The Witches is a children's book by Roald Dahl, first published in London in 1983 by Jonathan Cape. The book, like many of Dahl's works, is illustrated by Quentin Blake. Its content has made the book the frequent target of censors. It appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999, at number twenty-two. The book was also adapted into a stage play.
The book's witches, described as "demons in human form", form a well-connected organization which aims to destroy children. No motive is given, other than witches' abhorrence of children, and the foul stench children give off to witches. This organization has branches in every country in the world, and is particularly powerful in Norway, where the origin of witches is said to have been and where, as a result, the witches' operation is known to all. Witches from different countries are forbidden to communicate with each other, although the witches within each country are generally all friends. Each witch seeks to eliminate at least one child per week.
In a household in Norway, an orphaned boy (the book's narrator, whose name is never revealed) is told by his grandmother how to recognise witches, so that he may avoid them. She tells him stories about five children who fell victim to the evil powers of the witches:
- A girl named Solveig was given an apple by a witch and was trapped inside a painting for the next 54 years until she disappeared; during that time she grew old on the canvas just as she would have done in real life.
- A boy named Harald who woke up with greyish-yellow skin one morning turned to stone by the end of the day.
- A girl named Birgit was turned into a chicken and kept as a pet by her family.
- A boy named Leif was turned into a porpoise while swimming with his family.
- A girl named Ragnhild was led away by a witch and never seen again.
The grandmother describes how to recognize a witch: witches have no hair, and must therefore wear wigs directly on their naked scalps, resulting in a condition they call "wig-rash"; witches have thin, curved, claw-like fingernails that they must disguise with gloves; witches have no toes; a witch's spit is bright blue, leaving a pale bluish film on their teeth; and a witch has unusual color-changing pupils in which one may see "fire and ice dancing" in the centre. The boy implies also that ghouls and barghests exist, and that both are dangerous but neither half as dangerous as a witch. The boy is warned by his grandmother of the leader of the witches, the Grand High Witch, the terrifying ruler of all the witches in the world.
The boy then has his first encounter with a witch, when he is playing in his treehouse and spots a strange woman in black staring up at him with an eerie smile. When he sees that she is wearing gloves, he instantly becomes afraid; when the witch offers him a snake to entice him, he climbs up the tree which he is in and stays there until his grandmother comes and gets him for supper. This persuades the boy and his grandmother to be wary, as he is confident that the woman was a witch.
When the grandmother later becomes ill with pneumonia, their holiday to Norway is postponed in favour of holiday to Bournemouth on the southern English coast. They stay at a luxury hotel, where they discover that the English witches have come to hold their annual meeting. At the annual convention of English witches (ironically disguised as a "Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children" convention), the Grand High Witch, angry at the witches' failure to destroy all of the children in England, unveils a master plan wherein the English witches should purchase sweet shops (using counterfeit banknotes given to them by the Grand High Witch) and give away free chocolate laced with Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse Maker, a mixture which will change anyone who eats it into a mouse at a specific time. The witches are instructed by the Grand High Witch that the formula will activate at 9:00 a.m. the day after the children have eaten the chocolate, when they are at school. The teachers, she hopes, will panic and kill the mice, thereby doing the witches' work for them.
By chance, the boy is hiding in the convention room at the time, training his pet white mice. He recognizes some characteristics described by his grandmother, and therefore remains hidden whilst the witches unveil their true selves (removing their wigs to reveal chafed, bald scalps, their shoes to reveal squared feet, their gloves to reveal long, sharp claws, and grinning with their mouths full of blue saliva).
The Grand High Witch turns an overweight child named Bruno Jenkins (lured to the convention hall by the promise of free chocolate) into a mouse as a demonstration of her potion. Shortly after, the witches smell the narrator's presence (based on the premise that children smell repulsive to witches) and change him into a mouse by giving him an overdose of the formula.
Luckily, the formula turns out to have a critical flaw: the transformed child retains its sentience, personality and even its voice. The transformed boy returns to his grandmother's room and tells her what he has learned. They steal a bottle of the witches' potion and pour it into the green pea soup in the kitchen reserved for the witches' dinner. The witches all turn into mice within minutes, having ingested overdoses. The hotel staff panic and, unknowingly, end up killing all of England's witches. The boy and his grandmother then concoct a plan: they will travel to the Grand High Witch's Norwegian headquarters (having stolen her notebook, which presumably included its location), use the potion to change all of Norway's witches into mice, release cats in the building to kill them, and then use the Grand High Witch's counterfeit money to fund a mission to repeat the process all over the world.
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).
The prominence of violence has also been an issue, while feminists in Britain claim the story is sexist. The narrator says that all witches are women. But then, he does say immediately afterwards, 'I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women.' He also says that all barghests are men, and that neither are really human anyway.
The book has been adapted into a film by director Nicolas Roeg, released in 1990 (the year Roald Dahl died) and distributed by Warner Bros. In the film the boy is named Lucas (but mainly called "Luke") Eveshim, the grandmother Helga Eveshim, and The Grand High Witch Evangeline Ernst.
- ↑ American Library Association: "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999".
- ↑ http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0203050.html
- ↑ http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBIQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mvcc.edu%2Facademics%2Flibrary%2Fchallenged_childrenbks.pdf&rct=j&q=most%20challenged%20children%27s%20books%20of%201983&ei=ehKxTIOWGI_UtQOL0JTDDA&usg=AFQjCNGnfxJzHu2VW-xod-9oYQatlYZ6Aw&cad=rja