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Literature / The Witches

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"For all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now. Or she might be the woman with the bright eyes who sat opposite you on the bus this morning. She might be the lady with the dazzling smile who offered you a sweet from a white paper bag in the street before lunch. She might even — and this will make you jump — she might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment. Look at that teacher. Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion. Don't let that put you off. It could be part of her cleverness. I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one. It is most unlikely. But — and here comes the big "but" — it is not impossible."

The Witches is a 1983 Roald Dahl book starting with an introductory chapter on the subject of Witches written in third person (presumably narrated by Dahl himself), but switches to first person for the rest of the story as the tale is taken up by an unnamed boy. He tells the story of how, after the death of his parents, he moves in with his Norwegian Grandmother who was once a great Witch hunter; she regales him with tales of Witches and their victims and how to tell the difference between a human woman and a Witch. They then are sent, on Doctor's orders, a British seaside holiday, as his Grandmother is too ill to return to Norway.

It is at a seaside hotel that the boy is trapped at the annual British Witch meeting and meets the hideous (but disguised) Grand High Witch. It is at this meeting he and another boy (Bruno Jenkins) are turned into talking mice by a magic potion. After escaping and returning to his Grandmother they hatch a plan to kill all the Witches in England and the Grand High Witch. With great courage he manages to spike the soup the Witches are eating (having posed as the phony child protection agency the RSPCC, and getting special treatment from the Hotel) with their own mouse potion which leads to them being killed (in the form of mice, obviously) by the Hotel Staff.

Afterwards, the boy and his grandmother find a possible lead to the locations of every known witch, and decide to use this knowledge (and the formula for the mouse potion) to spend the rest of their lives hunting down as many witches as they can.

The Witches, in a case of Our Monsters Are Different, are a specific species of demon and aren't human at all. They seemingly exist to hate children, and plan to destroy all the children in England in one fell swoop. They don't particularly kill adults... but if one dies anyway? "Vell then too bad for ze grown-up."

They have certain "tells" which a person can use, if they are eagle eyed and perceptive to spy a Witch:

  • All Witches are female. (There are other demonic creatures who are always male, but this book isn't about them.)
  • All Witches have huge cat-like claws which they hide with gloves.
  • All Witches are bald but wear wigs in public, developing wig rash from the coarse underside of their wigs.
  • All Witches have very large, fluted nostrils and a highly developed sense of smell in order to sniff out children. Children smell like dog's droppings to them; if you don't wash very often, you can block the smell. This smell fades when you get older — presumably during puberty.
  • All Witches have strange colour-changing pupils. If you get a chance to look at them long enough, you may see fire and ice dance in the center.
  • All Witches have squared-off feet without toes; they squeeze their feet into pumps and high heels to conceal this, even though it causes them great discomfort.
  • All Witches have blue saliva. If a woman has a faint bluish tint to her teeth, she may be a Witch.

Adaptations include:

  • The Witches (1990): A film starring Anjelica Huston, directed by Nicolas Roeg and produced by Jim Henson.
  • The Witches (2007-2008): A radio dramatisation with Margaret Tyzack as the Grandmother, Toby Jones as the Narrator, Ryan Watson as the Boy, Jordan Clarke as Bruno and Amanda Laurence as the Grand High Witch.
  • The Witches (2008) A Norwegian children's opera composed by Marcus Paus.
  • The Witches: The Graphic Novel (2020): A Comic-Book Adaptation with art by Pénélope Bagieu published by Gallimard with Scholastic publishing the English version.
  • The Witches (2020): A film directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis and featuring Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, it premiered on HBO Max.

Provides examples of:

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    The Book 
  • Adults Are Useless:
    • Grandma mentions that in Norway it's quite normal for parents to lose their children to witches, and they haven't been able to form a countermeasure against it except to warn their boys and girls to stay away from women with gloves and blue spit.
    • Bruno's father doesn't realize that his son goes missing in a hotel and assumes that the old woman that claimed his son was a mouse was playing a prank on him.
    • The Grand High Witch's plan relies on the teachers seeing their students turn into mice and not realizing what happened, especially since the kids can still talk. This ends up playing out in the hotel's dining room, when everyone in the hotel is more focused about getting rid of the mice then the fact that nearly a hundred women transformed.
  • Agony of the Feet: Thanks to their square, toe-less feet, witches are caused constant pain while walking around in heels and similar shoes, which they wear to blend in among normal humans.
  • Alone with the Psycho:
    • The boy freaks out when he's working on a treehouse in his backyard and a witch appears below, attempting to lure him down with a snake. He hides in the tree and stays there until it's dark and his grandmother appears, reassuring him that the witch is gone.
    • It's then taken up to eleven when he realizes he's locked in a room with every single witch in England at the Hotel Magnificent, and the only way to evade detection is stay quiet and out of sight (he's hiding behind a screen divider) and hope his lack of washing means they won't smell him. They almost don't detect him, but a witch named Mildred smells him out just as the meeting ends and everyone is leaving.
    • Bruno realizes too late that he's been lured into the meeting to serve as living proof that the mouse-making formula works. Even so, it doesn't hit him what happened until the other boy points out that Bruno now has a tail and fur.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: In this setting, all witches are monstrous, sadistic child haters who essentially devote their entire lives to tormenting and killing children, and while they don't have any particular hatred of adult humans, they consider them utterly expendable. Averted with Miss Irvine in the 1990, who undergoes a Heel–Face Turn.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: When the Grand High Witch proposes her plan to wipe out all the children in England, one witch exclaims, "We can't possibly wipe out all of them!" Depending on the interpretation of the sentence, she could either be unwilling to kill so many children at once, or just worried that such a plan would be outright impossible. Either way, the Grand High Witch fries her for insubordination.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • In the beginning of the book, when the grandmother is telling the narrator stories that she's heard about children abducted by witches, one of the stories is about a girl that appeared in a painting in her home. According to the grandmother, the painting changed constantly, from the girl being in the farmhouse to feeding ducks in the lake. She even grew up in the painting. And it's implied that she also died in the painting. The fact that her position in the painting changed means that the girl was probably conscious throughout her lifetime in it.
    • There's also the boy who was turned to stone. His parents used him as an umbrella stand.
    • And the three toads at the Grand High Witch's hotel room, implied to be cursed children, too. They are fed to seagulls.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Grandma and the boy conclude that they probably have eight or nine years left, and they also got rid of all the witches in England. Having been a witch-hunter in her prime, Grandma uses a lead from the Hotel Magnificent to get the Grand High Witch's address and contact information. Since the boy remembers the mouse-making formula by heart, they decide to go and get rid of the Grand High Witch's replacement, as well as any witches in the castle, using the formula to turn them into mice and cats to eat them. Then they'll use the information in the castle to track down all the witches in the world and wipe them out, one by one.
  • And Then What?:
    • After the Grand High Witch details her plan and asks if there are questions, a witch asks what happens if a grownup rather than a child eats the cursed chocolate. GHW only says it's too bad for the grownup.
    • While Grandma and the boy discuss how to get rid of the replacement Grand High Witch and her servants, the boy brings up that a mouse-witch would be more dangerous than a regular witch because they could get anywhere. They decide to fill the castle with cats, keeping the boy-mouse out of harm's way, until all the witches are eaten.
  • Angst? What Angst?: In-universe, Grandma claims that in Norway, parents and families are used to witches and thus don't raise a fuss when a child disappears or transforms. It's averted when she finds out her grandson has changed into a mouse, however; after she hides him and Bruno, she sits in a chair and cries for a few minutes.
  • Antagonist Title: The story itself is named after its main threat, the witches.
  • Arc Number: Grandma is revealed near the end of the book to be 86 years old, corresponding to Formula 86, the name of the Grand High Witch's latest potion.
  • Asshole Victim: The Grand High Witch frequently 'fries' her minions. Given they're evil, child-killing witches, it's hard to feel sympathy for them.
  • Attack the Tail: When the hero is turned into a mouse and carries out his mission in the kitchen, a cook slices off the end of his tail when he is using it to move about.
  • Author Tract: Dahl hated children's homes that were actually abusive. Hence the witches posing as a children's charity.
  • Badass Longcoat: The hotel manager Mr Stringer is described as a bristly man in a black tail-coat.
  • Bad Boss: The Grand High Witch kills so many witches that speak up for the smallest argument that it makes one wonder why that there are any left note .
  • Bald of Evil: Every witch is completely bald, and must wear itchy wigs that give them serious scalp rashes. Apparently they've never heard of skullcaps or moisturizing creams.
  • Bald Mystic: Baldness is one of the tells of the titular evil witches, who wear wigs to pass as human. The narrator is disgusted when his grandmother tells him this because there's "something indecent" about a bald woman.
  • Big Bad: The Grand High Witch, the bona fide leader of the witches who hatches a deadly plot to wipe out the children of England.
  • Big Eater: Bruno Jenkins, who is described as always eating something. Even as a mouse, he's always more interested in whatever food is present.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Witches typically disguise themselves so that they can trick children into their clutches. The boy at first mistakes them for being part of the Royal Society to Prevent Cruelty to Children and initially hopes they can talk at his school.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The main protagonist must remain a mouse for the rest of his life, since there is no cure for the Grand High Witch's potion. The protagonist's grandmother predicts that, since he is a magical-enhanced mouse-person, his lifespan may be longer than that of an ordinary mouse—perhaps as long as nine years. However, they are comforted that this means they have roughly the same amount of time to live, meaning that they will never be without each other. They also decide to use their remaining years to get rid of all the witches in the world.
  • Black Comedy: One of the stories of the protagonist's grandmother tells him involves a boy who was turned to stone. His parents subsequently use him as an umbrella stand.
  • Body Horror:
    • Bruno's transformation.
    • The Grand High Witch's face.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: The Grand High Witch releases Bruno and the hero after she polymorphs him. Justified in that the hotel staff are mortally afraid of mice, and the Grand High Witch assumed the boys-turned-mice would be killed on sight by the first adult they saw.
  • Booked Full of Mooks: While staying at a hotel with his grandmother, the protagonist stumbles upon a convention for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He realizes after becoming trapped in the convention hall that the RSPCC is a cover story for the witches of England, who are having their yearly meeting hosted by the Grand High Witch.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The boy's obsession with training his mice for the circus. It allows him to navigate the restaurant kitchen and pour potion into the witches' soup when he is changed into a mouse.
    • The bottles of prepared mouse-making formula that the Grand High Witch whipped up for the elderly witches. The boy manages to steal one from her bedroom to put into their soup.
  • Chekhov's Lecture: The stories that Grandma tells the boy about witches, as well as how to identify them, keep him alive if not human by the end of the book.
  • Child Hater:
    • As usual, Roald Dahl applies his favorite trope to the villains. And they're an EXTREME example.
    • And as usual for a Dahl book, the majority of adults come off this way to at least a mild degree (see: the examples of parents who just sort of go "oh well" when the witches do horrible things to their offspring).
  • Cloudcuckoolander: An endearing example in the taxi driver near the end of the story, who sees the hero in mouse form in his grandmother's hand, and is not phased at all that the mouse is her grandson.
    Taxi driver: Blimey! What's that?
    Grandmother: It's my grandson. Drive us to the station, please.
    Taxi driver: I always liked mice. I used to keep 'undreds of 'em when I was a boy. Mice are the fastest breeders in the world, so if he's your grandson, you'll be having some great-grandsons soon.
    Grandmother: (looking prim) Drive us to the station, please.
    Taxi driver: Yes, ma'am, right away.
  • Complexity Addiction: The Grand High Witch outlines a detailed plan where all the witches of England will resign from their jobs to open sweet shops, and host grand opening galas where each child who attends will receive a chocolate bar infused with potion. The potion itself requires rare ingredients and an alarm clock set to a particular time, ideally to the time when school starts. This plan requires that the teachers would be stupid enough to not see their students turning into mice (although the Grand High Witch states that the transformation should happen at the exact moment when the teacher delivers the class attendance roll to the school office, as though she expects every single teacher in the entire country to be exactly identical in their precision), especially when the transformed kids will be able to talk, or that the new mice would fall for mouse traps, something the boy lampshades. The boy manages to change her and the other witches into mice by simply emptying a bottle of one of her prepared formulas into soup for all the witches at dinner.
  • Cool Old Lady: The grandmother is an awesome and wise former Witch Hunter who smokes cigars.
  • Counterfeit Cash: The Grand High Witch has a machine for printing bank notes in all currencies, which she dishes out to all the witches of the world.
    Grand High Witch: I have six trunks of English bank notes, all new and crisp. And all of them home-made.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: After one witch exclaims her astonishment at the scale of the Grand High Witch's plan, she burns her alive with her eye beams...and threatens to do the same with her other followers if they don't fall in line.
  • Death by Irony: The Grand High Witch and the British witches, child-haters extraordinaire, meet their end at the hands (paws?) of a child they turned into a mouse by being turned into mice and then being killed by adults, the very fate they planned for the children of Britain.
  • Didn't Think This Through: The Grand High Witch's plan in spades, to get rid of all the children in England. The boy even lampshades this; after he's changed into a mouse, he can still talk and communicate like a human. GHW assumes that the transformed children will be stupid enough to not cry for help or to go to mousetraps for the cheese, and that the adults wouldn't figure out that the children had turned into mice. In fact, he's able to undo her plan because not only can he still talk to his grandmother, and they form a plan of counterattack, but also because he still is smart enough to avoid mousetraps.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: The witches dislike shoes because their square feet makes wearing pointed-toe shoes painful for them.
  • Door Slam of Rage: When the grandmother is talking to the Grand High Witch who is on her balcony, she casually asks the Grand High Witch if she has children. The Grand High Witch replies furiously "I do not!", before storming out of the balcony, slamming the door behind her, unknowingly trapping the hero in the bedroom.
  • Dramatic Sit-Down: The hero tells his grandmother to sit down just after she sees that he has been turned into a mouse; she duly collapses into her chair. Later, when the grandmother is about to tell Mr and Mrs Jenkins that their son has become a mouse, she tries to persuade them to go somewhere more private, and to sit down there, before she breaks this news.
  • The Dreaded: The Grand High Witch is feared by all. Even the other witches are terrified of her.
  • Drowning Unwanted Pets: This fate is used as a threat when a hotel maid discovers the hero boy's pet mice. The manager orders him to keep the mice in the cage, and the maid keeps trying to catch him with the mice out, telling him that the first mouse to break the rule will be drowned. Later, when Bruno is turned into a mouse, and is given back to his horrified parents, the hero and his grandmother wonder sadly whether Bruno suffered this fate.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While the Grand High Witch makes it a point to "fry" at least one witch at each meeting, she is shown to have some respect for the 'ancient ones' (witches over sixty years old) after their long service to her. During the meeting, she acknowledges that they are too old to acquire ingredients for Formula 86 themselves, and instead provides them with samples of the formula, telling the "ancient ones" that they have served her well for many years and she doesn't want to deprive them of the pleasure of wiping out so many children themselves.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: The hero wonders why all the witches of England are gazing at a tiny young lady, with a mixture of awe, reverence and fear. It does not occur to him that she is the Grand High Witch, until she literally unmasks herself.
  • Eye Beams: The Grand High Witch has this power, which she uses to disintegrate (or, as the witches put it, "fry") people. She makes a point of frying at least one witch during every Annual Meeting, to make sure the others don't slack off.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Bruno fails to notice he's turned into a mouse until the protagonist points it out to him.
  • Faint in Shock: The boy (quite understandably) collapses when he realises he's trapped in a room full of women who would gladly do horrible things to him if they find him. He's not wrong.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: That one witch who got "fried" by the Grand High Witch's Eye Beams. Not to mention the witch who gets turned into a mouse and is stepped on by the Grand High Witch herself.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: The witches don't use guns or knives. Not because they can't, but because their magical methods can't be tracked by the police.
  • Fat Bastard: Bruno is the requisite mean gluttonous child found so often in Dahl's works. He's not nearly as bad as the Witches themselves, but he does seem to enjoy frying ants with a magnifying glass.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The witches have no qualms about just outright killing children, but they take sadistic pleasure in transforming them into animals or objects as a way to prolong their suffering. If said transformation leads to the children being accidentally murdered by their own parents, that just makes it even better!
  • Faux Affably Evil: The witches. Especially in the way they lure and catch children, as the Grand High Witch demonstrates with luring Bruno into the ballroom with the promise of six bars of chocolate.
  • Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence: The witches despise all human children, to the point that the Grand High Witch intends to cause a genocide against them. The only explanation given is that children smell horrible to witches, but it's implied to go deeper than a mere repulsive odor.
  • Femme Fatalons: All witches have long sharp nails.
  • Final Solution:
    • The Grand High Witch plots the genocide of the children in England.
    • And then, of course, the boy and his grandmother plan the same to the witches themselves. (Pay Evil unto Evil?)
  • Forced Transformation:
    • Both the protagonist and Bruno are turned into mice by the witches.
    • The Grandmother tells the boy about a child who a witch turned into a porpoise. He did seem to enjoy his new form and gave his family rides in the water while they were on vacation, but they never saw him again after they went home...
    • The Grandmother also tells stories about children who get turned into fleas, slugs, hot dogs, pheasants, and (in one case) a chicken.
  • Foreshadowing: One of the witches asks the Grand High Witch what would happen if a grownup were to swallow Formula 86; the latter simply scoffs, "Then that's just too bad for the grownup!" At the end, we actually do see a group of grownups fall victim to the potion: the witches themselves.
  • For the Evulz: We don't know much why all the witches want to kill all children outside the fact that they smell like dog droppings.
  • Funetik Aksent: It's not said where the Grand High Witch is from but it is implied she's from Norway. She replaces her Ts with Zs and Ws with Vs. It doesn't in any way resemble a Norwegian accent, which is recognizable by more pronounced Rs and replacing Zs with Ss. Her accent resembles German more than anything else.
  • Giving Someone the Pointer Finger: The Grand High Witch points "a gloved finger as sharp as a needle at the witch who had spoken", before "frying" her to death with white-hot sparks from her eyes.
  • Hand Gagging: The hero is yelling for help when the witches have discovered him. Four of them carry him by his arms and legs, and a fifth covers his mouth with her gloved hand to stop him yelling.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The witches are done in by Formula 86, the same magic potion they'd planned to wipe out Britain's children with, when the boy slips it into their soup.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The titular witches, with their bald rashed heads, nasty claws, and square toeless feet being only hints on the outside at whatever makes them tick on the inside.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: There are witch hunters in the world, who seek to root out and destroy witches wherever they find them, and the narrator's grandmother in her younger years was one of the very best.
  • Infinite Supplies: Grandmamma mentions rumors that the Grand High Witch has a machine that can produce any type of existing currency in the world. It turns out to be true.
  • Inhuman Eye Concealers: Witches may wear glasses to conceal their unique eye colors.
  • Invincible Villain: In-universe, the hero's grandmother sees the witches this way, mainly due to their leader. Fortunately, they are not, as the Grand High Witch kills them regularly, which makes one wonder why are any left, and especially when they fall for their scheme.
  • Kaleidoscope Eyes: The strange color-changing eyes of the Witches are described as "like fire and ice dancing together".
  • Karma Houdini: According to the narrator, witches never get caught because they use magic to cover their tracks, so they can get away with killing children in disturbing ways. By the books' end, it looks like they'll all get what's coming to them, via mouse transformation soup.
  • Karmic Death: The Grand High Witch is turned into a mouse and is then killed by the hotel staff, something she intended for all adults to do to their children.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • The incineration scene, which happened because the Grand High Witch took lethal exception to one poor witch's reservations about getting rid of all of the children. Bad Boss indeed.
    • Also the hotel maid who is frightened by the hero's pet mice. When an arrangement is made that he is allowed to keep his mice in the hotel as long as they stay in the cage, she keeps on trying to catch him with the mice out of the cage, telling him that the first mouse to break this rule will be drowned in a bucket of water.
  • Kid Hero: The young protagonist, who eventually wipes out all the witches in England in one fell swoop.
  • Latex Perfection: This is how the Grand High Witch disguises her true form. Justified in that it's rather implied that her mask is magical.
  • Lice Episode: While watching the witches (before he realises they are witches) scratching the backs of their necks, the narrator believes they have lice, and describes in passing a boy at school who was made to dip his whole head in turpentine, causing half his skin to come away from his scalp.
  • Mage Species: They're specifically called a group of all female demons.
  • Magic Pants: Oddly inverted, as the mouse formula causes the clothes of its victim to disappear early on in the transformation.
  • Menacing Mask: An inverted example. The Grand High Witch wears a mask to disguise herself as a pretty young lady and to hide her extremely ugly real face.
  • Mistaken for Insane: Discussed. After the protagonist has turned into a mouse, his grandmother says she can't take him to a dentist or the latter would consider her crazy.
  • The Napoleon: The Grand High Witch is described as being shorter than the other witches, even the frail old ones.
  • Needlework Is for Old People: Exploited. The grandma knits and uses her knitting to lower the boy in his mouse form down to the balcony.
  • Nice Mice: The little boy gets a pair of mice from his grandmother as a present. Basically Foreshadowing events to come.
  • No Animals Allowed: The hero takes his pet mice to the Hotel Magnificent, where they are discovered by a maid. The manager tells the boy and his grandmother that mice are not allowed in the hotel; the grandmother tells the manager that his rotten hotel is full of rats anyway, and threatens to contact the public health authorities. The manager compromises by allowing the mice as long as they stay in their cage. The maid tells the boy that the first mouse to break this rule will be drowned in a bucket of water.
  • No Name Given: The protagonist is nameless and his Grandmother is just Grandmama.
  • Noodle Incident: We never learn why Grandma is missing a thumb, though the book implies it involved Witches doing something horribly traumatic to her during her childhood.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • The first story Grandma tells, how a little girl named Ranghild disappeared. As her sister tells their mother, a woman with white gloves took Ranghild by the hand, and no one saw either again.
    • Part in-universe, part meta-example: We never find out why Grandma is missing a thumb, only that it involved a witch: how else would she know so much about witches? Her grandson's speculation includes such lovely possibilities as having it pulled out "like a tooth" or stuck in the spout of a teakettle until it was "steamed away." With this kind of inspiration, the reader's imagination comes up with something far more terrifying than anything that could have been in the story.
    • The fact that the Grand High Witch doesn't reveal her hands and feet, implying she's got even more to hide, and going by her her worm eaten face, it's probably even worse.
    • The Witches themselves. We don't know how they came to exist or why they hate kids, besides that kids smell like dog poop to them.
  • Obviously Evil: Double subverted with the Grand High Witch. When we initially see her, she has a rather pleasant appearance...then she removes her mask.
  • Offing the Offspring: The suggested fate of Bruno. When the grandmother wonders aloud what happened to Bruno, the narrator theorizes that Bruno's parents didn't want a mouse for a son and had the Hotel Concierge drown him in the fire bucket. This is never confirmed, but his Grandmother sadly admits that he's probably correct and sympathizes for Bruno.
  • Oh, Crap!: When the little boy realizes that he is hidden in the back of a room with every single witch in Britain.
  • One-Gender Race: Witches are all women; Dahl mentions other all-male monster races (ghouls, barghests) but says none of the races are as evil as Witches. However, in The BFG, another race — evil Giants, all male — make children in particular their victims. It's not explained how any of these species reproduce, especially considering how much witches hate children, the only hint is a line in the book about how witches originated from the forests of Norway.
  • Our Demons Are Different: They're described more like succubus, only more hideous, with the casual mention of the all male ghouls race. The fact that they can't detect, let alone reverse the formula of their mouse changing soup proves that they aren't nearly as powerful as the narrator's grandmother makes them out to be.
  • Our Monsters Are Different: The Witches have more in common with mythological creatures like succubi or sirens, rather than traditional witches, who start out as normal humans until they make a Deal with the Devil for magical powers.
  • Parental Abandonment: The boy's parents die by car crash.
  • Phantom-Zone Picture: A Witch traps a girl, Solveg, in one. Also counts as a Creepy Changing Painting, as the painting ages when no one is looking.
  • Police Are Useless: Zigzagged:
    • Grandmamma implies that witchophiles are official government agents that rid of witches. While she failed in her prime to find GHW, she apparently hunted down a lot of them and traveled the world.
    • Notably subverted. When one witch excitedly shouts that she's going to poison the children that buy sweets from her candy store, the Grand High Witch berates her for her stupidity, telling her that it wouldn't take long for the authorities to catch onto them if she did so.
    • After the pair return to Norway, Grandmamma revealed that she posed as the chief of police in Norway when calling the hotel to investigate the witches who transformed into mice. The boy is incredulous that the investigator would believe a random person on the phone; Grandmamma handwaves it by saying she can imitate a man's voice well and flattered the investigator.
  • Rank Scales with Asskicking: The Grand High Witch incinerates a witch who dares to question her orders.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The first witch the narrator meets tries to give him a snake as a present. He's smart enough not to take it.
  • Resized Vocals: Averted and commented on. When the hero and Bruno are turned into mice, the author comments that you would expect them to have squeaky voices; but actually, they talk exactly as they did before.
  • Resourceful Rodent: The main character is turned into a mouse by witches and he has to outsmart them so he can turn back into a human.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The origin of the witches is never explained. Neither are their methods of reproduction, but it can be assumed they are replenishing their numbers somehow since the Grand High Witch fries at least one every meeting. The fact that they're all different ages, with some of them appearing to be quite young, also supports this.
  • Robe and Wizard Hat: Averted in the very first line of the book: "In fairy tales, witches always wear silly black hats and cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks." This is before it goes on to say, "but this this is not a fairy tale: this is about REAL witches."
  • Shapeshifting Excludes Clothing: Thoroughly averted; the clothes are explicitly said to disappear. After all, piles of clothing might lead to questions...
  • Shout-Out:
    Grandma: You angel. You're bleeding.
    Boy: A cook tried to cut off my tail with a carving knife.
  • Smug Snake: The Grand High Witch. She is powerful and rightly feared by her enemies and minions alike, but her plan to kill all the children in England is not a good plan at all (see Didn't Think This Through). Also, considering her supposed talent for potions and such, one would think that she would be careful enough to ensure that said potions wouldn't work on her.
  • Solar-Powered Magnifying Glass: Using a magnifying glass to kill ants is listed as one Bruno's misdeeds.
  • Space Whale Aesop:
    • Witches usually kill children by feeding them potions that slowly give them a Fate Worse than Death. Most examples of witch killings show a kid accepting a gift from a nice old lady. The lesson seems to be "Don't accept stuff from strangers, it might kill you".
    • Witches detect children by scent and dirt and grime covers up the smell. So don't shower or wash because witches will get you.
  • Spiteful Spit:
    • When a hotel guest complains about tough meat, the chef dishes up a replacement, and says "come on boys, give her some gravy!", before passing the plate around the kitchen, to be spat on by all the cooks and kitchen boys. Later the guest reports that the defiled meat was really tasty.
    • Witches have blue spit, which they use to write with; but for all their cruelty to children, they never spit, as this would give them away.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Grandmamma claims that if you're Norwegian, you don't raise a fuss when your child runs afoul of witches. You accept it's a calculated risk. There are two examples that contradict that: Solveg's father freaked out when he saw his daughter as part of a family painting, and his first instinct was to try and get her out. Obviously, he couldn't because she was canvas and paint. The second is when the boy becomes a mouse. Grandmamma goes Oh, Crap! and freezes on seeing the two mice. She needs coaxing to close her hotel door and hide them from the maid. Then she sits in a chair and cries. The boy was her orphaned grandson. There's a difference between living with a calculated risk and actually seeing your children or grandchildren attacked, killed or transformed.
  • Sweets of Temptation:
    • In the prologue, the narrator warns the reader that any random woman they meet could turn out to be a witch, such as "the lady with the dazzling smile who offered you a sweet from a white paper bag in the street before lunch."
    • The Grand High Witch's big plan to wipe out all the children in England involves all the witches opening candy shops and holding openings promising free candy to every child. The candies are dosed with a potion known as Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker that will transform them into mice when they're at school, causing all the teachers to panic and kill them en masse.
  • Taken for Granite: A boy named Harald was turned to stone by a witch.
  • Take That!: The witches' front organization is the fictional Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Dahl was extremely annoyed at foundations that claimed to prevent cruelty to children but effectively did nothing to stop it, namely the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
  • Talks like a Simile: Several characters react "as if spikes/skewers/a hatpin had been stuck deep into their bottoms".
  • Tech Marches On: Grandma claims that witches use their spit like ink and lick old-fashioned pen nibs. When the boy eavesdrops on the witches in the hotel, GHW orders them to get out pencils and paper.
  • Toilet Humour: The witches hate children because, to them, children smell like dog droppings. The witches shout "Poo!" repeatedly during their meeting at the thought of the smell of children.
  • Too Smart for Strangers: A number of children the witches dispose of certainly weren't, accepting presents from them or going with them to unknown locations, which led to their demises.
  • The Transmogrifier: Witches are capable of many magical feats, but their preferred one involves transforming their victims in some way. Part of this is due to the need for secrecy: if they simply killed children, it'd draw too much attention, while transforming them would make it both untraceable and impossible to admit to. Among other things, they have turned children into chickens, statues, porpoises, even characters in a painting, and American witches are supposedly known for turning kids into hot dogs. And of course, the Grand High Witch's Evil Plan is to turn England's children into mice... though she's more than capable of frying people to death with her magic - as one unfortunate witch finds out.
  • Trrrilling Rrrs and Vampire Vords: The Grand High Witch, supposedly a Norwegian-derived accent, but it comes across as remarkably German.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Grandma isn't completely accurate about her witch information; it's justified in that witches are secretive and most of Grandma's information is secondhand, and she's in her eighties with her memory fading. The boy calls her out for saying the five children who disappeared were actually four, since Birgit turned into a chicken and lived with her family for years.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Due to his terror, the boy miscounts the witches as two hundred. When Grandma later counts them at dinner, she says there are eighty-four (with the narrator confirming that it was previously eighty-five).
  • Unsatisfiable Customer: Bruno's father spends most of his screen time complaining about the hotel's amenities and berating the staff. It doesn't help that he's also a scary Scot.
  • Villain Ball: The Witches seem married to this. Between killing off their own steadily dwindling species for minor slights to killing kids in highly unusual and public ways, it's surprising that they're still alive.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Grand High Witch of All The World is thought by most humans to be a kind woman who gives lots of money to charity. In truth, she's anything but.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Literally! We never find out what happens to Bruno, now in mouse-form, after he is returned to his parents, one of whom is scared of mice, and who keep a pet cat, although the hero speculates that he may have been drowned by the hotel porter. Likewise, after the narrator's pet mice William and Mary are kicked off the Ballroom stage by the Grand High Witch, we don't find out what happens to them as the narrator and his Grandmamma leave the hotel very quickly following the transformation of the witches, without even taking their luggage. The fate of the frogs, assumed to be transformed children, under the Grand High Witch's bed is also unknown.
  • Wicked Witch: For the most part, although they are quite different, as far as witches go.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Each witch makes it their personal hobby, to hex a child once every week. The Grand High Witch herself takes it to another level.
  • You Have Failed Me: At every annual meeting of the witches, the Grand High Witch makes a point of subjecting one witch to "getting fried" (being incinerated with eye beams), so that the rest stay on their nonexistent toes. Since we're never told how more witches come about, it's amazing any are left. (The main character himself wonders this.)

    The Graphic Novel 
  • Adaptational Badass: Unlike Bruno, who just loafed around stuffing his face, Girl-Jenkins takes part in the main character's and his grandmother's mission to rid the world of witches.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins are portrayed in a far more positive light than most incarnations of the story. Sure, it's implied they have a severe drinking and gambling problem, but they're far more friendly in their encounters with the grandmother and are willing to fully accept their daughter as a mouse now.
  • Gender Flip: Bruno Jenkins is a girl in this version. Her first name is not revealed, but her last name is still Jenkins.
  • Race Lift: Instead of being Norwegian-English like in the original book, the main character and Grandmamma are now Ambiguously Brown.
  • Ship Tease: The main character and Jenkins have a few moments of this throughout. He even gives her his phone number when he and his grandmother are leaving the hotel at the end.