Of Cacao and Covens

The sweets and sorcery of Roald Dahl.

Hello, wonderful witches!

Coming to you today from Kentucky, where I’m visiting my cousin and have come across the most ridiculous zodiac product I’ve ever seen: pasties.

I’ll admit, I was tempted. But considering they were in an antique shop and probably decades old, and also considering that I’m allergic to most adhesives, it probably wouldn’t have been the best purchase. But I was definitely too amused not to share. Have any of you ever tried these? I’m dying to know. As for me, I’ll have to find another way to share my Leo pride.

Today’s article is an investigation into the mystical world of one of my favorite authors, Roald Dahl.

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Of Cacao and Covens: Roald Dahl, Witchcraft, and the Dark Side of Chocolate

By Joanna O’Leary

Roald Dahl was clearly an author with a sweet tooth. His coming-of-age memoir Boy  is sprinkled with fond anecdotes about his favorite treats (sherbet suckers! licorice bootlaces!), and his particular love of cacao confections manifests itself in his fiction, as evinced most famously in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

But such works are hardly pure love letters to all bonbons bright and beautiful, for Dahl also delved into the less savory aspects of the production and consumption of candy. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl does not sugar coat (ha) the dark side of the confection business, detailing first how Willy Wonka originally closed his factory because spies from competing manufacturers were stealing his trade secrets, then shifting the narrative into a cautionary tale of how the respective vices (greed, gluttony, etc.) of all the Golden Ticket winners (save Charlie) lead to their downfall in the form of permanent disfigurement. In Boy, Dahl further explores the potential evil aspects of indulgence, recalling how his favorite childhood sweet shop was run by Mrs. Pratchett, “a small skinny old hag with a mustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a gooseberry,” whose repulsiveness is matched by a cruel demeanor that causes her to lash out at her youngest customers. Dahl first gleefully tells of how he and his boyhood buddies exact revenge by planting a dead rat inside one of her display jars, and then later recounts, with palpable horror, how he and his friends are severely beaten by the school headmaster for their transgression while Pratchett watches in enjoyment.  

It is The Witches, however, that represents Dahl’s grandest meditation on the intersection between sadism, sweets, and sorcery. In the novel, the figure of Mrs. Pratchett is magnified and multiplied in the form of an international posse of witches whose raison d’etre is to rid the world of children. When the male child protagonist stumbles upon their annual convention (ironically organized under the guise that they are “The Society For Prevention Against Cruelty To Children”) while vacationing with his grandmother (a self-proclaimed retired witch hunter), he learns of the coven’s latest plot as conceived by the Grand High Witch. As our narrator secretly listens, the Grand High Witch commands the witches to open sweet shops all over the country then poison their wares with “Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker,” a potion designed to change children who have eaten the candy into mice when they arrive at school the following morning. And at this point, she explains, out will come the traps and the children/mice will meet their deadly fate. Although the Grand High Witch provides the recipe to her subjects, she eventually concedes that some of the necessary ingredients (grobblesquirts, blabbersnitches, etc.) may be difficult for the older, less spry witches to procure, and thus promises to distribute some pre-mixed Formula 86. 

To showcase the effects of Formula 86, the Grand High Witch stages two demonstrations. She gifts a child at the hotel with a tainted chocolate bar, then lures him to the meeting with the promise of even more and times his appearance such that he assumes mouse form in front of the audience of witches. The second demonstration is impromptu and even more disturbing, for upon discovering the narrator hiding in the meeting hall, she force feeds him multiple doses in order to expedite his violent transformation. 

***Spoiler Alert*** The narrator and Granny eventually turn the tables on the witches by stealing some Formula 86 and literally giving them a taste of their own medicine during their final dinner at the hotel. The book ends with grandma and grandson basking in their triumph and scheming excitedly to live out the remainder of their human and murine days hunting down the remaining witches. ***Spoiler Alert***

The genius of Dahl, however, is that this conclusion is cheery but not particularly cathartic, for as in the case of any excellent scary story, the reader is left permanently chilled. Dahl creates this permanent uneasiness through his conception of the figure of the witch, specifically by flipping the stereotype of the domestic goddess who nurtures children with sugary sustenance to that of the nefarious anti-maternal female who poisons progeny with tainted chocolate. In so doing, Dahl contributes to a rich literary legacy that explores the relationship between witchcraft and sweets, whose historical origins can be arguably traced to Hansel and Gretel. 

What is further unsettling about The Witches,  particularly for modern-day feminist readers, is the realization that Dahl is also trading on toxic masculinist assumptions surrounding the “dangerous” potential of the empowered (in this case, magically) female. The witches are scary not simply because they are hellbent on killing kiddies but also because their abilities enable them to transcend the traditional gender hierarchy and circumvent the mundane (and male) system of law and order. And though readers may find some comfort in the idea that the narrator and his grandma may succeed in getting rid of some (or even all) of these witches themselves, Dahl, by positing a world in which humans are vulnerable to such vicious magic, creates an atmosphere of lasting dread.

Joanna Shawn Brigid "Bridey" O'Leary was born in Alexandria, Virginia; grew up in central Pennsylvania and Massachusetts; and now calls Houston, Texas, home. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and earned a PhD in Victorian literature from Rice University. Bridey serves as a culinary consultant, food historian, and travel/food critic for media outlets such as Let's Go travel guides, Wine Enthusiast, BlackBook, the Onion, Houston Press, Houstonia, ColinCowie Weddings, and Fit, Strong & Sexy. She is also the founder and CBO (Chief Baking Officer) of Cooky By Bridey.

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