Transformation and Death: The Witches

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

After the tragic death of his parents in a car accident when he is only seven, the narrator—who never does get a name in the book—is sent to live with his Norwegian grandmother, first in Norway and then in England. Echoing Dahl’s own relationship with his Norwegian relatives, they speak both English and Norwegian to each other, hardly noticing what language they are using.

The grandmother is both a wonderfully reassuring and terrifying figure: reassuring, because she loves her grandson deeply and works to soften the horrible loss of his parents, with plenty of hugs and affection and tears. Terrifying, mostly because she spends her time frightening him with stories about witches—stories she insists are absolutely true—and partly because she spends her time smoking large cigars. She encourages her young grandson to follow her example, on the basis that people who smoke cigars never get colds. I’m pretty sure that’s medically invalid, a point only emphasized when the grandmother later comes down with pneumonia, which, ok, technically speaking isn’t a cold, but is hardly an advertisement for the health benefits of large cigars. (Not to mention the lung cancer risks.)

But if she is not exactly trustworthy on the subject of cigars, she does seem to know her witches quite well. Her stories are terrifying, especially the story of the girl who vanishes, only to reappear in a painting, where she slowly ages but never seems to move. Gulp. That’s pretty effective witchcraft. She also lists the distinguishing characteristics of witches for her grandson: baldness, widely spread feet with no toes, always wearing gloves to conceal the claws they have in place of fingernails, and so on. The large problem with this, as the grandson and most readers immediately notice, is that most of these differences are easy to conceal (and quite a few people may find the discussion of baldness in women disturbing; this is not a good book for cancer survivors to read.) I’ll also add that many women with widely spread toes regularly jam their feet into shoes with pointed toes, so this particular identification method seems quite questionable. I suspect also that many parents will not be thrilled by the book’s “you’re safer from witches if you never take a bath” message.

The grandmother has gained this knowledge, as it turns out, from years of hunting for the Grand High Witch without success. The witch is simply too powerful and wealthy to be found. The same cannot exactly be said for the witches of England, one of whom the protagonist finds within weeks of his return. After a hurried consultation he and his grandmother decide not to fight the witch, but it’s perhaps not that surprising when she falls very ill with pneumonia shortly after that (don’t smoke cigars, kids, really).

The rest of the witches of England are hiding under the name of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which seems respectable enough until the Grand High Witch makes her appearance, noting that all of the children of England need to be eliminated, like, now. (Some of you may be sympathizing.) The witches are initially horrified. Not, I hasten to add, because they’re against the concept, but because it’s a pretty daunting task. But after the Grand High Witch explains her plan, they grow enthusiastic.

I must say that the plan seems a bit needlessly complex to me: the Grand High Witch intends to have every witch leave her job and open a candy store, then give free candy to every child who enters so that the kids can be transformed into mice and caught by mouse traps. Surely these very wealthy witches, capable of developing sophisticated masks and disguises and finding all kinds of rare items can think of something better than this?

Complicated or not, the first part of the plan does work on the first two kids they try it on, a not-particularly-nice kid called Bruno Jenkins and our narrator, who now find themselves transformed into talking mice. Both of them are remarkably calm about this—after all, getting turned into mice means not having to go to school, plus, you still get to eat (which in Bruno’s case makes up for a lot.) And, as the narrator soon learns, this still means lots of adventures—even if, in a nice nod to the nursery rhyme, your tail gets cut off by a carving knife.

It’s all magical and tense and, somewhat unusually for Dahl, tightly plotted. The matter of fact tone used by the narrator—similar to the one Dahl used for Danny the Champion of the Worldmanages to add to the horror of the moments when the narrator confronts the witches, and even before then. This is one Dahl book where I found myself genuinely anxious for the protagonist. Dahl’s portrayal of the distinctly individualistic grandmother, with her enjoyment of Norwegian folk tales and fierce love for her grandchild, not to mention her marvelous confrontation with Bruno’s parents later in the book, is beautifully done, as is the relationship between grandmother and grandson. Some might even find themselves a bit weepy at one or two parts. And the overarching lesson that it’s what inside that matters, not appearances, whether you are a nice looking woman who is secretly a witch or a mouse who is secretly a boy, is all very nice, as is the related message to never trust in appearances. And I had to love the idea that even if your exterior form changes, you can still do things. Amazing things.

Nonetheless, the book leaves me a bit uneasy.

It’s not the misogyny, exactly, especially since I’m not sure the book deserves all the vitriol sent its way on that basis. Certainly, Dahl begins the book by telling us that all witches are women, and all witches are evil. He softens this slightly by adding that “Most women are lovely,” and that ghouls are always men, but then counters the softening by noting that witches are more terrifying than ghouls. He later states that only boys keep pet mice, and girls never do, a statement not borne out by my personal experience, but in some fairness this is not the statement of the narrator but rather that of the Grand High Witch, who may not exactly be an expert on the types of pets loved by small children.

More problematic are the more subtle statements later in the book. The witches, as the grandmother carefully explains, are almost impossible to distinguish from ordinary women, meaning that—as the narrator warns child readers—pretty much any woman could be a witch. That’s a problem, not helped when we later discover that all of the witches of England are well to do, professional women with successful careers who engage in charity work. The Grand High Witch is even well known as a “kindly and very wealthy baroness who gave large sums of money to charity.” (Ok, baroness isn’t a profession exactly, but the other witches work in professional positions, and even the Grand High Witch worked to gain her large amounts of money.)

The implication, of course, is that even the most kindly, generous women may be hiding their secret evil selves behind masks; that even the most kindly, charitable woman may be plotting to destroy or transform children. And the off-handed observation that many of these hidden witches are professional, wealthy women does not help. Oh, sure, the Grand High Witch is presented as an aristocrat who probably inherited at least some of her money, so not exactly the most sympathetic creature, but she’s also presented as someone who works very hard at organizing witches and conventions and developing potions and making magical money—much of which, to repeat, the text tells us she gives away. We aren’t told as much about the other women, but if the Grand High Witch can be trusted (and perhaps she can not) they all have successful careers and businesses.

Countering this, of course, is the grandmother, as well as a kindly neighbor who makes a brief appearance in the story and then disappears. An elderly woman as the hero of a children’s story, and especially a children’s story featuring a boy, is great. But the positive joy she and her grandson take in the thought of destroying the witches is a bit stomach churning, even if the process is going to involve a lot of international travel and adventures. Not to mention that I question their assumption that cats will be very willing to help out. Oh, yes, many cats enjoy catching and playing with mice, but many cats also enjoy taking long naps and sitting on computer keyboards. You get what I’m saying.

Which leads me to my other problem with the novel: the end.

In the last chapters, the grandmother explains that since mice have short lives, the mouse grandson will not live very long—a bit longer than most mice, but not that much longer. Perhaps eight or nine years at most. The mouse grandson tells her, and the readers, that this is fine. Not because he’s pleased to have sacrificed himself to save the children of England—in fact, he complains that they have not done enough to stop the witches. But because he doesn’t want to face the thought of living without his grandmother, who probably has about the same amount of time to live.

It’s all very touching, and an understandable position for a child to take, particularly a child who has already lost both parents, doesn’t seem to have any friends, and is, well, a mouse. (The witches never created an anti-mouse transformation spell, and it doesn’t seem to occur to either grandmother or grandson to try to create one. Maybe only witches can.) For that matter, the “I don’t want to live without you” is a position often taken by adults.

But the narrator is a nine year old kid, who hardly knows what he’s missing.

Am I wrong to read too much into this? Possibly. Kids and young adults die every day, often bravely accepting their fate. But it seems odd for the narrator not to express any anger about this whatsoever—even towards the witches—and instead be grateful for his upcoming death for this particular reason. Of course, he is going to get a lot of adventures along the way first. And this is, at it’s heart, a novel about accepting change.

The Witches is arguably the Roald Dahl book most frequently banned in American libraries. I’m against banning books in principle, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to a child—but I would certainly want to discuss its implications with the kid afterwards.

This article was originally posted on February 14, 2013
The Witches 30th Anniversary edition is available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Mari Ness assures you that she is not a witch, despite the presence of two suspiciously witchlike cats. She lives in central Florida.

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