It’s been years since I last read a Roald Dahl book, but when the time came to pick a throwback topic for this week, I found myself drawn to that bit of my bookshelves. And with the official start of Fall just past, it seemed only right to get in the spoopy spirit and revisit The Witches.
I first read this in fourth grade, I believe, after our teacher read The BFG aloud to us and I found myself intrigued by the lighthearted but also kind of nightmarish quality of Dahl’s writing. Seriously, some terrible stuff happens in his books, but it’s presented in a fun and no-nonsense way. Take The Witches: A young boy goes to live with his grandmother after his parents die in a horrible car crash. She warns him about the dangers of witches, beastly creatures who masquerade as women and hate children so much that they try to curse or kill at least one a week.
After his grandmother catches pneumonia, they go to a seaside resort to help her recuperate, and the grandson (who isn’t named in the story) stumbles upon the Annual Meeting of the witches of England, which is being held in the same resort. The Grand High Witch of All the World is leading it, and proposes a plan to turn all the children of England into mice using a terrible potion she’s brewed up. The grandson is discovered by the witches and turned into a mouse, but he manages to steal a bottle of the potion and dose the witch convention’s dinner with it, returning the rodent-y favor. Although he’s now irrevocably a mouse (albeit one who can talk, and who will probably live a bit longer than a regular mouse), and although the witches of England have been destroyed, he and his grandma decide they still have work to do. They track down the estate of the former Grand High Witch and make plans to spend the rest of their days using her records to hunt down the rest of the worlds’ witches.
That’s all some pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ story, but it’s never presented as too big a deal. The grandson is kind of alright with being a mouse and also surprisingly chill about his significantly shortened lifespan, for example. The Grand High Witch turns children into frogs and throws them out of windows, and the climactic scene of the novel features hotel staff brutally exterminating a room full of mice-who-were-just-witches-a-minute-ago. It’s kind of bloodthirsty, and the illustrations of some of this stuff happening don’t do much to alleviate that. To be fair, though, I have a hard time imagining Roald Dahl’s books without Quentin Blake’s illustrations (he did all the art I’ve used in this post). They definitely add something extra to the story, as they have the same sort of quirky, cartoonish, lighthearted horribleness to them as the story’s actual content.
I’m not sure how to feel about this story from a feminist perspective, and it’s especially hard to critique something I loved as a kid, but I’ll give it the old college try. On one hand, the grandma is badass. She smokes giant hideous cigars and is missing a thumb and she won’t talk about what happened to it, but it’s strongly implied that she lost it in her younger witch-hunting days. She’s totally unflappable about her grandson’s metamorphosis and delighted at his creativity in coming up with new witch-killing plans. The story also passes the Bechdel test since the grandma and the Grand High Witch talk to each other at one point.
On the other hand, Dahl’s witches are a kind of feminist nightmare. They are inhuman beasts in women’s forms, and they’re reprehensible because they hate children and want to destroy them. While the destroying part is obviously a bridge too far, the premise wouldn’t work if there weren’t a societal norm that said women who don’t like children are abnormal. They also use femininity as a tool in their child-catching toolboxes—witches are naturally bald and toeless with terrible claws instead of fingernails, but they wear luxurious wigs, painfully pointy high heels, and fancy gloves all the time to maintain that “fancy human woman” look. The Grand High Witch is so hideous and decrepit that she has to wear a full-face mask in public so she looks like a regular, pretty woman. This all kind of plays off the idea that feminine beauty choices are used as a way to deceive others, and that ugly women are evil. At first I was willing to write all of this off as an unfortunate symptom of the times, mostly because I thought that this book was much older than it was, but a check of the copyright date told me it was actually first published in 1983—much later than I’m willing to make broad exceptions for.
That said, I do still love Dahl’s weirdly sadistic books, and I’m thinking about rereading the rest of the ones I own now that I’ve finished with The Witches. If you’re looking for a quick, nostalgic read to put you in the “It’s almost October which means it’s almost Halloween” spirit, I’d definitely suggest picking it up.