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Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Witches

This year marks Roald Dahl's centenary. Best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, I chose honor the occasion to read The Witches, tying in with my autumn exploring all things witchcraft. It's a drolly macabre book about a little boy and his grandmother tangling with an entire coven, and children leaning toward the ghoulish would love it.

The narrator of the book is orphaned and living with his grandmother in Norway, who tells him some marvelously gruesome stories about witches. She's something of an expert, and puffs a cigar while she talks about them. These are not fairy tales, we are told: "In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES."

It seems that real witches are bald, have gnarled hands, and no toes. So if you see a woman wearing gloves and a wig, look out. We are also told, flat out, "I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch." Many have accused Dahl of being misogynistic, but this disclaimer is right there.

Anyway, the boy and his grandmother move to England, and take a holiday on the seaside. At the same hotel is a convention of an anti-cruelty to children convention. The boy is hiding inside their meeting when he realizes he's surrounded by witches (they take off their gloves and wigs, you see). The head witch, who is short and with an Eastern European accent, has a plan to eliminate all the children of England--she will turn them into mice.

Our hero gets caught and does turn into a mouse, although he keeps his human brain and voice. He manages to get to his grandmother and they hatch a plot against the witches, which is described with breathless excitement.

Dahl's stories are usually unsentimental (he went through many personal tragedies) and darkly comic, and The Witches fits that bill, although the relationship between the boy and his grandmother, especially their pact together at the end, is a bit fuzzy but wonderful. The depiction of witches, which might seem not politically correct today, if firmly set in the fairy tale tradition (the Brothers Grimm were really sadistic). Very young children might well be scared silly, but for kids of about eight or above (all the way up to my 55) will enjoy the book immensely.

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