Monday, 10 September 2012

Books: Children's books revisited as an adult: Roald Dahl - The Witches

A story about the kidnapping and murder of countless children is the subject of my review for 1983 in the 30 books for 30 years challenge. But don’t worry; it’s not one of those trauma memoirs: it’s a kid’s book!

The Witches by Roald Dahl was easily the most memorable book from my childhood, and probably my favourite. I remember when I was ten, I had to go for an interview for a school in Telford, and I was asked to take my favourite thing to talk about: I took my battered copy of The Witches.

Before rereading The Witches, I was filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation: I hadn’t read the book for almost twenty years, and I was worried that my cynical scoffery as a jaded 30 year old would stamp on and throw into a skip those rose-tinted glasses that served my fond memories of this book so well. Luckily for me, Roald Dahl is a great writer, and I was quickly reassured that I had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Witches hate children. They hate children so much, that they try to kill at least one child a week (“One child a week, is fifty-two a year. Squish them and squiggle them, and make them disappear!”). Why do witches hate children so much? Because, to witches, children smell of dog’s droppings. And when they are not engaged in the kidnapping and murder of children, witches spend the rest of their time obsessing about the best ways to do away with them: a crippling and debilitating addiction, you must admit. It must be a hard life being a witch, but I just can’t bring myself to empathise with the child murder bit.

The subject of child murder probably isn’t what most children’s authors think of when they start to write a book. But Roald Dahl makes the killing of children seem like something quite amusing. Perhaps it is because witches fear capture more than anything else that they have utilised all manner of creative ways of splatting and squishing children. One such death was administered by a witch turning a young boy into a slug, with the child’s own father flushing the slug away with boiling water. Another saw a child magically transformed into a mackerel and served up to the child’s unsuspecting mother, so that the mother would commit an unwitting act of cannibalism. When you start to think about it, this all very sinister stuff.

What I particularly like about The Witches is the warmth of the relationship between the boy(our unnamed narrator and protagonist) and his grandmother (a cigar-smoking, ex-witch hunter). After the boy’s parents were killed after driving into a ravine, he moves in with his grandmother in Norway. In order to distract the boy from the grief of losing his mother and father in such tragic circumstances, his grandmother starts to regale him with stories of witches – only they aren’t stories, they’re real. That’s right, in order to comfort a grieving child and make him feel safe, she frightens him half to death – as if the poor lad wasn’t traumatised enough. Witches, as his grandmother notes, look like normal women, but they can be spotted if you know what to look for: they wear gloves to hide their clawed hands; they wear wigs to cover their bald heads; their eyes change colour; and their spit is blue.

The drama of the story really begins to build at around halfway through the story, when the boy and his grandmother are staying in the Hotel Magnificent in Bournemouth. During their stay, the boy becomes trapped in a ballroom filled with all of England’s witches and the Grand High Witch, at what is seemingly the witches’ AGM. Reading the tension of this scene back almost twenty years later, I can’t believe that this scene didn’t scare me half to death. The boy was hidden behind a screen and saw the Grand High Witch murder a witch who had interrupted her with sparks from her hands, and listened as she outlined her diabolical plan to turn the children of England into mice. At the end of the meeting , one of the witches smells dog’s droppings. The boy’s cover is blown, and he is transformed into a mouse.

I love the ending of The Witches; I’m not going to detail it here, that’s for you to find out. I recall that when I was about nine, a film version of The Witches was released. I remember that I really enjoyed it, except for the ending. They’d Hollywoodified the ending, and I hated it. For some tenuous and half-explained reason, the High Witch of England (the team leader of Witches GB) had a pang of guilt and decided to change everything back to how it was before the witches had turned the boy into a mouse. A major lesson in the book is that people can live and find happiness in even the most terrible of situations. The ending of the book is bittersweet, but the film took that away.

Revisiting The Witches was a lot of fun, although something strange happened: it occurred to me that my internal dialogue whilst reading this was not my own, but my mother’s voice. I found myself doing the Grand High Witch’s voice in my head in same haunted-house door creak of my mother’s rendition – a bit disconcerting, I think you’ll agree. It was weird how familiar each paragraph was, and how familiar each of Quentin Blake’s illustrations were. Quentin Blake’s illustrations ooze charm. They capture the childish simplicity and slightly sinister edge of Dahl’s work perfectly. The partnership between Dahl’s and Blake’s creative imaginations is absolutely perfect. I’d even go as far to say that not enough credit is given to Blake’s illustrations in creating the complete experience. Yes, the stories are excellent, but it is the illustrations that add that final magical ingredient to make them great.

Fans of Roald Dahl will already know that he has an incredibly dark sense of humour. Dahl utilises this dark comedy to espouse his very firm moral code that says that if you are a little shit, you will get your comeuppance. Look at the group of golden ticket winners in Charlie and the Chocolate factory. Apart from Charlie they are all abhorrent: spoilt, greedy, lazy, obnoxious – and Dahl takes great delight in punishing them in ironic ways. For me, this is great moral lesson that all children should be forced to learn. Compare this with the moral code in a book like Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt - a book which teaches children that if something’s remotely scary, then it’s not worth the risk. The Witches teaches children not to let fear win, to always look for the positive angle in a bad situation, and that sometimes we have to fight for something bigger than ourselves.

I went to see my eighteen month old nephew recently and I think CBeebies, or some other channel was on in the background. There was a rather charmless computer-animated cartoon on. If the colours and the voices weren’t offensive enough, it was its horrible moralising that got me. The episode was about working well as part of team (I’m sure that Marxists would have a field day with this). There was a line in the show that had one of the implausibly cute characters come out with:“Yay! Way to cooperate!” – the job of children’s programme is to entertain children, not to anger me. With my own child in the pipeline (well, my wife’s pipeline, to be specific), I have been thinking about the best way to teach him about morality, and if it is a choice between a book about a group hell-bent on genocide, or a cartoon that pushes the ethical guidelines of a call centre, I’ll go with the genocide, thank you very much.



This article was published on Sabotage Times with the title 'Children's Books Revisited as an Adult: Roald Dahl's The Witches.

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