BOOK (1983)

Rewind book: The Witches by Roald Dahl

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 9:20pm

The Witches

by Roald Dahl


Book lovers 50 or younger likely possess a slideshow inserted into their memory by Roald Dahl: James' giant peach; Charlie's golden ticket to the chocolate factory; the BFG's snozzcucumber and flatulence-inducing frobscottle. But for sheer grotesquerie, none can match the evil titular characters of one of his last children's classics.

The antagonists are immediately established in the opening "Note about Witches", designed to fill the reader with fear-delight: real witches "[hate] children with a red-hot sizzling hatred"; they "never get caught"; and, most frighteningly, "all look like nice ladies … [they] might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you".

Dahl is similarly to the point with his unnamed narrator's tragic set-up, a car crash orphaning him just four paragraphs into the story proper. The seven-year-old is taken into the care of his grandmother, a "witchophile". She tells of children who were taken by witches, the most haunting the girl doomed to spend life in a painting, seemingly alive and ageing before her depiction vanishes 54 years later.

Grandmother's witch-spotting tips are similarly eerie: they wear gloves to hide their claws; they have bald, wig-covered heads, and square feet with no toes. "An absolutely clean child gives off the most ghastly stench to a witch" so bathing is not recommended.

On holiday in Bournemouth, the boy accidentally eavesdrops on the witches' annual convention (disguised as a meeting of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). He overhears the Grand High Witch's plan to do away with children by poisoning sweets with "Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker". Despite not having bathed in a lengthy time, he is detected and becomes an early victim, his painful metamorphosis among the book's descriptive highlights before he escapes to seek revenge with grandma.

Twenty-five years on from last reading the book, it remains deeply affecting, the themes of parental disappearance, the powerlessness of children, and the untrustworthiness of many adults unnerving even to a grown-up.

There is no reversing the potion, but the boy-turned-mouse is happy he won't outlive grandma. "'It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.'" As a moral, it's as good as any in children's literature.

James Porteous