Thursday, August 1, 2013
The Witches by Roald Dahl
When I searched for quotes from The Witches, the above was by far the most popular. I find this pretty amusing considering that most children who read Dahl’s creepy tale will probably remember the first half, where children are drowned, poisoned transformed and sometimes just vanished by a world-wide cabal of mostly unidentifiable witches. It’s certainly the part of the book that stuck with me the most. Dahl has a knack for crafting disturbing grotesqueries without being explicit, and he’s at his best in the first half of The Witches.
The story is simple: a young boy, never named, is told stories about witches by his grandmother. In Dahl’s mythology, witches have only one objective: destroy all children, by any means possible. Unfortunately for our nameless hero, the boy and his grandmother end up at a hotel that just happens to be hosting the annual gathering of all the witches in England. The boy ends up captured by the witches and used as a test case for the witches’ newest plan: turning all the children in the world into mice.
The story does two things at this point. First, up until the boy’s transformation, The Witches is mostly a creepy slow-burn; afterward, it becomes more of a traditional adventure story as the boy attempts, in mouse-form, to turn the witches’ mouse-making potion on them. Dahl is just fine at writing action, but it’s not his primary strength, and the last third of the book suffers as a result.
The second, and most notable, thing about the last section, however, is the way it inverts expectations about the boy’s eventual fate. Normally, in a story like this, the boy would be turned back into, well, a boy. Not so here. Instead, he is told by his grandmother that, as a human-mouse, he will likely live only nine more years. To which he responds, “Good! That’s great! That’s the best news I ever had!” Because he doesn’t want to live longer than his grandma, you see.
I guess the ending is triumphant--the implication is that mouse and grandma will soon eliminate every witch in the world--but it’s hard to feel super happy about the kid spending the rest of his abbreviated life as a rodent. Whatever.