The Witches (novel)
First edition cover
|Awards||Whitbread Book Award (1983)|
The Witches is a children's fantasy novel by the British writer Roald Dahl. It was published in 1983 by Jonathan Cape in London, with illustrations by Quentin Blake (like many of Dahl's works). The story is set partly in Norway and partly in the United Kingdom, featuring the experiences of a young boy and his Norwegian grandmother in a world where 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.
A seven-year-old boy (who is never named) goes to live with his Norwegian grandmother after his parents are killed in a car crash. The grandmother was a wonderful story teller. He loved all the stories, but he was enthralled by the one 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. She also tells about witchophiles, who hunt witches, which she is retired from, telling of an encounter with a witch which cost the grandmother her left thumb, but otherwise said her witchophile career was a failure as she never killed another witch. While witches look and act like human women, they are actually "demons in human shape." They have bald heads that they hide with wigs, clawed hands that they usually hide with gloves, blue spit, large nostrils and toe-less feet that make it extremely painful to wear pretty shoes.
As specified in 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. They are particularly notorious for turning children into loathsome creatures so that unsuspecting 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 High 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 tree-house he has been building, he 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 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 England's south 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 quickly realizes that this is really the yearly gathering of England's witches when one of them reaches underneath her hair to scratch at her scalp with a gloved hand. A young woman goes on stage and removes her mask, revealing herself to be the Grand High Witch. After scolding the English witches for their lack of progress in eliminating the children, incinerating one of them when she talked back about her demands for the death of every English child within a year, the Grand High Witch unveils a master plan. All of England's witches are to purchase sweet shops (with "homemade" money printed from her money-making machine) and give away free sweets and chocolates for the grand opening laced with her latest creation, "Formula 86 delayed-action mouse-maker", a magic potion meant to turn the drinker into a mouse at a specific time with a single drop. The intent is that the children's teachers can kill the transformed children for them. To demonstrate, the Grand High Witch turns a gluttonous child named Bruno Jenkins, who is lured to the convention hall by the promise of free chocolate, into a mouse. Shortly after, the witches smell the narrator's presence and corner him. The Grand High Witch then pours an entire bottle of Formula 86 down the narrator's throat, instantly turning him into a mouse.
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 takes Bruno and the narrator to the dining hall, then he sneaks towards the kitchen, holding the potion. He spies the witches coming in to dinner on his way and finally enters the kitchen successfully, where he pours the potion into the green pea soup intended for the witches' dinner. On the way back from the kitchen, a cook spots the narrator and chops off part of his tail with a carving knife, before he manages to escape back to his grandmother. The witches all turn into mice within a few minutes, having had massive overdoses. The hotel staff and the guests all panic and, unknowingly, the staff 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 get rid of 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 as he does not want to live any longer than his grandmother, and in the end they can both die together.
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 2012 The Witches was ranked number 81 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal, a monthly with primarily U.S. audience. It was the third of four books by Dahl among the Top 100, more than any other writer.
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".
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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