Last Updated on January 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
The Relationship Between the Natural and the Supernatural
The Witches is a fantasy novel with strong roots in classic fairy tales. The reader is asked to believe in the reality of the supernatural world. Although supernatural beings and actions violate some of the laws of nature, they maintain an internal consistency. For this reason, ordinary humans can make sense of the supernatural characters’ actions and predict their future behavior. Similarly, while the supernatural creatures may have magical powers, they are likely to utilize natural forces to achieve their goals. Despite the obvious risks to the human characters, the combination of their analytical powers and their virtue will enable them to triumph over supernatural characters.
The unnamed narrator is a mortal boy without magical powers. He thwarts the witches by using logic and reason: he observes their methods, draws logical conclusions, and devises a method to use their tactics against them. The witches’ attempt to turn the tools of the modern world against humans ultimately leads to their downfall.
Roald Dahl also makes the witches’ reliance on worldly technologies into the basis of the novel’s humor. The reader wonders why the witches go to such lengths to create and apply the toxic potion to the human children. Why do the witches not just use magic to achieve their ends? Would a spell not be just as effective as this liquid formula?
Another humorous dimension of this reliance is the modern bureaucratization of dark magic. Rather than a coven held in a dark forest, Dahl has the witches get together at a conference in a hotel, in a group that parodies a charitable association. Beyond the humorous implications, however, this normalization of the otherworldly suggests the sinister dimensions of the natural world. Rather than only hidden away in the dark, he implies, evil can lurk within everyday, benevolent-seeming activities.
The Importance of Family
The narrator and his grandmother are extremely close. The boy both depends on his grandmother as the only adult figure in his life and supports her as she grows ill and ages. She initially saves him when the witch traps him in the tree. Her knowledge of the witches motivates his heroic actions and helps him formulate a plan to defeat them. He also draws inspiration from the model of goodness she presents. In the end, although he is no longer human, they grow closer than ever. He can bear his transformed state, with its shortened life expectancy, because he and his grandmother will live out their final years together.
Courage, Sacrifice, and Moral Imperatives
The grandmother inspires the grandson to act against evil, but he must make his own choices. Even though he is only a boy, he acts heroically for the benefit of all children, and by extension of humankind. Standing alone against the combined force of the witches requires bravery as well as ingenuity. The boy embarks on his quest of salvation aware that it entails risks, and his courage does have consequences. While he remains alive, he sacrifices his identity as a human when he is turned into a mouse. He further sacrifices part of this new physical manifestation, when the cook chops off the tip of his tail. He willingly assumes the burden of sacrifice, however, because he is driven by the need to do good. Even the small and weak have a moral imperative to fight large, powerful forces of evil.
Childhood and the Power of Innocence
The heinousness of the witches’ plan lies, in part, in their intention to target children. Rather than attack a more equal adversary, instead the witches are preying on the sector of society that seems most defenseless. Dahl deliberately makes the hero a child as well. The children are saved by one of their own.
The boy narrator plays the central role in fighting and eliminating the witches. The youth of another boy, Bruno, is also highlighted. He is susceptible to the witches’ wiles because of his childish desires: the witches catch him by tempting him with sweets. The boys retain an essential inner strength, however, that depends on their continued innocence and purity. Throughout the novel, the grandmother exerts a positive influence and occasionally comes to her grandson’s rescue. Nevertheless, as in many fairy tales, the adults play peripheral roles and even sometimes contribute to endangering the children. No great knight comes to their rescue. The narrator’s child status is further exaggerated when he is reduced in size by becoming a mouse. Although the boy gains knowledge, he remains a child at heart and has not been corrupted.
The boy’s continued child status may also be examined in a less positive way. He not only remains a boy, but is also prevented from becoming a man by the efforts of women. While these are primarily the nonhuman witches, the cook also plays a part by cutting off his tail.