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Book Talk Tuesday: Roald Dahl’s Witches

Iphigene here.

When I read Dahl’s Witches, I didn’t have a clue of its plot. It was a Dahl book; I was in a Dahl phase, so I read it. Here’s another Roald Dahl for Book Talk Tuesday hosted by The Lemme Library.

Like any child (though I was a full-grown adult when I read it) I was filled with excitement at the thought of these unusually described witches. Unusual, for they weren’t wearing witchy hats or had giant warts on their faces.  Dahl’s witches as described by Lucas’ grandmother:

“ A real witch is certain always to be wearing gloves…because she doesn’t have finger-nails…she has thin curvy claws, like a cat…a real witch is Bald as a boiled egg, wears a wig to hide her baldness…witches have slightly larger nose-holes than ordinary people. The rim of each nose hole is pink and curvy…a real witch has the most amazing powers of smell. She can smell out a child who is standing on the other side of the street on a pitch-black night.”

The violent content of Witches has made it a target for censors especially in the earlier years of its publication. Readers of Dahl wouldn’t be surprised by the amount of violence and cruelty in his books and compared to his tamer books such as Giraffe, Pelly and Me or James and the Giant Peach, The Witches is up the ranks alongside maybe Matilda in its cruelty.

Often, when I find myself reading Dahl I think of Dickens and Frances Hodgson Burnett (author of Little Princess, Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy) in its characterization of children and cruel adults.  Of the most recent authors, I think of Lemony Snicket and maybe even Pseudonymous Bosch. The point being, cruel creatures require cruel characterization.  The more important thing though is that our main characters triumph.  Our young hero and grandmamma do triumph despite the little ‘change’ he had to go through.

Like all stories involving witches, the hatred for children is the same. As the note in the beginning states:

 “A real witch spends all her time plotting to get rid of children in her particular territory. Her passion is to do away with them, one by one…A real witch gets the same pleasure from squelching a child as you get from eating a plateful of strawberries and thick cream…Squish them and squiggle them and make them disappear.”

Any child that meets a witch would most likely die. Horrid, isn’t it? However, that horrible outcome makes us pray our hero isn’t caught or that he gets to beat the witches. From here on out I’ll try to hold myself from spilling any beans. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun of reading this Halloween-apt book.

This seems familiar.

In the middle of reading the book, I came upon the chapter entitled Bruno Jenkins disappears. As I read the narrative at this part, I kept recalling a movie, a scene where all these witches were in a conference. I did a bit of research and realized that in 1991, the year Roald Dahl died, The Witches was adapted into film. Here is a clip from that little conference that made Bruno Jenkins disappear.

Child Idealism/Optimism vs. The Cruel Adult World

Most, if not all of Dahl’s antagonists, are cruel adults. In this case, witches. These characters often have problems with kids and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t so accurate a portrayal of our adult world. Maybe we aren’t so cruel, but we do tend to have little patience for silly little children. We detest a lot of things and we try to rid the world of things we despise even in the most cruel manner like gossiping, bad mouthing people and maybe even insulting those we don’t like. Yes, Dahl is extreme, but I can’t help but wonder if, removed from the fictional aspects, it does represent that sort of dog-eat-dog world we live in.

On the other end, the protagonist is often this able child. In Witches, our hero shows up in front of his grandmother, changed:

“Don’t cry grandmamma…things could be a lot worse. I did get away from them [witches]. I’m still alive.”

Such optimism is hard to come by in most of us. Furthermore, despite his own personal fate, our hero cares more for what might happen to all the other children who will be buying and eating potion-laced candy. It is this heroism, the brightness of it, that I feel makes Dahl’s book feel not so dark and not so cruel. It gives children a sense that they too can change the world, and maybe for the adult reader it reminds us of what we once believed in and reminds us of that child-like faith.

Grandparent-Grandchild Relationship

I remember reading somewhere how there are very few children’s books that feature grandparents, which might be true. It’s rare that grandparents take the center stage and it was interesting to read how Roald Dahl made the grandmother’s role pivotal to the plot. Had it not been for our hero’s grandmother’s knowledge of witches he would not be alive. Had it not been for the cooperation and support of his grandmother, our hero wouldn’t have saved England from the Witches’ evil plan. The grandmother allows our hero to be the hero.

The relationship between them is neither too warm nor cuddly. It is more frank and exciting. There is a young spirit in the grandmother, an excitement of a child that made her believable as an accomplice to her grandson’s plan to save England.

A poignant relationship

Towards the end of the story, I found myself confronted with some wisdom. I find that the truth and frankness are the gifts of the wise.  There is wisdom in accepting the inevitable and living once life at its fullest without the attempts at prolonging or changing so much of it. So is the truth Dahl imparts in The Witches, which could only be captured by these poignant moments:

“How old are you, Grandmamma?” I asked.

“I’m eighty-six,” She said.

“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.”

And lastly, the reassurance any child needs:

“My darling,” she (grandmother) said at last, “are you sure you don’t mind being a mouse for the rest of your life?”

“I don’t mind at all,” I said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.”

It is the seemingly (or supposedly) dark, cruel and violent story that makes these moments stand out and makes the point even more poignant and even more profound.  After all, we only do appreciate the good things in life when we’ve seen the ugliness it has to offer. Shouldn’t this wisdom be something a child should know and if he could learn vicariously through the book, wouldn’t that be better?

The Witches isn’t my favorite of Dahl’s books, but it’s nonetheless worth one’s time. Why read one Dahl when you could read all?

2 comments on “Book Talk Tuesday: Roald Dahl’s Witches

  1. Despite the fact that Dahl tends to be on the cruel side in his portrayal of the adults, I like that he doesn’t generalize and usually has an adult character with a good heart in his books. Ms. Honey in Matilda and The Grandmother in The Witches.

    Your right about how adults tend to have little patience for kids, I myself included. Sometimes I also underestimate how much children are capable of, how smart they are. Your review also made me think about how much we change once we grow up. 😛


  2. Pingback: Highlights of November and Carnival of Children’s Literature |

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