From the first page of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ the narrator warns you: ‘this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES’. So begins the story of a boy from England and his adventures with the witches. In the very first chapter the boy’s parents die in a car crash and his grandmother begins to teach him how to recognise a witch. In the course of the story the boy is threatened not only by witches living in his neighbourhood, but eventually by every witch in England at the book’s climatic gathering of the Witches Annual Meeting with the Grand High Witch.
However, there are no old cackling crones here. Instead the boy and the reader are confronted with a secret and murderous community living in plain sight. A community unrecognisable from the average female and whose only wish is to kill every child in their country by any means necessary. Even past the age of 12 Dahl’s description of the Grand High Witch’s face, after she rips off her mask, is enough to draw shudders:
There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there.
Yet, it is this very darkness in Dahl’s writing that makes him so appealing. It spills over into his musical rendering of the most grotesque detail and the unsentimental treatment of the loss of family. Dahl creates a space, allowing the child to make the adult the enemy and empower themselves. Even when a dramatic run-in with the enemy transforms him into a mouse, the boy continues to fight on armed with the trust and belief of his tour-de-force grandmother and his own mature pragmatism.
There is a real beauty in Dahl’s work that can still be appreciated years after. His use of dialogue as the Grand High Witch is both humourous and a true oral pleasure:
“I am having my breakfast this morning,” cried The Grand High Witch, “and I am looking out of the vindow at the beach, and vot am I seeing? I am asking you, vot am I seeing? I am seeing a rrreevolting sight! I am seeing hundreds, I am seeing thousands of rrrotten rrree-pulsive little children playing on the sand! It is putting me rrright off my food!”
This continued throughout the book with a constant sense that this is something that wants to be read aloud, that wants to be acted out, that has real life in its construction. Yet, the book does tread a careful line between its unsentimental darkness and wry humour, and its final scene between the boy and his grandmother is truly moving.
“Will you live another eight or nine years?”
“I might,” she said. “With a bit of luck.”
“You’ve got to,” I said. “Because by then I’ll be a very old mouse and you’ll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we’ll both die together.”
“That would be perfect,” she said.
I had a little doze after that. I just shut my eyes and thought of nothing and felt at peace with the world.
Dahl doesn’t flinch away from the boy’s life expectancy, but in the final moments the book’s overriding theme is one of love rather than despair.
And now to you! Let me know your thoughts on the book or even any recommendations for future posts. I’d love to hear them!
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