What can we learn from Roald Dahl's The Witches?

Thirty years on from the publication of Roald Dahl's <em>The Witches</em>, Jemma Crew looks back to her childhood reading and recalls how the author reimagined the reality of adulthood for a whole generation of children.

 

Who didn’t, upon reading The Witches, momentarily fix the nearest adult female with a beady eye, making a mental note to check for cavernous nostrils and blue spittle? Such was Roald Dahl’s ability to tap into the imagination of young people. But it is precisely because of his vivid and unforgettable depictions of women/witches in the book that it has been deemed misogynistic and sexist, causing it to be placed at number 22 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books.

Despite this, Dahl was voted teachers’ favourite author in 2012, even as a recent Renaissance Learning survey suggested that Dahl is falling in popularity with children. That Dahl exists as both nation’s darling and the author of works deemed politically incorrect, macabre and sexist is testament to the way his stories have split opinion. Such conflicting views of the childhood author suggest a depth that prior responses to The Witches have overlooked. While children might be passing him over for Twilight, The Witches might just make Dahl the unlikely source of inspiration for feminists today.

What Dahl did best was to show up, ridicule, and then bring crashing down the rules that adults live by through a drastic re-imagining of reality. In this particular re-imagining witches masquerade as women in an attempt to rid the world of children. Hints of Rose West abound in these motherly killers, provoking horror and fascination in equal measure. Dahl’s message is not that all women are disturbed and inherently untrustworthy, but that "some people can appear other than they are". It is a message that he has used stereotypes, humour and hyperbole to convey, a message that demands a second glance at things that seem self-evident.

Such a closer look is forced upon Dahl’s young, nameless narrator when he accidentally becomes trapped in a room of around 200 witches. The boy does nothing to disguise his horror:

I simply cannot tell you how awful they were, and somehow the whole sight was made more grotesque because underneath those frightful scabby bald heads, the bodies were dressed in fashionable and rather pretty clothes. It was monstrous. It was unnatural.

As a hyperbolic example of the way history has feared women, this description hits the nail on the hairless head. The most dangerous part of these witches is their powers of deception. They are feared because they are more than they seem to be. These witches are women who have successfully hoodwinked the world in order to further their murderous agendas. The contrast between their clothed bodies and exposed heads only heightens the grotesque effect.  What’s monstrous and unnatural for the child is not merely the witches’ scalps but the colossal gap between appearance and reality. This is what troubles the child, whose shock is that things are not how they seem.

But the queen of false appearances is the Grand High Witch, whose pretty face is revealed to be a mask, hiding a "fearsome and ghastly sight":

There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there.

This is a face of death, but what exactly has been destroyed? For women today, it is the possibility of existing outside of the expectations placed on how we present our bodies - without judgement or shame. Most shocking of all is the emptiness behind the mask – the nothing that we are led to believe we will amount to without the acceptable degree of beautifying camouflage. We are as pruned, plucked and perfect as Dahl’s witches, but underneath our plastic smiles we too have sores that will not heal. Scared to appear without our masks, we are taught that the world’s reaction will be one of abject horror. Women will see in us what they desperately try to conceal; men will be repulsed by what we are told we should protect them from. 

The transformative power assigned to women has historically been understood as evil and deceptive, yet this is precisely what is being demanded of women the world over under the name of beauty. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Of course, a kind of double-edged irony emerges in the gap between illusion and reality, in the way that expectations levelled toward women’s bodies undermine the female body in its unaltered, unimproved state.

Defenders of the beauty industry say choosing to wear makeup is a feminist decision. It makes me feel better about myself, they say. I wear it for me. But nobody questions why it is that many women feel  inadequate, cosmetically or otherwise, in the first place. Or why self-worth in these cases is always linked with aesthetic improvement.  What’s the big deal, we are asked, in women choosing to remove their pubic hair? The practice has become so widespread that the non-waxed vagina is beginning to emerge as a fetish. Botox? It’s cosmetic self-empowerment: try it, you’ll feel great - especially if the new motion-emotion hype is to be believed.  

But makeup and the like is becoming less a tool of self-expression, and more a mask under which we disguise a face that we feel uncomfortable presenting.  Each day we stringently guard the worst kept secret of society: the materiality of female flesh. Vilified as castrators, we now castrate ourselves by rejecting our material selves and – most insidiously – claim our choices are feminist. Having internalised countless patriarchal obligations, women quietly continue the sexist’s dirty work from within, and all the while voices misguidedly assert that equality has been reached and feminism has no use as a political movement.

Why should we be concerned about this? Because as Andrea Dworkin has argued, a woman’s beauty practices "define precisely the dimensions of her physical freedom". The witches are permitted to remove their disguises only when they are hidden from the outside world by chained and bolted doors. Their freedom is curtailed by the imperative to cover up their deformities. While we may not be deformed in the sense of having feet without toes and fingers with claws, derivations from the common beauty standard elicit similar responses of disgust and a compelling need to conceal these flaws from external view.  

30 years on, who are the witches? We might not be on a mission to turn all of England’s children into mice, but the way we habitually exercise power over our bodies is certainly destructive. We are now more than ever Greer’s eunuchs - like the hairless, toeless witches, there is some crucial part of us that we continue to cut off and disown. But unlike Dahl’s creations, we aren’t motivated to modify our looks to achieve some devastating aim. There’s something more sinister in our debilitating lack of agency coupled with an external pressure to conform. We might want to learn from the narrator’s Grandmamma, whose unfeminine aspects – her thumb-less hand and penchant for cigars – make her refreshingly real.  

The Witches was written for an intermediate audience, readers poised before the brink of adulthood and self-realisation. Many women currently occupy a similar stage in our development: we freeze our bodies into ageless unreal images of desirability and in doing so lock ourselves out of growth. We aspire towards eternal girlhood – hairless, odourless, increasingly thankless - yet our bodies betray us.   Maturation takes a woman beyond her best. Development is stalled in order that we continue to appeal. 

While feminist critics have not responded well to The Witches,nbsp;the story rebels against these aesthetic rules imposed on women. As adults, complicit in our literal self-effacement, we could do well to read this book and be reminded that the way we present ourselves is anything but revealing.   

A detail from Quentin Blake's cover illustration for The Witches.
Universal History Archive / Getty Images
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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue