The Witches (novel)
First edition cover
|Awards||Whitbread Book Award (1983)|
The Witches is a children's dark fantasy novel by the British writer Roald Dahl. The story is set partly in Norway and partly in England, and features the experiences of a young English boy and his Norwegian grandmother in a world where child-hating societies of witches secretly exist in every country. The witches are all ruled by the extremely vicious and powerful Grand High Witch, who has just arrived in England to organize her worst plot ever. But an elderly former witch hunter and her young grandson find out about the evil plan and now they must do everything to stop it and defeat the witches.
The Witches was originally published in 1983 by Jonathan Cape in London, with illustrations by Quentin Blake (like many of Dahl's works). The book was adapted into an unabridged audio reading by Lynn Redgrave, a stage play and a two-part radio dramatisation for the BBC, a 1990 film directed by Nicolas Roeg which starred Anjelica Huston and Rowan Atkinson, a 2008 opera by Marcus Paus and Ole Paus, and a 2020 film directed by Robert Zemeckis.
The story is narrated from the perspective of an unnamed seven-year-old English boy, who goes to live with his Norwegian grandmother after his parents are killed in a tragic car accident. The boy loves all his grandmother's stories, but he is especially enthralled by the one about real witches, who she says are horrific creatures who seek to kill human children. She tells him how to recognize them, and that she is a retired witch hunter (she, herself, had an encounter with a witch when she was about her grandson's age, resulting in the loss of her right thumb). According to the boy's grandmother, a real witch looks exactly like an ordinary woman, but there are ways of telling whether she is a witch: real witches have claws instead of fingernails which they hide by wearing gloves, are bald which they hide by wearing wigs that make them break out in rashes, have square feet with no toes which they hide by wearing uncomfortable pointy shoes, have eyes with pupils that change colours, have blue spit which they use for ink, and have large nostrils which they use to sniff out children; to a witch, a child smells of fresh dogs' droppings; the dirtier the child, the less likely she is to smell them.
As specified in the parents' will, the narrator and his grandmother 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 most vicious in the world, notorious for turning children into loathsome creatures so that unsuspecting adults kill them. 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 also tells him about the mysterious Grand High Witch of All the World, 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 his tree-house, he sees a strange woman in black staring up at him with an eerie smile, and he quickly registers that she is a witch. When the witch offers him a snake to tempt 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 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 is training his pet mice, William and Mary, given to him as a consolation present by his grandmother after the loss of his parents, in the hotel ballroom when the "Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children" show up for their annual meeting. The boy realizes that this is the yearly gathering of England's witches when one of them reaches underneath her hair to scratch at her scalp with a gloved hand, but he is trapped in the room.
A young woman goes on stage and removes her entire face, which is a mask, revealing herself to be the Grand High Witch herself. She expresses displeasure at the English witches' failure to eliminate enough children and demands that they exterminate the lot of them before the next meeting. The Grand High Witch unveils her master plan: All of England's witches are to purchase sweet shops (with counterfeited money printed by her from a magical money-making machine) and give away free sweets and chocolates laced with a drop of her latest creation: "Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse-Maker", a magic potion which turns the consumer into a mouse at a specified time set by the potion-maker. The intent is for the children's teachers and parents to unwittingly kill the transformed children, thus doing the witches' dirty work for them.
To demonstrate the formula's effectiveness, the Grand High Witch brings in a child named Bruno Jenkins, a gluttonous boy lured to the convention hall with the promise of free chocolate. She reveals that she'd tricked Bruno into eating a chocolate bar laced with the formula the day before, and had set the "alarm" to go off during the meeting. The potion takes effect, transforming Bruno into a mouse before the assembled witches. Shortly after, the witches detect the narrator's presence and corner him. The Grand High Witch then pours an entire bottle of Formula 86 down his throat, and the overdose instantly turns him into a mouse. However, 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 an attempt to return Bruno to his parents fails spectacularly, mainly due to Mrs. Jenkins' fear of mice, the grandmother takes Bruno and the narrator to the dining hall. The narrator enters the kitchen, 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, just like the narrator. The hotel staff and the guests all 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. They will travel to the Grand High Witch's Norwegian castle, and use the potion to change her successor and the successor's assistants into mice, then release cats to destroy them. Using the Grand High Witch's money-making machine and information on witches in various countries, they will try to eradicate them everywhere. 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 outlive his grandmother (she reveals that she is 86 and is also likely to live for only nine more years), as he would hate to have anyone else look after him.
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 November 2019, the BBC listed The Witches on its list of the 100 most influential novels.
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."
Questions have also been raised about the ending of the book, with some critics suggesting it might encourage suicide in children by telling them they can avoid growing up by dying.
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 American and named Luke Eveshim, his grandmother is named Helga Eveshim, and The Grand High Witch is named 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.
Another film adaptation co-written and directed by Robert Zemeckis was released October 22, 2020 on HBO Max, after it was removed from its original release date due to COVID-19 pandemic. The most notable difference from the book is that this adaptation takes place in 1968 Alabama, and the protagonist is an African-American boy who is named "Hero Boy". The adaptation also stays true to the book's ending rather than the 1990 film, having the protagonist stay a mouse at the end of the film.
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The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
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