Grand High Witch
The Grand High Witch of All The World, or just the Grand High Witch or Eva Ernst, is a fictional character and the main antagonist in Roald Dahl's 1983 children's fantasy novel The Witches, as well as its film adaptation in which she is played by Anjelica Huston. In the narrative, it is a title given to the all-powerful leader of all the witches on Earth.
|The Grand High Witch|
|First appearance||The Witches (1983)|
|Created by||Roald Dahl|
|Actor||Anjelica Huston (1990 film) |
Anne Hathaway (2020 film)
Tora Augestad (opera)
Amanda Laurence (radiodrama)
|Alias||Eva Ernst (film)|
The current Witch to hold the title is a particularly powerful, evil and feared witch who hides her ancient age and disgusting ugly real looks behind an attractive disguise in order to blend in with society, and plots to wipe out all the children in England after summoning the local witches for this task. The child protagonist and his grandmother, a retired witch-hunter who once searched the world for the Grand High Witch only to encounter her by accident in a hotel in England, setting in motion the main plot of the novel.
Storyline and characterizationEdit
The Grand High Witch is described as the most powerful being in the world and is the only one linking the secret societies of demonic witches that exist in various countries, as they are not allowed to contact each other. The Grand High Witch's headquarters is a great castle in Norway, where she has a magic money-printing machine and lives with large retinue of special Assistant Witches, tyrannically ruling over all the witches anywhere and plotting ever more harm to children everywhere. The current Grand High Witch, who is unnamed in the book but goes under the alias of Eva Ernst (Miss Eva / Miss Ernst) in the film, is described as "the most evil and appalling woman in the world."
In the backstory, the boy protagonist (named Luke in the film) has a grandmother (known as just Grandmamma in the book and named Helga in the film) who is the nemesis of The Grand High Witch. She once had been one of the very best of the witch hunters and has traveled all over the globe trying to track down the fabled and elusive Grand High Witch, who might be the key to finally defeat her evil kind. The Grand High Witch has a heavy foreign accent and it is also implied to have been originally from Germany. As discovered about her at the end of the book, after she is destroyed: "Nobody in the world had the faintest idea who she was except the other witches. Wherever she went, people simply knew her as a nice lady. (...) Even in her home district, in the village where she lived, people knew her as a kindly and very wealthy Baroness who gave large sums of money to charity." The original version of character is relatively asexual compared to the highly sexualized portrayal in the film adaptation as she described only in terms such as being young and "very pretty". In the film version she travels with her black cat, whom she calls Liebchen.
She first appears in person as a mysterious aristocrat who arrives with a group of distinguished ladies from the ironically named RSPCC (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, reminiscent of the real-life National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) for an annual convention. In her disguise, she is dressed entirely in black and with a "look of serpents" and "brilliant snake's eyes". However, soon the protagonist boy finds out that the RSPCC is really a coven of English witches, and the society's chairwoman is revealed as she the frightening Grand High Witch herself. Removing her synthetic face, she reveals that she is really an extremely old and hideous hag. All the other witches are terrified of her immense power, ruthlessness and boundless cruelty. Not only relying on potions and other prepared spells, she has overtly supernatural powers. In previous meetings, The Grand High Witch made it a custom to casually murder at least one of her minion witches simply to keep the others fearful of her, and now she does it by incinerating a timid English witch for speaking out of turn. She has already tortured and killed thousands of children around the world and in the book she also keeps three of them just recently turned into frogs in her room, intending for them to be eaten alive by seagulls. Now she plans to give the witches of England her newest invention, the "Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker" to distribute and turn all children in the country into mice so they can be exterminated by their own parents.
In the film version of the novel, The Grand High Witch is a tall, mysterious, attractive, snobbish, foreign aristocrat, a glamorously and provocatively dressed femme fatale type with heavily made-up appearance, full of dominating and predatory "vamp" sexuality. In the film, she attracts attention of men, including the character of Mr. Jenkins who unsuccessfully flirts with her right in front of his wife (unaware that she has just turned his son into a mouse), and acts in erotic and seductive ways even when tauntingly interacting with children; she is sexually sadistic, even deriving such an excitement and pleasure from hurting children in particular that she is actually is shown having an orgasmic experience. The other witches fear and adore her, often praising her intelligence. Haughty, cunning, dramatic, impatient and volatile, she does not care how her commands are carried out, just so long as they are obeyed. She has an assistant named Irvine, who eventually walks out on her after becoming tired of her incompetent behavior, ultimately becomes good. One witch with whom she is shown to be actually friendly with is "the Woman in Black", who attempted to capture Luke earlier in the story and is given a larger role in the film.
In book's chapter The Triumph, her own evil sorcery is used against her and her followers during their public banquet at the hotel's ballroom, when they are all transformed into brown mice by a massive overdose of Formula 86. Her death is not described in detail, just that each and every witch has been "smashed and bashed and chopped up into little pieces" by the hotel employees. In the film, they begin turning into mice with black-and-white fur, except the fuming Grand High Witch, who is last to be affected as she resists the effects due to her sheer power. She recognises Helga and struggles to curse her "old adversary" (having perhaps encountered Helga when she was attempting to track down the Grand High Witch), but then Bruno (a boy turned into a mouse) finds the courage to leap onto her cleavage and bite her, which breaks her concentration and she too begins to painfully turn - in her case into a large, nasty, hairless rat. A panic chaos and utter ensues, and the hotel staff members begin to violently take on what they think is a sudden infestation, unknowingly massacring the helpless mice-witches as they run around squeaking. "Her Grandness" herself in her rodent form, now left without any sort of power whatsoever except still being able to talk even after the overdose, is spotted by Luke, who tells his grandma to not "let her get away." Frantically pleading "get away from me", she is trapped under a glass water pitcher by Helga, who asks the hotel manager Mr. Stringer to dispose for her of this "especially impetuous one." The Grand High Witch ends up unceremoniously executed when she is sliced in half with a meat cleaver in her rat form, finally ending Helga's long conflict, and with the witch population of England won wiped out.
The book ends with the protagonists planning to destroy The Grand High Witch's retainers and conquer her castle, and then use its various magical resources to systematically hunt down the unsuspecting witches of every country and rid the world of them forever. In the film's ending, the now-good Miss Irvine arrives to lift the mouse-spell from Luke and restore him to human form.
Behind the scenesEdit
As part of the publicity for Matilda the Musical, Lucy Dahl, the daughter of the author Roald Dahl, was interviewed about her father's books. She discussed The Witches at length, citing The Grand High Witch was inspired by her stepmother. Her stepmother's personality was not the factor, but it was her social status and look. Lucy also seriously stated she was not entirely sure witches were fiction, saying, "There's this older lady, a neighbor. If witches are real, she's one of them."
For the film adaptation, Anjelica Huston and the costume designer Marit Allen originally brought a different dress for Huston's role as The Grand High Witch, but the director Nicolas Roeg rejected it as "not sexy". Huston recalled: "That was the first time I’d imagined that this horrible creature in a children’s movie should have sex appeal. It simply had not occurred to me. But of course Nic was absolutely right. His vision was diabolical and dark and brilliantly funny. If a witch was to be at the center of this plot, she needed to be sexy to hold the eye." The character's monstrous version was prepared by Jim Henson's Creature Shop: "The prosthetics for Miss Ernst’s transformation to The Grand High Witch were extensive. The various features—contact lenses, full facial mask, hump, withered collarbone and hands—took over six hours to apply and almost as much time to remove at the end of the day." It has remained one of her favourite roles.
The Grand High Witch has been overall very well received for various reasons, having remained a highly popular and memorable character in both the original version and in the film adaptation (as one of the best movie witches or in other aspects). Anjelica Huston's campy, over-the-top portrayal in the film was also acclaimed by reviewers at the time, earning her awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics among other wins and nominations.
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