Tuesday, October 25, 2005
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The Witches by Roald Dahl
Mr. Dahl is tough on parents. I guess this puts him in league with the folks at Disney. The Disney people - really not Mommy friendly. Give it some thought... Bambi, Cinderella, Snow White, Belle (of Beauty & the Beast), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Pinocchio, Jasmine... either no mothers or dead mothers. Dahl has Sophie, the orphan in the BFG, James and the Giant Peach has James' parents eaten by a rhinoceros, and here, we have our anonymous narrator whose parents die in a car crash, leaving our protagonist without a scratch, or a family.
Our young hero is left with his grandmother who teaches him about the witches. She makes her point by giving him details about the disappearance of children at the hands of witches. Then he learns how to recognize a witch and that's important because the act of disappearing children is mission one, top priority for a witch. In fact, their motto holds that if they don't rid the world of at least one child a week, they get pretty cranky. I may have been paraphrasing a little there, but you get the idea.
Narrator boy and Granny go to live in England as per instructions in the parents' Will. He's very careful to try spotting witches and keep out of their clutches and he even has a narrow miss one day while outside playing. Not long after the grandmother falls seriously ill. She recovers, but the doctor doesn't think it's a good idea for the pair to return to Norway for the summer holiday, instead they go to an English resort.
Our narrator, the grandmother and the boy's two pet white mice settle in at the hotel for their holiday by the sea. While looking for a hidden place to train his mice and avoid detection of the hotel staff, he winds up hiding in a ballroom reserved for a conference for a group dedicated to preventing cruelty to children. The women pour into the room, trapping the boy in his hiding place. When the women begin their discussions, locked into their ballroom, they let down their hair, so to speak. Actually they remove their hair, because all witches are really bald. They remove their disguises, revealing themselves to be the hairless, toeless, witches of England, and the worldwide chief witch.
The chief witch, as it turns out, is not happy with how slow going the "child a week" plan is working. She has come up with a way to get rid of every child in England. Our little hero overhears the plan, just before he is discovered. The witches use their potion on him and turn him into a mouse. He must then convince his grandmother of what happened and come up with a plan to destroy the witches and save the children of England.
The Witches is much darker than any of the other Dahl books I've read. This is on the ALA list, but I don't think it's any worse than a lot of the children's fiction out there. The happy ending here is not that terribly happy. Not to mention that Dahl, obviously winking as he does so, makes a case for avoiding hygiene. Witches recognize the smell of children, but the dirtier they get, the more that smell is covered and the less likely that a witch will smell them. The man knows his audience.