Helping to further the succession of our Children’s Gothic portfolio, Janet Cooper has shown a keen interest in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, where she details fine points from a feminist perspective. Janet is currently studying an MA in English Studies.
The figure of the Witch is an excellent example of a Gothic monster. Usually the character of a witch represents a dominant female figure. I recently watched Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I had read the book and watched the film as a child and loved it. This was the first time I took an interest in the world of Gothic. The Witches was something I could engage with and the film really brought it to life.
From an adult perspective, it was a very different experience altogether. The character of the Grand High Witch seems to represent the trickster, yet also the shadow, when compared to Carl Jung’s archetypal characters discussed in his works: The Archetypes and Collective Unconscious (1968). She is the ultimate trickster and appears to be a regular person, when she is hiding her true identity. There is irony in her claim to work for the RSPCC (the Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children) when in fact she plans to dispose of them by turning them into mice.
After taking a particular interest in the folk and fairy-tale genre, I noticed apparent messages and warnings in both the text and film. The message here lets children know that people are not always what they seem and that it’s quite possible for evil to appear in the most unlikely person, someone who can at times appear as an upstanding and respected member of society. This is a stranger-danger message similar to Red Riding Hood and tells children to be on guard.
Luke is left in his Grandma’s care after his parents die. Grandma warns him of Witches and he becomes able to spot them. Another similarity is that the Grand High Witch preys on the Grandmother just like the wolf in Red Riding Hood. The Grand High Witch interferes with her health by using magic to send her into a deep sleep, and putting sugar in her drinks when she is diabetic. Little Red Cap by the Brothers’ Grimm has both a happy ending in which Red and Grandma are safe, and a sad ending in which they are eaten. I get a similar idea with The Witches when comparing the book with the film as the book portrays a harsh warning as Luke is a mouse for life and will only live for around 9 years, whereas in the film he is turned back into a boy by a good witch who doesn’t even appear in the book at all. Original European folklore often had sad endings because they were used to warn children of the dangers in the world: for instance the Wolf eating Grandma and Little Red Cap could signify the danger of an actual stranger if you stray from the path, or it could even represent the danger of wild animals too in certain parts of the world.
I found myself comparing the Grand High Witch to other monsters. I could compare her to the wolf because of her transformation, the wicked step mother because of her scheming and scolding of others with her evil plans of annihilating the children of England. Fortunately her scatty English witches idolise her, but they are useless and just her minions or followers, who are used to do her bidding. All of the witches are women which brings us nicely into the feminism argument.
The English witches come across as having very little intelligence, and their success rates of getting rid of children is not acceptable to their leader. The Grand High Witch is Norwegian and travels in to instruct her English followers. This could suggest that feminism was moving more rapidly in other countries and England had to play catch up. No English witch could ever hope to be as powerful and successful as the Grand High Witch, and I think there is a clear message here that feminism progression was still a key UK issue in the 1980’s as women attempted to move into powerful position, that were often taken up by men and deemed unsuitable for women. Of course, a lot of critics find The Witches political too, and recognise the Grand High Witch to be a representation of Margaret Thatcher. The novel was written and published, and the movie was made, during her time as Prime Minister. It is quite possible that the author had a political agenda here and used the Grand High Witch to represent a country ruined by its political leader. Bird (1997: p.126) discusses this theory well and also refers to the Grand High Witch annihilating a fellow witch who doesn’t agree with her and also suggests that women in the 1980’s were still demonised if they didn’t conform with societies rules and patriarchal structures.
The Grand High Witch is a ruthless figure of ultimate female power. She manipulates those around her yet even though she has all of this power, there is a strong anti-feminist message here. The fact that an all-powerful woman meets her demise because of one little mouse/boy is almost unbelievable. This suggests that when The Witches was written in 1983, there was still a feminist struggle in society and how women struggled to secure certain positions in society and jobs. As a woman of 2015, it’s insulting to think she was outsmarted by a seven-year-old boy/mouse. Clearly women were trying to take up leadership roles during the 1980’s, but there is a clear Victorian idea suggested that power will in fact lead to their destruction. Luke’s Grandmother, an avid witch hunter has searched out the Grand High Witch for years without success. Yet it’s still the young boy Luke who concocts the plan, and does most of the work, with a little help from Grandma.
The film especially takes a Gothic turn when Anjelica Huston removes her mask and reveals her true face as the Grand High Witch. This scared me as a child, yet I loved it. The Grotesque site of her long, crooked nose, spindly fingers and her lumpy back was gross, to say the least.
The book doesn’t have a happy ending as Luke remains a mouse which reduces his living years, yet he is content with this as his Grandma is elderly and his only family. They spend their days hunting witches from other countries using information stolen from the Grand High Witch. Luke is satisfied and he just makes the best of the best of the situation. In the movie, Jane Horrocks plays a good witch who mends her ways and returns both Luke and Bruno to their human selves.
Overall, The Witches is an interesting text that highlights political and social issues from the 1980’s. It suggests a lot about feminism of its time and the certain use of a fairy-tale style genre is particularly useful to engage well with children – making it a memorable text. Using a theme that children know and understand also gives the story an edge as the children are familiar with this type of story. It’s certainly worth both reading the book and watching the movie – as long as you (or your children) aren’t too afraid!
Bird, A 1998, ‘Women Behaving Badly: Dahl’s Witches Meet the Women of the Eighties’, Children’s Literature In Education, 29, 3, pp. 119-129, Professional Development Collection, EBSCOhost, viewed 30 November 2015.
Dahl, R. (1983) The Witches, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
The Witches (Movie adaptation), (1990) Directed by Nicolas Roeg, Warner Bros.
Young, C.G. (1968) The Archetypes And The Collective Unconscious, 2nd Eds, London and New York, Routledge, Taylor and Francis.