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The Witches - terrifically terrifying
The Witches - Roald Dahl
Member Name: PaigeTurner
The Witches - Roald Dahl
Advantages: Packed full of humour and highly entertaining
The Witches by Roald Dahl is a truly terrifying tale, which pushes the very boundaries of what is deemed acceptable in children's literature.
It is these very qualities, amongst others, which have led to the novel being banned on a number of occasions, at the same time as securing its enduring appeal amongst readers young and old.
The Witches follows a seven-year-old boy orphaned on the death of his parents who comes into the care of his Norwegian grandmother, a retired witchophile. Whilst holidaying in Bournemouth, the boy accidentally observes the Annual Meeting of the Witches in England and he is turned into a mouse by the Grand High Witch. He manages to escape and enlists the help of his grandmother to stop the witches' evil plot to kill all the children in England, by essentially turning their plans back on themselves.
What makes The Witches so terrifying is, it is plausible. Dahl does not set his story in a third dimension somewhere with two-headed monsters running around. It is set right here in the reader's world dealing with the every day. Dahl talks directly to the reader through the character of the grandmother, urging everyone to look out for the signs a woman could be a witch. He calls for them not to be fooled just because they are nice. That is their game. Look out for the gloved hands covering the taloned fingers, the uncomfortable shoes concealing the toe-less feet, the itchy bald heads disguised by wigs. Be wary, he entreats, of your own teachers, your own librarian, your own mothers.
Children do not even have to trespass off onto unknown territory to find themselves in danger. The witches will come into reader's own streets, gardens and even homes. It is quite difficult for the reader to rationalise away what Dahl is talking about and children, with an ounce of imagination, are left with no other option than to believe that this could be true - witches could be living among us.
Dahl has a propensity to go where other authors, particularly children's authors, are afraid to go. Never more is this clear than in The Witches. No character, good or bad, is safe from Dahl's slightly macabre nature. The boy whose story we follow, we find out has already experienced the terrible tragedy of his parents being killed in a car accident, even before he encounters the witches.
With children's stories the reader generally expects a happy ending and a restoration of order. Dahl does not do this in The Witches. The boy narrator is never returned to his human form after being turned into a mouse.
The Witches was banned several times in the 1990s. It was perceived as deeply sexist, portraying all women as witches. It devalued the life of a child and in America it met the wrath of witch societies who claimed The Witches treated the subject of witchcraft lightly.
To understand many of Dahl's books, especially arguably the most controversial - The Witches - the reader must do away with the publisher's propaganda image of the kindly grandpa sitting writing in his shed. Dahl's editors had to continually ask him to modify his stories to make them more politically correct. He was a product of a different time and environment. He attended an English boarding school at the beginning of the 20th century where cultivating an appreciation for diversity was far from top of the agenda. Dahl also suffered incredible tragedies in his life. He experienced the death of a daughter, the traumatising injury to his son and his wife's debilitating strokes.
English feminists have been up in arms at the sexism in The Witches. They used the quote, "But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch" to support their argument. They did however overlook the following line, "On the other hand a ghoul is always a male".
Dahl defended himself when confronted with these claims by pointing to the grandmother who is one of the major characters in the story. The narrator says, "The fact that I am still here and able to speak to you...is due entirely to my wonderful grandmother". Dahl said the criticisms of sexism were unfounded because of the courage and wisdom the grandmother displays.
Children reading The Witches do not, however, pick up on the bad. They enjoy laughing at Dahl's jokes and like seeing adults look ridiculous. It is only as an adult, readers start to see Dahl's sexist, racist and anti-Semitic undertones.
Dahl's main concern is always to entertain his readers. He does not concentrate on the fact some groups of people may be offended. This attitude is clear in The Witches and will ensure it has an enduring appeal amongst readers, particularly children, at the same time as continually raising the hackles of the most politically correct.
It is a fantastically entertaining and terrifying read that will have all readers watching that bit closer women scratching their heads with gloved hands.
Summary: A book which will be as much talked about for its controversy as read and enjoyed