Author Roald Dahl unwittingly started a controversy a few years ago when he said in an interview about his book The Witches:
A witch is always a woman. 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. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male … both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH.
For some reason this story about vicious witches, who masquerade as normal-looking women by day, has offended the sensitivities of people since its publication in 1983. Roald Dahl’s witches hate children and want to rid England of every single child. Feminists have criticised it as being mysogynist because all the evildoers in the story are women. Libraries in England went so far as to ban it. Hollywood’s most recent movie of the book, starring Anjelica Huston, felt it necessary to add a few men to the very obviously female-only room of witches! Children who have read the book will clearly notice this addition which seems both out of place and untrue to the spirit of the author’s intentions.
The story focuses on Luke, a young boy who discovers witches are real. So real, in fact, that he comes face to face with one, then hundreds!
The setting of Norway and England adds an extra spooky touch, and the device of Luke’s “Grandmama” narrating serves to expertly foreshadow later events and make them highly believable. The witches’ plan is to turn all the “disgusting children” of England into mice. They discover Luke under a table at their conference, listening to their plans. He is captured and turned into a mouse with a poisonous formula. The witches mercilessly try to crush Luke with their high heels when he attempts to run away.
If one were to judge the book by adult standards, the Grand High Witch pulling off her genteel woman’s face (a mask) revealing a most hideous and wart-ridden form beneath would be rather offputting. Yet, children are not worried by such details as they have been given a firm sense of security in the story. Children know that the terrible baddies will be defeated by the forces of good, that is, Luke and his grandmother. That is what matters to them. And they love a good baddie character. The story never becomes too frightening. Readers are not made to experience the evil, only to observe it through a lens. Like all great stories, there is a buildup of danger, risk and daring as the main character strives to fight back against the witches.
Unlike many modern post-Harry Potter stories, this one is a true classic that looks at evil but does not dwell within that evil. Children are not put in doubt, wondering to themselves could evil be delightful to experience – not even for one minute. Rather, they follow with determination the good characters, hoping and on the edge of their seats, that good will triumph over evil. A rollicking great story that you need not fear reading to children 7 years and over.
A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is a full-time wife and mother of two.