") and "W" ("v"). It is most likely she is Norwegian, as the book claims this to be the original homeland of all witches. Her ability to "fry" other witches is implied to be unique to her and to those who become her successors.
In the film version of the novel, the Grand High Witch (played by Anjelica Huston) is arguably more terrifying and fearsome than her counterpart in the novel. In the film, she poses as "Eva Ernst," a tall, attractive woman of breeding with an aloof demeanor. In the novel, her human persona is a petite woman with soft, demure features and a gentle voice. It is implied that she is originally from Germany; she speaks with a marked German accent. Also in the film, her true appearance is considerably more monstrous. She has a bald, blistered scalp, a wizened face, long pointed nose, extended chin and elongated claws. She is also a hunchback. She has a very short temper and strikes terror into the hearts of her minions. When the hero, Luke, sees her lay out her diabolical plan to kill all of England's children, she herself tracks him to his hotel room and drags him back to the meeting hall where he is turned into a mouse.
During the climax of the film, after Luke poured an entire bottle of her magic formula into the soup that the witches are having for their celebratory banquet, the witches begin to transform into mice, spreading chaos throughout the dining room, causing all the guests and the staff and the manager to kill them. The Grand High Witch initially appears to resist the potion's effects, but after Bruno jumps onto her chest, she appears to lose concentration long enough for the transformation to start. She is shown turning into a hideously deformed, snarling mouse and is insulted and condemned by Luke and his grandmother, Helga, as her evil is coming to an end. She is briefly trapped under an empty water-jug, and then, as in the novel, the Grand High Witch is finally destroyed when the hotel manager slices her in two with a meat cleaver.
In the film, it is strongly hinted that the Grand High Witch knew Helga in the film - years ago (although in the beginning of the film, Helga claims that in her youth she searched the globe for the Grand High Witch, but never found her). The grandmother is missing a pinky-finger from one of her hands and becomes very tense when this injury is mentioned. No explanation is given, but when the Grand High Witch encounters Helga, she refers to her as "an old adversary". In the final confrontation, as the Grand High Witch vows that "next time" things will be different, Helga replies, "No, no next time. This time, it's your turn!"
The Grand High Witch employs a secretary in the film, a witch named Miss Irvine. Yet Miss Irvine reveals, after having had enough of the Grand High Witch's appalling mistreatment of her, she "didn't want to be one of them anyway". Because of this attitude, Miss Irvine does not fear the Grand High Witch as much as the other witches do, if she fears her at all. She is openly sardonic and rebellious to her employer's face. It is subtly hinted that at bottom, she is good and tries to help the children who become victims of the witches, as she restores Luke and his friend Bruno to their human form at the end of the film.
After restoring Luke to his human form, Miss Irvine gleefully shows him her hands, which have changed from clawed to human as a result of her renouncing evil for good.
As part of the publicity for the Matilda Musical, Lucy Dahl, the daughter of Roald Dahl, was interviewed via Google Hangout about her father's books. She discussed The Witches at length, citing the Grand High Witch was inspired by her stepmother. Her stepmother's personality was not the factor, but it was her social status and look. Lucy also seriously stated she was not entirely sure witches were fiction, saying, "There's this older lady, a neighbor. If witches are real, she's one of them "
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- "Matilda Book Club June Hangout: The Witches". Youtube Interview.