73 pages 2 hours read

Roald Dahl

The Witches

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1983

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Witches (1983) is a children’s novel by Roald Dahl. As with his other well-known stories for young readers—Matilda (1988), James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and The BFG (1982)—the book has elements of fantasy and addresses themes like identity, family, and good versus evil. There are film adaptations of several of Dahl’s books, and there are two movie versions of The Witches—one from 1990 and another from 2020. Aside from writing stories for young readers, Dahl wrote screenplays and for adults. He wrote the script for the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Dahl served as a spy for England and was in the Royal Air Force during World War II.

In February 2023, Dahl’s books were edited to reflect changing anti-bias standards, as some of his work was dated and potentially problematic. Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who directed the movie adaptation of The BFG, spoke about criticisms that Dahl was bigoted in an interview with Manohla Dargis. Spielberg claims there’s a “paradox” between Dahl’s incendiary views and his children’s stories. Spielberg says the latter center on “embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language” (A Word With: Steven Spielberg.” The New York Times, 15 May 2016).

The study guide refers to an eBook version of the 2007 Puffin Books edition of The Witches.

Plot Summary

An unnamed boy narrates Dahl’s story, and he speaks to the reader directly. In Chapter 1, he tells the reader the difference between witches from fairytales and witches from real life. The boy’s story concerns the latter. Witches don’t have broomsticks or black hats. They look like ordinary women. They could be anybody, including an adored teacher. A witch’s knack for blending in makes her extremely dangerous. He states that only women can be witches; in the realm of evil spirits, men are inferior to women.

The narrator is from Norway but grew up in England due to his dad’s business. He is super close with his queenly, cigar-smoking grandma, Grandmamma, who still lives in Norway. One icy Christmas, while visiting Grandmamma in Norway, his parents get in a fatal car accident. Grandmamma is his sole caretaker.

To distract him from the tragedy, Grandmamma teaches him about witches. She provides five examples of kids that disappeared because of witches. The boy tells his grandma that most of these kids didn’t vanish. The grandma admits she made a mistake. Many of the kids don’t go away: They become something else, like a stone or a porpoise.

Grandmamma details how to spot a witch: They wear gloves (to hide their claws), wigs (they don’t have hair), and they have blue spit and fire in their eyes. Witches hate kids. To them, the cleaner the kid, the worse it smells: Clean kids smell like “dog poop.” The Grand High Witch is the most wicked witch of them all. She’s the tyrannical, all-powerful leader. Yearly, the witches gather at a hotel and listen to her speak.

Obeying the wishes of the boy’s departed parents, the boy and Grandmamma return to England. While working on his treehouse, the boy encounters a witch but climbs away from her to avoid harm.

The boy and his grandma want to go to Norway for the summer, but Grandmamma catches pneumonia, so they stay at a fancy English hotel, Hotel Magnificent, instead. Grandmamma gives the boy two mice, William and Mary, but the hotel manager doesn’t want mice in his establishment. Grandmamma threatens the manager, and he gives in.

The boy wants to operate a White Mouse Circus, and he trains his mice behind a screen in an empty ballroom reserved for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSPCC). Soon, elegant women fill the room. The boy stays behind the screen and realizes the women are witches. He sees their monstrous bodies and hears the Grand High Witch’s plan to eliminate all the kids in England with the Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker. The witches will buy sweetshops, have a grand opening with free treats, and put the complex potion in the sweets. The next morning during school, the kids will turn into mice, and the panicky teachers will put out mousetraps and cheese to eradicate them.

The witches praise the Grand High Witch’s scheme. They call her a sensational genius. One unnamed witch wonders if the plan goes too far. As the Grand High Witch doesn’t tolerate feedback or debate, she shoots fire from her eyes and incinerates the semi-conscientious witch. The Grand High Witch acknowledges that the older witches will have a hard time gathering the extraordinary ingredients for the formula, so she has made them formulas they can use. The older witches can stop by her hotel room later to pick them up.

To prove the potion is effective, the Grand High Witch puts some of it in a chocolate bar, and gives the bar to a food-obsessed boy, Bruno Jenkins. She promises the boy six more chocolate bars if he meets her in the ballroom. Bruno arrives, and the witches feverishly watch him transform into a mouse. The witches are about to leave when they smell the narrator behind the screen. They catch him, and the Grand High Witch pours an entire bottle down his mouth. The narrator becomes a mouse, but he doesn’t mind; mice don’t have to worry about school or money.

Bruno is too busy eating to realize he’s a mouse. The narrator has to find him and tell him. As Bruno’s parents aren’t very understanding, the two boys scamper to Grandmamma’s room. She cries but feels better once the narrator tells her he’s fine as a mouse.

The boy and his grandma realize the Grand High Witch’s room is beneath them. Both rooms have balconies. Grandmamma lowers the boy onto the Grand High Witch’s balcony, and he finds a bottle of the formula to put in the witches’ food. They will turn into mice first and won’t harm the English children.

Grandmamma tries to explain to Bruno’s dad that his son is a mouse, but he’s mean and doltish, so Bruno stays with the boy and his grandma. She brings them into the dining room for dinner, and the narrator sneaks into the kitchen. Using his tail, he jumps around and manages to dump the potion into the witches’ soup. Exhilarated, the boy forgets his precarious situation. The kitchen staff spot him, and a cook cuts his tail before he returns to his grandma, who bandages it.

Bruno’s dad angrily confronts Grandmamma again before the witches eat their soup and turn into mice. The adults maintain their composure, but the children enjoy the fantastical transformations. The boy and his grandma haven’t eradicated all the witches in the world, but they’re a team now. Together, they’ll spend their lives locating and hunting down witches across the globe.

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