Witch Week Day Six: Readalong of Witch Week

Posted November 5, 2014 by Lory in reviews / 11 Comments

Diana Wynne Jones readalong
UK paperback, Mammoth

We’ve arrived at the fifth of November, known as Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night in the UK, and the last day of Witch Week according to the book of that title by Diana Wynne Jones — which, appropriately, has been our readalong selection for this event. This being the first time I’ve hosted anything like this, I’m curious to find out whether anybody else has actually been reading along! Did you read Witch Week for the first, or fifth, or twentieth time? What were your impressions, whether this is a new book for you, or an old friend? Did you have favorite scenes or characters, or were there perhaps aspects of the book that disturbed or puzzled you? If you were rereading, how has your experience of the book changed over time? Please comment below. . . and readers, be aware that spoilers are not prohibited from here on out.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Witch Week, but at least one of them was to a rapt audience of fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I know that when I first read it I was much closer to my own school experience, which in many ways paralleled that of Nan Pilgrim in the book. Like her, I was pudgy, hopeless in gym, disdained and sometimes tortured by the popular kids, and given to describing things. Thus I sympathized with Nan even as I laughed at her predicaments, such as when she thought she was climbing the rope in gym class when actually she was just making hopeful motions with her eyes closed, or when she vividly described the horrible school food while sitting next to the principal. I felt her delight when she found that she did have a talent, even if it was for forbidden witchcraft, and her vindication when she was able to transform that talent and the whole world along with it, through the creative power of storytelling.

But there is more to the book than the parts that resonate with me personally, and when I re-read it this time the darker elements came more to the fore. Witch Week, which was originally published in 1982, created a magical dystopia before it was fashionable to do so, and I think that current writers in the genre could learn much from its construction. Its depiction of a world like our own, with one important difference — witchcraft is both common and punishable by death — is subtly horrific, forming a weighty counterpoint to the comic scenes. These play upon themes we all know from our school days, like useless journal-writing exercises and teachers who think their private affairs are invisible to their students. But these schoolkids are not just threatened with being sent to detention or even being menaced by bullies; they are in serious danger of losing their lives.

bonfire night fireworks
An oddly appropriate Guy Fawkes scene (Historical Society)

Witch Week is in many ways the “anti-Harry Potter,” as Emma Jane Falconer astutely describes it in her DWJ zine, and its portrayal of evil is far more nuanced and real than the cartoon villainy of Voldemort — perhaps coming too close to home for some readers. Maybe that’s why when I looked for some other reviews, I found many that called it unpleasant and depressing. This is partly due to the fact that Charles Morgan, the second main child character in the book, is in danger of losing not just his life but his very soul as he turns toward the darker side of magic. I think that readers who are merely repelled by him are missing the point, though. A society that generates fear and hatred, and suppresses the creative human spirit, will ultimately destroy itself. Charles is a victim of that society, and his ultimate self-transformation is as important as Nan’s, though less obvious — it may be that some readers miss it altogether, in the rush of the story’s conclusion.

For me, rereading Witch Week was a delight as usual. I remain impressed by Diana Wynne Jones’s ability to create a story with so many different layers, combining farce and tragedy in a way I believe to be quite rare. Plus I still adore Nan, and cheer for her as she finally gets to ride (awkwardly) on a splendidly eccentric broomstick. Her triumph enriches all of us.

(If I haven’t mentioned that DWJ’s well-known recurring character Chrestomanci comes into the story, perhaps it’s because I find him more peripheral than in the other novels in which he appears. He plays a decidedly supporting role, even though it’s essential to the plot. If this is your first Chrestomanci book and you are a bit baffled by him, do seek out the others. It will all make sense, I promise.)

But enough from me! What are your thoughts? Please share them below, and remember that you can also link up your own reviews at the master post. Plus, don’t neglect to enter the giveaway before midnight tonight for a chance to win the above-mentioned DWJ zine! Tomorrow, a summary and preview of next year.

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11 responses to “Witch Week Day Six: Readalong of Witch Week

  1. I haven't had time for readalongs recently, but have been wanting to go back and read more Diana Wynne Jones! I may have read Witch Week long ago, but have never read Howl's Moving Castle.

  2. I've been wanting to reread Witch Week since I read that article in the zine! I wasn't able to follow this readalong, but I will definitely be coming back to this post and the zine article when my reread project gets to Witch Week. I remember not liking the children in the book very much the first time I read it, but gradually starting to like them as I went on. The scene where Nan describes the food was my favourite.

    It's already the 6th here, but I only just posted on my blog about my giveaway, so I'll just link it at the masterpost!

  3. Well, I just finished my reread about half an hour ago. This was my third time reading Witch Week (plus I listened to that radio play version … was that last year?) and each time it gets better! The first time, I was going through the Chrestomanci stories and it was so different than the other stories and had so little Chrestomanci that I just honestly didn't "get it" or enjoy it and focused on the bleakness of the school and the situation. Last time I liked it more but this time it really finally clicked and I saw how brilliant and, strangely, how funny the story really is. I mean, they are almost ALL witches! Not to mention the hoe and the mop, the pink party dress, the can of gasoline — they're all funny.
    Thank you for hosting this event and the read-along! I'm so glad to have picked up this book right now. I love that I finally figured it out!

    • Radio play version? That must have been interesting. Anyway, I'm so glad this book has grown on you…I hope that some of the readers who disliked it at first might give it another chance. You note some of my favorite comic elements too.
      Thank you so much for participating, and I am looking forward to what you cook up for DWJ March.

  4. I did read it! I'll write it up–tomorrow, I hope. I was thinking a lot this time about the really dark setting as well. A world where a huge number of people are witches, and witched are *burned*–in the modern world, no less.

  5. I reread Witch Week for the second time for this readalong. Like Kristen, I'd read it in a collection with the other Chrestomanci stories and it didn't stand out for me, but this time it did. I had the same reaction to Nan as you did, especially her description of the dinner. That felt like something I would be saying in my head and I could feel how distressing it would be to hear it coming out of my mouth. And yes, the transformation of Charles at the end is heartening. I could see him becoming a necromancer and was relieved he didn't.