The Witches illustrated by Amelie Glienke

We’ve seen witches round these parts before – in a Czech edition of the Roald Dahl story illustrated by Adolf Born. And here they are again, this time drawn by German illustrator Amelie Glienke. So why are there all these different versions of this book, particularly as it’s one of Quentin Blake’s finest Dahl collaborations?

The answer comes from Dahl himself, as our young hero learns all about Witches at the knee of his pipe smoking Grandmamma.

‘Luckily, there are not a great number of REAL WITCHES in the world today. But there are still quite enough to make you nervous. In England there are probably about one hundred of them altogether. Some countries have more, others not quite so many. No country in the world is completely free from WITCHES.’

Practically every culture has some sort of folk tradition of Witches, she-devils who pose a threat to god fearing folk. What Dahl does is to largely remove the religious subtext, turning his witches into hags hell bent on destroying children everywhere. It’s probably his most outright scary children’s book. It’s certainly his most controversial.

Dahl had never pulled his punches when it came to scaring children and upsetting easily offended adults. His editor Stephen Roxburgh worried that this time he had gone too far – particularly in his depiction of women, who he thought ‘took a lot of abuse.’ Dahl’s reply was a flat ‘No. I am not as frightened of offending women as you are.’

Amelie Glienke, like Blake before her, sticks closely to Dahl’s vivid description of these unhuman women, with their upturned nostrils, itchy scalps and club feet. Her lively cross hatched illustrations are ideal for the moments of high action – like this Mission Impossible style attempt to poison the witches with their own potion.

Nor does she shy away from the horror – just look at the expression of fear on the boy’s face when he finds himself trapped up a tree with a witch stalking him from below.

Glienke is well suited to the story, having previously drawn the Little Vampire series by Angela Sommer-Bodenburg, which told the story of a friendship between a spook obsessed young boy and a vampire who appears on his windowsill one night. The books were charming comic adventures that came with a just a hint of the danger bound up in the central relationship – one that’s been exploited more recently in films like Let The Right One In and the Twilight series.

Dahl confronts the consequences of his horror story in a far more adult way than Twilight though. As Erica Jong wrote in her review in the New York Times, ‘The Witches is finally a love story… It is a curious sort of tale but an honest one, which deals with matters of crucial importance to children: smallness, the existence of evil in the world, mourning, separation, death.’

Like the BFG before it this curious love story is between a giant and a tiny, but plucky hero. Halfway through the story the boy is captured by the witches and turned into a mouse. His shrinking somehow brings him even closer to his grandmother.

‘“My darling,” she said at last, “are you sure you don’t mind being a mouse for the rest of your life?” “I don’t mind at all,” I said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like as long as somebody loves you.”’

The boy it transpires will have the lifespan of a real mouse, a cruel turn of events that binds the old woman and the boy together forever. Her failing health means that the odd couple will die at a similar time, surely one of the most ruthless, most tragically beautiful endings in children’s literature.

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