Author: Roald Dahl
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (1983)
I was 9 when The Witches was turned into a movie by Nicolas Roeg and Jim Henson. It was 1990. It was Jim Henson's last film. If you've never seen this film, you should. Angelica Huston is great in it. And, talking mice!
Talking about Jim Henson makes me all misty-eyed and sad. It's like a very real and raw wound. At the age of 9, Jim Henson dying was like a family member dying. It was an odd first real moment of dealing with death.
The Witches is not particularly sad, but it is definitely dark and it for real touches on death more than once.
What I remember loving about Dahl is that he never once takes children for not understanding complicated concepts, like death. He assumes they understand. He expects them to. Reading Dahl is being taken seriously for the first time.
For those who've never read this book here is a quick run down. A boy is orphaned while on vacation in Norway and goes to live with his grandmother there. She tells him about witches. The parents' will requests the boy be raised in England because which is what he is used to. The grandmother and he move. Once there she becomes ill and her doctor recommends a vacation tot he seaside. Once there they uncover a plot to kill all the children in England by turning them into mice. The boy is transformed and must save the day while a rodent.
At the end the boy is a mouse and he and his grandmother decide to spend their remaining years alive fighting the witches of the world.
That ending is what I have always remembered about the book. The boy and his grandmother have a very frank discussion about her being old and probably near death. He asks how long mice live and a really sad talk about a few years follows. Both are upbeat though, because neither wants to go on without the other.
Sad and beautiful.
It gets me misty-eyed the same way talking about Jim Henson does. If I had to pick two people, who are not relatives, who shaped my world-view they would be Henson and Dahl. Henson taught me about kindness, education and love. Dahl said that was all well and good but there are dark things out there so be ready to kick their asses.
Re-reading The Witches reminded me of the simplicity of the work. And how good a writer Dahl really was. He manages to take a very basic story of children taking on the world and infuse them with a magical sense of realness. Close to what the world feels and looks like to a child. Scary and amazing.
And that's what we lose as we get older. The amazing is replaced with more scary. I think we all would do good for ourselves to remind us of the amazing. Everyone go pick up a Dahl book. Read it. It will take you only a few hours. Then go watch an episode of Sesame Street or The Muppet Movie. Then watch the video below. It will make your day better. I promise.
Re-Read is a sometime article where I go back and read a book from my childhood over and examine the threads that I find in my current adult life.