Blogger Chelsey Roos

The Witches, Roald Dahl, and a Renewed Legacy of Harm

Recently, HBO adapted Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches into a film. This isn’t the first time the extremely popular novel has been adapted – it was first made into a film in 1990, and has also been turned into a radio play and an opera.

It’s also a novel that’s built upon a framework of antisemitism.

Dahl and Antisemitism

A brief summary of The Witches, if, like me, you never read it as a child: a young boy discovers that his grandmother’s stories about witches are true. He stumbles upon a large gathering of them, lead by the Grand High Witch. So far, so fine. The problems begin when you examine the way Dahl describes these witches, and how they align with antisemitic stereotypes:

  • The witches are described as powerful, extremely wealthy, and lurking in society, secretly passing as “normal” women. This is built upon the antisemitic, and completely false, belief that Jewish peoples control wealth and secretly manipulate powerful institutions in society. We know that Dahl believed that Jewish peoples controlled the media, because he said so, in a 1990 interview with The Independent: “There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do.”
  • Large noses and wigs. While there is no such thing as a “Jewish nose,” there is a prevalent stereotype about “large” and “hooked” noses being a Jewish trait (see the 1990 film’s costuming of Grand High Witch Angelica Houston). In the book, witches are described as having large noses. The witches are also described as bald and wearing wigs, and wig-wearing is part of some Jewish traditions.
  • Blood libel. For centuries, people have baselessly accused Jewish people of killing children. This is the entire plot of the book. It is, of course, the plot of many children’s books, but when taken with the previous stereotypes and bigotry, it takes on a different light.

In case these might appear to be mere coincidences, it helps to know that Dahl himself was vocal about his antisemitism. In 1983 (the same year The Witches was published), he said to The New Statesman, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” Later, in 1990, he reportedly told The Independent: “I have become anti-semitic.”

HBO’s The Witches and Limb Differences

Fortunately, HBO’s recent adaptation does not repeat some of the problematic elements of both the book and the first film (no prosthetic noses here). Unfortunately, it adds a new layer of harm. In the book, the witches are described as having “claws” instead of fingernails. In the 2020 film, these “claws” have been interpreted as the witches having only three fingers on each hand.

Many members of the disability community have spoken out against this choice. It is perfectly normal for people to have limb differences. Critics have pointed out that portraying limb difference as an evil disfigurement hurts both children with limb differences, who see themselves depicted as the bad guy, and children without limb differences, who are encouraged to see such differences as bad or scary.

What do we do with Dahl?

What do we as library staff do with Dahl’s works, and the subsequent adaptations? It’s a long-standing library principle that we must be “neutral,” but as many, many others have pointed out, a library collection that includes bigotry does not feel “neutral” to many. As the library world reckons with the prejudice that runs throughout many big names in children’s literature, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Dr. Seuss, we are left with items in our collection that hurt many, but are also beloved by many others.

I wish I had a good answer, but I don’t. In my library system, we continue to replace copies of books like The Witches when they get worn, and we will likely be ordering HBO’s adaptation when it is released on DVD (I am not the collection manager for my library system, so I’m going off our collections policies). Many of our patrons want these items, and I want to supply our patrons with the books they want – it’s the baseline of our service. I certainly don’t want to censor away what my patrons want to read. However, I also struggle with the fact that including these items in our collection also means that many patrons feel that the library is complicit in a culture that harms them.

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Today’s guest blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is currently a children’s librarian at the Castro Valley Branch of the Alameda County Library.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, and IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials

3 comments

  1. Bryce Kozla

    I am so happy to see these issues brought up. Thank you very much!

  2. Emily Schneider

    Ms. Roos, thank you for this piece. Please allow me to suggest an appropriate response. First, Dahl was, as you point out, an unapologetic antisemite. Continue to bring this to the attention of librarians, educators, and young readers. Second, while both Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dr. Seuss have racist elements in their work, and these should be thoroughly discussed, within their own era these prejudices were so widespread that, applying the same standard, you would eliminate almost any book written before the 21st century. I am Jewish, and I know that when I read literary classics even through the 20th century, I will find constant antisemitic stereotypes. Some of them define the entire book, while others are evidence of casual and unthinking racism. They should all be investigated and discussed. Finally, please do not eliminate these books from your library! Even Roald Dahl is an author whose work has value, although he is not my personal favorite. Make sure that children, and adults, have a context for understanding his work and that his legacy is held to account, but don’t toss his books onto the bonfire. Censorship is not the answer, and it can easily be applied to books which offend people for other reasons which you or I would not support. Every book has the potential to offend. Intellectual freedom means that readers should have access to these books as well as the intellectual tools and information for judging them. (Of course there are books of unmitigated evil which have no literary value, as well as ones which are not appropriate for children. You might be justified in deaccessioning such books on a case-by-case basis, but I would not recommend that course for any of the authors you mention.)

  3. Katrina Spencer

    Wow. My eyes have been opened. Dahl was a beloved author in my childhood. Wrapping my head around the entirety of his legacy, not just the pretty parts, will certainly broaden the ways I interpret his literature and the contributions of many authors.

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