Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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5. Searching for Morbidity

5.1 The Witches

The story of The Witches was published in 1983 by Jonathan Cape in the UK and in the same year edited and published by Stephen Roxburgh in the USA. According to Stephen Roxburgh “the beginning chapters of the manuscript for The Witches were based on materials drawn from Roald’s childhood experiences at public school” (494) but in the end Dahl decided to put them away and later on they became the basis of the autobiographical account entitled Boy. Roxburgh added that “at any rate, The Witches was very successful, eventually made into a popular movie starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch” (495). The film was directed in 1989 by Nicholas Roeg.



The principal character of The Witches is a seven-year-old anonymous orphaned boy who is brought up by his Grandmamma after the fatal car accident of his parents. Grandmamma is the character imagined on the basis of the most important person in Dahl’s life – his mother. As Dahl stated “it was a tribute to her” (“Roald Dahl”). Obviously, there is a reflection of characteristic traits of Dahl’s mother in the character of Grandmamma. To start on a basic level, both of these women were Norwegians and as the orphaned boy tells us he and his Grandmamma “spoke together either English or Norwegian” (Dahl 6) as Dahl did with his own mother. Dahl’s mother was very proud of her Norwegian origin so she kept alive Norwegian language, stories and customs at their house in Wales. Moreover, in the book there are mentioned annual trips to Norway which were also undertaken by Dahl’s family. The boy puts it that “twice a year…we went back to Norway to visit my grandmother” (Dahl 6). Dahl’s consciousness of his Norwegian heritage is presented very precisely in the story. It is predominantly obvious in the second chapter named “My Grandmother”, where the whole story about witches began. Traditionally, Norway is known as the country of myths and legends all of which Dahl is aware thanks to his mother. It allows him to integrate in The Witches the thought that according to Grandmamma witches “were gospel true. They were history” (Dahl 8). Moreover, boy’s Grandmamma is described as “a wonderful story-teller” (Dahl 8) as well as Dahl’s mother herself was.
The opening of the story is based on “A Note about Witches” where Roald Dahl provides us with the basic information about witches which are classified as “demons in human shape” (Dahl 24). There are a few facts which may seem to be puzzling for the reader. First of all, Dahl states that “this is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches” who “dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs” (1). In that point the attention of the reader is focused on searching for the person in his mind who could be a bit suspect according to the given information. Furthermore, Dahl explains that “a real witch spends all her time plotting to get rid of the children in her particular territory” (1). According to the critic David Rees these facts make The Witches “gratuitously frightening” (147). In connection with the frightful character of the story Rees adds that “if you wanted to give children nightmares and thoroughly confused them about adult behaviour – the behaviour of women particularly – then The Witches could well do a first-class job” (147). Furthermore, Rees thinks that the fear in Dahl’s The Witches is “the very untherapeutic kind of fear” (148). He goes on claiming that kind of fear “is likely to result from much of The Witches because what it says is irresponsible, is there for no good reason” (Rees 148). Dahl’s irresponsibility in The Witches supplements the story with the horrid sense of impossibility to escape from the cruel women-witches. On the other hand, the responsibility which Roald Dahl lacks is transferred to the child reader who has to cope with the information of a real existence of the witches and their behaviour in the society. Paul Zindel generalises the responsibility of each of the authors which is usually addressed to the child reader when claiming that “there is a big responsibility that [the author passes] on to the children a sense of faith that it’s an adventure and that it’s something to be chosen over oblivion” (qtd. in Hunt 559).

The irresponsible choice of pieces of information in Dahl’s story of The Witches is obvious in a frightening or rather morbid aspect of the liquidation of children all over the world which is not supported by any rational explanation in the book. The witches would just like to get rid of all children without any further motivation. The only one is that children smell like “dogs’ droppings” (Dahl 22). Moreover, there is a depiction of real horrifying hatred of witches against children when it is written that “a real witch hates children with a red-hot sizzling hatred that is more sizzling and red-hot than any hatred you could possibly imagine” (Dahl 1). Besides all these facts there is Dahl’s suggestion which is a kind of really sadistic and morbid punishments. He suggested a mean for wiping out all witches by putting “them in the meat-grinder” (Dahl 5). However, they are wiped out in relatively more acceptable way when they are all changed in mice.

One of the obvious morbid features of the story is evoked in the chapter named “The Grand High Witch”. Grandmamma explains what sorts of creatures children are turned into by witches there. She claims that “a slug is one of their favourites” and she adds that “then the grown-ups step on the slug and squish it without knowing it’s a child” (Dahl 30). Even worse is when witches “turned children into pheasants and then sneaked the pheasants up into the woods the very day before the pheasant-shooting season opened. And then they get plucked and roasted and eaten for supper” (Dahl 31). These transformations evoke Dahl’s penchant in drastic changes to warn children and their parents as well to avoid naughty behaviour. However, in the story of The Witches it is obviously vice versa. Children are turned into nasty creatures which are usually killed by adults. This turn-over allows Dahl to take his revenge on “hideous and diabolical” (Hatch 1: 438) witches which torture little children. The revenge is typical for Dahl’s writings for children where adults are often punished for harm and a maltreatment of little children. Generally, castigation of tyrannical adults is considered to be delightful element in the stories. As it is quoted in Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature: “One way that Dahl delights his readers is by exacting often vicious revenge on cruel adults who harm children” (Hatch 1: 438). The punishment acts as a rescue for harm or maltreated children who are often threatened by adult characters in Dahl’s stories. It is depicted in the story of The Witches in which the only one adult figure, Grandmamma, plays the role of a rescuer. This characteristic trait of the character of Grandmamma again prompts the reader to connect her personality with the real personality of Dahl’s mother who was “always on your side whatever you’d done” and it gave young Roald “the most tremendous feeling of security” (“Roald Dahl”).

There is another piece of evidence of the morbid thinking of Roald Dahl represented in the same chapter as the previous morbid feature of Roald Dahl’s writings. In the chapter the little boy is trying to imagine what happened to his Grandmamma when she was a young girl and had to deal with one of the witches. The main subject of the boy’s thinking is the missing thumb on one of Grandmamma’s hands which is the result of her encounter with a particular witch. She does not want to talk about the incident, so the young grandson is trying to guess what could have happened. He imagines that “the thumb had been twisted off. Or perhaps she forced to jam her thumb down the spout of a boiling kettle until it was steamed away. Or did someone pull it out of her hand like a tooth?” (Dahl 30).

One of the most morbidly disgusting pictures described in the story is an introduction of the Grand High Witch standing on the platform and getting down her pretty mask from her face. The small boy who “was magnetized by the sheer horror” (Dahl 60) provides the reader with very detailed description of the Grand High Witch’s face when saying:

It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken and shrivelled, it looked as though

it had been pickled in vinegar. There was something terribly wrong with it,

something foul and putrid and decayed. It seem quite literally to be rotting away

at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could

see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working

away in there. (Dahl 60)

Dahl shows the reader his decadent and morbid thinking in the description of the witch’s face with “the look of serpents in those eyes of hers” (Dahl 60) which may seem to be extremely disgusting especially to a child reader. This decadent description goes on when the Grand High Witch allows the other witches to remove their gloves, shoes and wigs. After the wig removing the principal character and the narrator of the story hidden behind the screen is extremely disgusted and he offers the reader his uncomfortable feelings when claiming that “I simply cannot tell you how awful they were…It was monstrous…unnatural” (Dahl 64). These unnatural creatures continue in listening to the Grand High Witch who is not only disgusting but also cruel. The evidence of her cruelty is depicted in the same chapter when she kills one of the witches who dared to argue with her by “a stream of sparks that looked like tiny white-hot metal-filings” (Dahl 69). After the act of striking, burrowing and howling screaming “a smell of burning meat filled the room” (Dahl 69). Moreover the disgusting Grand High Witch is an inventor of the special “Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker” which will turn children into mice in schools where the mouse traps will be widely used. These mouse traps “is going snippety-snap and mouse-heads is rrrolling across the floors like marbles!” (Dahl 78).

Roald Dahl supported the morbid behaviour of the witches by the macabre verses “Boil their [children’s] bones and fry their skin…sqvish them, bash them, mash them! Brrreak them, shake them, slash them, smash them!” (Dahl 79) and by exclamations of the witches like “we’ll swipe him! We’ll swizzle him! We’ll have his tripes for breakfast!” or “cut off his head and chop off his tail and fry him in hot butter” (Dahl 84) to celebrate the idea of the Grand High Witch to turn the small boy into a mackerel. These exclamations are slightly morbid in nature when bearing in mind that the witches are still talking about children.

Furthermore, Roald Dahl leaves his principal character to cope with the difficult situation all alone. He does not provide him with any possibility either to escape from the Ballroom or to let Grandmamma know about the event of the witch meeting when it is in progress. The boy himself expresses his inextricable situation in the internal monologue starting with praying “Oh, Lord have mercy on me! These foul bald-headed females are child-killers every one of them, and here I am imprisoned in the same room and I can’t escape!” (Dahl 64). Dahl keeps the boy in the secret place until the end of the meeting and he let him hear many secrets of the witches. That is the reason why they take revenge and turn the boy into a mouse for the rest of his life. So at the end of the story when it is obvious that the boy-mouse will not be changed into an ordinary boy there is an unpleasant anticipation that something goes wrong. According to David Rees there is “the nasty feeling that the evil has triumphed” because “the main character of the book does get turned into something else – a mouse – and has to remain a mouse for the rest of his life, which robs the story of its expected resolution. (The suggestion that he likes being a mouse does not convince.)” (Rees 148). Hence, the situation of the small boy could be considered a conscious torture of the child who cannot escape which is a typical feature of Dahl’s writings. It is significant mainly in the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). The only thing the boy is allowed to do is to observe the frightening situation. Furthermore, there is still a kind of horror accentuated by the thoughts of the small narrator who is used as a mediator to allow Dahl to interpret his feelings. The examples of those horror are some parts of the boy’s monologues such as: “I was magnetized by the sheer horror of this woman’s features” (Dahl 60), “…I was living in constant terror that one of the witches in the back row was going to get a whiff of my presence…” (Dahl 82), “the hair on my head were standing up…and a cold sweat was breaking out all over me” (Dahl 105), “the sheer terror of it all put wings on my feet!” (Dahl 106) and “from sheer and absolute terror, I began to scream” (Dahl 107).

To sum up, the story of The Witches is considered to be one of the most morbid and frightful children’s stories which were put down to the list of banned literature for children. According to David Rees the book is not only frightening but also “sexist” (147). This attitude is supported by Catherin Itzin who compares the story of The Witches with “Kramer and Sprenger’s misogynistic text Maleus Maleficarum” (qtd. in Bird 119). Moreover, she claims that “The Witches is a dangerous publication … [it] re-enforces culturally conditioned misogyny” (qtd. in Bird). Finally, Mark I. West puts it: “A number of British feminists […] launched a campaign to ban Roald Dahl’s The Witches from school libraries because Dahl’s female witches are portrayed so negatively” (West 688).

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