Last Updated on January 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218
The narrator of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, whose name is never given, is a seven-year-old boy living in England with his parents at the beginning of his story. After his parents die in a car accident while visiting his grandmother for Christmas in Norway, however, things change forever. The boy comes to live with his beloved grandmother, Grandmamma, and draws great comfort from her kindness and her stories, not all of which are invented. The boy's adventures after he starts living with Grandmamma reveal his courageous, resilient, and kind nature.
When Grandmamma tells him that witches are real, the boy does not believe her at first. This shows that although he is very young, the boy has a questioning mind. Once Grandmamma is proven right, the boy is filled with fear about witches, but he does not let the fear paralyze him. His bravest moment comes during an encounter with the Grand High Witch of the World, who transforms him into a mouse. Although being squeezed into a mouse’s body would be a shocking experience for anyone, the boy handles it with fortitude and humor. Further, he displays his adaptability by using his newfound skills as a mouse to make his escape before the witches can put him in a mouse-trap.
The boy also rescues another transformed child, Bruno Jenkins, and helps return him to his parents. Having gone through such a terrible experience, the boy could have easily chosen to stay miles away from the witches, but instead, he concocts a brilliant plan to steal the witches’ potion and turn the witches themselves into mice. He executes his plan successfully with a mix of skill and resourcefulness. Because he readily accepts his reality as a mouse and even considers it a blessing in disguise, he displays excellent survival instincts. As he and Grandmamma make plans to take on other witches and rescue the children of the world, the boy shows true selflessness.
Grandmamma, who is in her eighties, is the narrator’s maternal grandmother. Not only is she a kind, loving grandparent, she is also a unique personality. Majestic-looking, Grandmamma smokes black cigars, a habit the boy has not observed in any other grandmother.
Grandmamma is always truthful to the boy, mincing no words in telling him about the danger of witches. Since adults often sugarcoat the truth for children, Grandmamma’s treatment of the boy as an equal makes him love her all the more. In fact, Grandmamma could be a stand-in for Roald Dahl himself, who wrote children’s stories that don’t hold back from difficult themes like death. Like Dahl, Grandmamma loves telling stories and does not care for social rules. For example, she does not care if the boy doesn’t bathe often, instead asserting that a bath “once a month” is enough for any child. Grandmamma’s extensive knowledge about witches comes from the fact that she is a “witchophile,” a person who studies witches.
Further, Grandmamma reveals her sacrificing nature when she moves to England with the boy, despite her love of Norway, since it was his parents’ wish that he attend English school. When the boy is transformed into a mouse, Grandmamma turns almost “motionless” with grief, but she recovers and accepts his mouse form unconditionally.
The First Witch
As the boy reveals in the foreword to the novel, he has had two encounters with witches before the age of eight. The first witch he encounters is under his treehouse, after he has moved back to England with Grandmamma. A “strange woman” wearing a black hat and gloves, the first witch tries to tempt the boy to come down with the promise of an “exciting present,” but he manages to escape her.
Mr. Stringer is the manager of the Hotel Magnificent, where the boy and Grandmamma are spending a summer. A “bristly,” strict, and narrow-minded man, Mr. Stringer disapproves of the boy keeping pet mice in his room. Ironically, though he is vigilant about the mice, he ignores the actual dangerous activity going on at his hotel—the annual meeting of England’s witches.
The chambermaid is a hotel worker who discovers the presence of the boy’s pet mice, William and Mary, in his room and reports it to the manager.
The Grand High Witch of the World
The Grand High Witch of the World is the leader of the world’s witches. She has come to Hotel Magnificent to preside over the annual meeting of English witches, under the cover of a convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSPCC). At first, the Grand High Witch looks deceptively tiny and pretty; however, as the boy discovers from his hiding place in the meeting room, her face is a mask. Underneath it, the Grand High Witch is “foul and putrid and decayed.”
The Grand High Witch is presented as a purely evil character, without any shades of gray, with her life’s sole mission being to eliminate children from the world. She even burns to death a witch who dares to disagree with her at the meeting. Yet, despite her vileness, the Grand High Witch is a colorful character whose actions energize the narrative. It is the Grand High Witch who comes up with the recipe for “Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker,” a potion designed to transform a child into a mouse at nine a.m. of the day after it is consumed. But despite being such a creative, evil master-mind, the Grand High Witch has crucial flaws that prove to be her undoing. Underestimating the boy, she lets him go after his transformation and takes no great pains to hide her formula. Thus, the boy easily discovers the potion in her room and manages to sneak it out and mix it in the soup the witches are eating for dinner. The Grand High Witch appears to be so drunk on her own power that she feels nothing can harm her, which proves a fatal mistake.
A child staying at the same hotel as the boy and Grandmamma, Bruno is greedy, entitled, and easily tempted. Often depicted gorging himself, Bruno falls for the Grand High Witch’s promise of candy and ends up in her trap. Even transformed into a mouse, Bruno does not stop eating, consuming several bananas in Grandmamma’s room.
Bruno’s father is a wealthy, rude man with a limited imagination. When Grandmamma first brings mouse-Bruno to him, he refuses to believe what Grandmamma tells him, calling her a "nasty, cheeky woman." It is only much later that he finally accepts Grandmamma’s story.
Ironically deathly afraid of mice, Bruno’s mother is passive and often engaged in stereotypically feminine activities, such as knitting. She initially refuses to take seriously the truth of Bruno’s transformation.
Ranghild is a Norwegian child from Grandmamma’s stories, vanished from her garden by witches.
Witches forever confine Solveg to an oil painting in her home.
Another little girl whom Grandmamma has known to be transformed by witches, Birgit is turned into a hen.
Harald, “the fourth child” attacked by witches in Grandmamma’s stories, is turned into a granite statue.
Witches turn Lief into a porpoise. Lief’s transformation foreshadows that of the narrator.
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