The Witches by Roald Dahl presents a dark take on the world of witchcraft and produces one of the most ghastly villains in children’s middle grade literature – The Grand High Witch.

‘Vee have ignition!’

We loved Roald Dahl at school and what better way to spark off our Halloween Week book reviews than with one of the Top 100 Children’s Books of All Time. The Witches by Roald Dahl, with haunting illustrations of The Grand High Witch by Quentin Blake, is a terrifying classic for young readers.

‘Grandmamma,’ I said, ‘when you were a little girl, did you ever meet a witch?’
‘Once,’ my grandmother said. ‘Only once.’

One of the greatest literary relationships between a child and his grandmother emerges from this classic. The friendly first-person narrative allows us to feel like we are the only reader privy to the story of an unnamed orphan raised by his Norwegian grandmother. Ciger-smoking Grandmamma with her missing thumb and wide body (filling every inch of her armchair) is a triumph. Discouraging her grandson from bathing (cue children cheering!), so the witches don’t detect his “stink-waves”, her cigar is sometimes “the only real thing about her”. Wise and smothered in grey lace, Grandmamma is portrayed as an “ancient queen on her throne”. These facts make it unsurprising that the boy loves her more than his own mother before her death.

‘This is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.’

With the grandson remaining nameless we are drawn to learn more about this retired “witchophile” with her secret past as Grandmamma teaches him everything she knows about witches. What fascinating details we learn, too, and just in time! When the boy comes into contact with a room full of witches, he needs to be prepared if he is to survive.

With the story moving at a pace, (one sentence moves us from Norway to England and a paragraph packs us off to school) this “witch-conscious little boy” and his Grandmamma become embroiled in a dark plot. Children are slowly disappearing without trace. Witches across the world, led by The Grand High Witch, plan to eradicate all children everywhere.

‘REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary hoses and they work in ordinary jobs.’

Dahl’s trademark fusing of the ordinary with the extraordinary is at its best in The Witches. Add to the mix his style of two word sentences amongst much longer rhythms, and tension and humour are injected simultaneously. His invention of onomatopoeic vocabulary places him in master storyteller league for generations of children. And of course, a quirky character is essential for Dahl to invent such playful words as “frumptious”, “bashvolloping” and “bogvumper” – enter The Grand High Witch.

‘A stupid vitch who answers back
Must burn until her bones are black!’

The Grand High Witch is certainly one of the most evil villains in a children’s book we have ever encountered. A control freak of the highest order, her pretty public face peels away to reveal maggot-addled, vinegar-pickled skin you can almost smell rotting. In addition, the sound of her shrill voice spits “like a piece of hot pork-crackling” off the page. As a former spy, it is as though Dahl is warning all of us to be careful who we trust with the placement of The Grand High Witch behind her mask, as Life is not always what it seems.

‘With each word she spoke, flecks of pale-blue phlegm shot from her mouth like little bullets.’

Published in 1983 as Dahl happily remarried, humour balances the macabre tone and graphic nature of The Witches perfectly. Despite attracting controversy from some quarters for his depiction of women, adults can enjoy the tongue-in-cheek references. And images of witches with “gums like raw-meat”, children dipping their heads in turpentine to be rid of nits, or even being turned into hot-dogs and eaten by witches, will have young readers squealing with disgust and delight. 

The Witches contains autobiographical moments: the reference to his Norwegian grandmother, an attack of pneumonia (from which Dahl’s father died), the combination of mice and sweet-shops both refer to an incident in Dahl’s youth, and Cadbury chocolate, a confection close to his heart from its inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

It is impossible to get through life without encountering a Roald Dahl creation in some form. And in our opinion, it is also impossible to get through (another) Halloween without learning the truth about The Witches.