Roald Dahl and witches

Posted by
Rachel White, Collections Manager & Archivist at the Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
3:00pm, 24th October
James, Matilda, Museum, The Witches
Roald Dahl and witches

This Halloween, we’re looking at the Witches, surely some of Roald Dahl’s scariest villains, and most terrifying of all: the Grand High Witch!

However, there are intriguing links between this most disgusterous and frightsome character and some of Roald’s other characters.  Here we delve into the archive to look for clues in Roald’s original manuscripts. How many of these links to his other books have you spotted?

Witchy Powers

The Grand High Witch has terrifying powers, using magic to turn children into mice. But she’s not the only one. The cantankerous Grandmother of George also claims to have magical powers:

Some of us”, the old woman went on, “have fire in our tongues, and sparks in our bellies and wizardry in the tips of our fingers…

George starts to wonder if she is a witch, and this leads him to create his Marvellous Medicine – keep reading for more details of this amazing potion!

Another witch can be found in the earliest draft of James and the Giant Peach. Here, James’ meeting with the Old Man who gives him the magical green crystals turns nasty:  the old man demands a payment of James’ own legs in exchange for the crystals!

James later describes the old man as a ‘witch’ to his disbelieving aunts – but in later drafts Roald changed the character of the Old Man to be benevolent and kind – although still very mysterious.

Extract from a manuscript page of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach with highlighted sections

Above: an early draft of James and the Giant Peach.

Electric Eyes

The Grand High Witch has some impressive eye powers, and the ability to frizzle up anyone (witch or child) that gets in her way. However, she shares her powers with two brave and feisty heroes: Matilda and the Girl from the Magic Finger.

In the Magic Finger, the Girl’s powers shoot out of her finger when she gets angry at an injustice. However, there’s also this intriguing line that hints at the power starting from her eyes:

…it always happens when I get cross, when I see red…
Then I get very, very hot all over…

However, the Girl’s power is left unexplained, all the better to keep us wondering where her powers come from.

Matilda, meanwhile, uses her eyes as the focus of her astounding mental powers – as well as being a genius mathematician and a brilliant reader, she can also move things with the power of her mind. Like the Girl, this power first awakens when she gets angry, and sees red. Her eyes are described as feeling as if millions of tiny arms with hands were coming out of her eyes, as this page from an early draft of the book shows:

Extract from a manuscript page of Roald Dahl's Matilda with highlighted sections

Above: an early draft of Matilda.

Potions and powders

In The Witches, the Grand High Witch is famed for her magical potions with their alarming properties of transformation – and in Roald’s early ideas for the book, the potions’ effects are even more startling, turning children’s teddy bears into real grizzly bears, or the children themselves in ping-pong balls.

Roald was clearly intrigued by the concept of mixing things up to create amazing effects, and he used this device in other books.  In Danny the Champion of the World , the BFG originally appeared as a character in a bed-time story, who lived in the hill behind Danny’s caravan and created powders out of children’s wishes and dreams. These powders would be used to give children amazing abilities, such as being able to run like the wind.

However, surely the greatest potion of all comes from George, whose reaction to his grouchy Granny was to concoct a Marvellous Medicine to ‘cure’ her, with amazing results. George even chants a kind of spell as he is stirring the mixture, surely a tried and tested method for mixing a magical concoction:

Fiery broth and witch’s brew,
Foamy froth and riches blue
Fume and spume and spoondrift spray
Fizzle swizzle shout hooray…

If you’re brave enough to come to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre this Halloween, follow our free Bits of Witch trail to find out more about the Grand High Witch and discover some of Roald Dahl’s other terrifying characters.

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