Emerging Voices

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble: a critical look at the controversy over Roald Dahl's The Witches

Elizabeth Oliver

Elizabeth Oliver is an undergraduate at Hollins University, a small women's college in Virginia, where she studies English and art history. Her other interests include primary education and creative writing. She will graduate in 2009, and plans to pursue a career in publishing.

Recognized by the American Library Association and The New York Times as one of the best children’s books of 1983, The Witches invoked immediate interest and controversy among readers and reviewers.  Published in 1983, it received in that year the Whitbread Award and the Federation of Children’s Books Group Award in the UK.  The Witches is also recognized as one of the most frequently challenged books in the US and UK, being placed as the USA's twenty-seventh most challenged book of the 1990s.  With its use of crude humor, violence, fantastical witches, and fast-paced plot, The Witches quickly captivated and still captivates a child audience.  Unfortunately, this magnitude of child-popularity attracted the attention of adults who, for the same reasons, rebuked the content of The Witches.  In this paradigm of child versus adult sentiment, Dahl’s creation engages and encourages a young generation to read, while also promoting child dissention and negative stereotypes through his anti-authority mantra and his disillusioned portrayal of female witches. 

The narrative of The Witches begins with a nameless boy of seven who lives with his parents in England and visits his grandmother in Norway during the summer.  When his parents die in a car accident, the boy is left in care of his grandmother who stays with him in England so that he may continue with his education.   While living with his grandmother, the boy receives instruction regarding witches.  Notified about how to spot a witch, the boy later discovers himself eavesdropping on a convention of witches plotting to turn all the children of England into mice.  When the boy is spotted spying on the witches, he is quickly turned into a mouse. He finds that along with his grandmother he must save the children of England.  In order to do this, a mouse and old woman must defeat a fleet of evil witches. 

In creating such a work, Dahl contradicted other authors, whom he believed used a limited vocabulary and simple plot structure, by creating a long fantasy story for children.  He purposely wrote in opposition to such “educational” authors by creating a work of imaginative elaborateness for readers between ages seven and eleven (West 74).  Dahl makes sure to give nominal terms to characters portrayed in the book, such as describing the boy’s grandmother as a witchophile (Dahl 40) and giving nonsense names to the witches’ ingredients, such as blabbersnitch (95). Dahl continues trying to aid in the development of a strong vocabulary by using synonyms frequently: “her mind will always be plotting and scheming and churning and burning and whizzing and phizzing with murderous bloodthirsty thoughts” (7).  Dahl provides different means of expressing the same idea in order to broaden the vocabulary of child readers.  He also adds made-up words in order to encourage the creativity of children in creating and expanding beyond the daily language used in everyday life.

In captivating that age of youth, Dahl magnifies elements of the perverted. He intrigues children’s keen interest and curiosity in the body and how the body works with his bathroom humor and his grotesque descriptions of adult exteriors.  When the grandmother informs her grandson of the characteristics of witches, she goes into deliberate detail about the aberrant qualities each witch shares.  She begins with the hands’ of witches: “ ‘a REAL WITCH is certain always to be wearing gloves when you meet her … even in the summer … because she doesn’t have finger nails.  Instead of finger nails, she has long curvy claws, like a cat’” (Dahl 24). The witch immediately becomes dehumanized in her personification of a cat, the animal most affixed to the stereotypical image of witches.  Continuing with the vile description of witches, the grandmother moves to the head: “‘the second thing to remember is that a REAL WITCH is always bald … It causes nasty sores on the head.  Wig-rash the witches call it’”(Dahl 25-26). The witch is categorized as having a head that looks like a boiled egg under an undetectable wig.  The child reader perceives this as most revolting and is further enchanted by the hidden grotesqueness of seemingly delightful adults.  Dahl refrains from creating a blatant distinction between evil beings and normal adults.  His witches appear as normal women who have normal jobs, but who mask their true identity and hatred for children.  Dahl presents his anti-adult sentiment by displaying evil beings as normal looking women, adult figures most prominent in children’s lives.  Adults are mocked when Dahl describes the true nature and disfiguration of such figures.

Cataloging the witch related events from a child’s perspective, the text is permeated with humor, which is often both comical and repugnant (Bergson-Shilcock 448).  The grandmother circulates such humor when she educates the boy about how utterly disgusting children are to a witch:

A witch has the most amazing sense of smell.  The smell that drives a witch mad actually comes right out of your own skin.  It comes oozing out of your skin in waves, and these waves, stink-waves the witches call them, go floating through the air and hit the witch right smack in her nostrils … to a witch you’d be smelling of fresh dogs’ droppings. (Dahl 26-28)

For a young generation, this idea of smelling like fresh dogs’ droppings to is both humorous and repulsive.  As the book progresses, the boy protagonist continually refrains from bathing in order to mask his smell.  Upon discovering himself trapped in a room with hundreds of witches the boy begins to panic, hoping he is dirty enough not to be spotted by a group of disguised witches: “How long since I had last had a bath?  Not for ages … Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’d had a bath since we arrived” (Dahl 71).   To children who rebel against baths in general, this element of the story adds to its capability to engage; it also further inflames the rebellion of children against cleanliness.  Dahl portrays a humor that can be easily related to by a child reader: humor the child probably would use on a daily basis.

Adding to the perverse humor, perpetual violence throughout the narrative also grabs and maintains the attention of young readers.  The Witches opens up with violence: “Soon after my seventh birthday, my parents took me as usual to spend Christmas with my grandmother in Norway … our car skidded off the road … my parents were killed.”(13).  The story progresses from here, leading the boy and his grandmother to the Hotel Magnificent, where they run into a convention of witches being led by the Grand High Witch, herself.  The boy’s first encounter with the witches leads to their force feeding him Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker, which quickly has him violently thrashing and convulsing as his body grows fur and shrinks (115).  In the closing of the story the boy and his grandmother resolve the witch situation by inserting the same formula into the witches’ soup.  When the witches experience their metamorphosis in the dining hall the workers proceed to violently kill all of the mice, therefore, exterminating all of the witches (186-187).  The fast paced progression of The Witches gives the morbid actions and proceedings a dehumanized quality.  The narrative refuses to allow time for readers to reflect on what they read, therefore, perpetuating the immunization of children to such issues of violence and horror. 

Such violence is made allowable to the child audience since the witches are deemed as the epitome of evil.  This method of punishment correlates to Dahl’s own philosophy that can be seen in many of his works.  As noted by Sharon E. Royer:

Another component of Dahl’s philosophy that appeals to early adolescents is the belief that good triumphs, and evil is punished or destroyed … Belief in the destruction or punishment of evil leads to an aspect of Dahl’s sociology that appeals to young people: the presence of physical violence as a means of retribution. (22)

Violent punishment for the extremely cruel is a method that resonates with children and most adults. Showcasing his philosophy that violence is the most appropriate way to punish the bad, Dahl rids England of witches by extermination.  He takes into consideration the intelligence of his child audience and portrays the reality of the world.  He considers the child reader an objective free-thinker capable of recognizing the unfairness in the world.

Controversy over these elements of the positive, negative, and grotesque has perpetuated a continuing debate over the appropriateness of The Witches.  Many issues arise from the comprised narrative about witches, the most deprecating to the publication revolving around issues of misogyny, which actually led to the banning of the fiction from several libraries in England (West 87).  Before the story begins, Dahl includes A Note About Witches which states:

A witch is always a woman.  I do not wish to speak badly about women.  Most women are lovely.  But the fact remains that all witches are women.  There is no such thing as a male witch.  On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male … both are dangerous.  But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH. (Dahl 9)

This statement does split the sexes, and provides readers with the viewpoint of evil only inhabiting the female sex. Even though males are ghouls, they are not half as evil as the female witch; however, such strong reactions against the female-only witches were due to the time of release.  The Witches was published in 1983 when second-wave feminism was robust and prosperous, fighting issues of unofficial inequalities and sexist structures.  Many adults, fearing the perpetuation of sexist order, protested The Witches.  Others feared the presentation of the witches promoted a rebellion against all adults, not only females.  This anti-adult sentiment is certainly prevalent throughout the narrative.  Dahl questions authority, which is usually never intelligent or kind, and promotes the dissention of good children from bad adults (Bergson-Shilcock 447).

This personification of evil through the characters of the witches solicited the attention and protests from another group: Wiccans.  In the 1980s the UK and US dealt with an anti-Wicca hysteria as the public, uneducated in Wiccan beliefs, construed a stereotypical practice and persona of witches (“In Defense of Wicca” 4).  This group protested such sentiment, which Dahl preserved in The Witches.  Exciting such hysteria, his A Note About Witches preface section candidly speaks to the audience about the authenticity of the information being given: “This is not a fairy-tale.  This is about REAL WITCHES” (Dahl 7).  This preface takes on the appearance of non-fiction and children reading this might not realize that the witches being described are purely fictional.  In response, Wiccans protested such sentiment, which Dahl preserved in The Witches

Dealing with lesser offenses, parents’ complaints dealt with issues of the book’s negative influence on child readers.  Beginning with the negative portrayal of adults and authority, “some believe that presenting adolescents with such a view of adults, at an age when they are experiencing conflicting emotions about adults already, could adversely affect their relationships with older people”  (Royer 23).  Many fear The Witches will encourage rebellion from their children.  The protagonist takes upon himself actions of survival; he comes up with the solution, not the adult.  Also, the book discourages yielding to adult practices, such as bathing.  Parents also fear that the violence stated, however comically, will present their children with an alternative to passive solutions.  In the preface, Dahl claims, “if only there were a way of telling for sure whether a woman was a witch or not, then we could round them all up and put them in the meat-grinder” (Dahl 11).  Dahl’s solution for getting rid of witches is macabre punishment.  Aside from promoting violence and rebellion, many parents perceive The Witches’ crude humor as inappropriate for impressionable adolescents. In Elverta, California: “objectors complained that The Witches was too realistic, would lead children to distrust their parents, and would cause a breakdown in a child’s self-esteem” (Foerstel 165).  Objections such as these were prevalent in the nineties.  Accusations such as these voiced real concern over the negative aftermath of reading Dahl for future children.  Parents feared that the realism portrayed by Dahl would frighten and enrage their innocent children.

The challenges that have faced and continue to face The Witches are, however, a product of the current time. The Witches is an example of a challenged school-read book. As time abounds, the school system is finding it markedly difficult to please all recipients of public education: “Since 1983, challenges to library books and school materials have increased by 168% and state legislatures nationwide have been under pressure to pass new, restrictive laws against booksellers” (Banned Books, Censorship and Other Dirty Words 1).  This trend is progressing rapidly and will continue challenging schools to successfully monitor resources for students and their parents.  In a US presidency campaign, previous president, Ronald Reagan protested immoral educational material.  When he was elected there was a significant rise in the challenging of material in schools; this increase coincided with the distribution of Dahl’s work.  Propagating such a reaction to The Witches were the Wicca hysteria and the second-wave feminist movement, each which found offense in the portrayal of the witches.  Perhaps times have changed and censorship will slowly dissipate, but the issues over witchcraft and the supernatural have only become heightened with the infiltration of magic in children’s literature and the increase of practicing witches.  Parents might have finally become satisfied with the inclusion of The Witches in school, but the issues over witchcraft are not over, instead they have only moved on more strongly to other works of fiction that promote the Wiccan experience. 


Works Cited

Bergson-Shilcock, Amanda. “The Subversive Quality of Respect: In Defense of The Witches.”  Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000.  Layham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.  446-451.

“Banned Books, Censorship and Other Dirty Words.” Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association. 23 April 2007. <http://www.mountainsplains.org/freeexpression.aspx>.

Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries.  London: Greenwood Press, 1994. 163-165.

“In Defense of Wicca.” 22 April 2007. <http://www.holysmoke.org/wicca/wicca_defense.html>.

Royer, Sharon E. “Roald Dahl and Sociology 101.” The Alan Review 26 (1998): 21-24.

West, Mark I.  Roald Dahl.  New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.  74-87.


Elizabeth Oliver

Volume 12, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June, 2008

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Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble: a critical look at the controversy over Roald Dahl's The Witches" © Elizabeth Oliver, 2008
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