Study Guide

The Graveyard Book Chapter 4

By Neil Gaiman

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Chapter 4

The Witch’s Headstone

  • (Brain Snack: Although this is Chapter 4, it's actually the first chapter Neil Gaiman wrote for The Graveyard Book.)
  • Everybody knows there’s a witch buried just outside the graveyard. Mr. and Mrs. Owens don’t allow Bod to go to that area of the graveyard, but (of course) he’s really curious about it.
  • Bod waits by the chapel where Silas sleeps. Soon, he hears the fluttering sound of Silas fast asleep in the belfry. (That was another hint as to what kind of creature Silas is. Now, what kinds of creatures are notorious for sleeping in belfries?)
  • Silas comes down the top of the chapel headfirst. (Headfirst? Hmmm.)
  • Bod asks him about the land on the borders of the graveyard. Silas explains that the land over there is considered unholy. Some people believe all land is hope, but the people in this land believe that land is only holy if it’s been blessed by a church.
  • The unholy land has not been blessed by the church, and is known as a Potter’s Field. They use it to bury people who killed themselves, or who were criminals, or who weren’t known to be religious.
  • Silas explains to eight-year-old Bod that this doesn’t really mean the people buried in the Potter’s Field are bad.
  • See, back in the day, you could be hanged for stealing some change. People who kill themselves are people who are too sad living, so they speed up their path to death.
  • But, they usually bring their problems with them and aren’t much happier than when they were alive.
  • Now Bod asks about the witch he’s heard about. Silas just says that, yes, witches are also buried in Potter’s Field. Before Bod can get more out of him, Silas says he needs to have breakfast.
  • Here’s a description of Silas leaving to go have his breakfast: “In the twilight of the graveyard there was a silent implosion, a flutter of velvet darkness, and Silas was gone” (4.23).
  • Bod is a little late for his lesson with Mr. Thomas Pennyworth. Today’s lesson is on “Slipping and Fading” (4.35). Hmm, we definitely know how to do the first one of those already.
  • Slipping and Fading is how the dead move through the graveyard. Mr. Pennyworth wants Bod to know how to “Slip through shadows. Fade from awareness” (4.35).
  • Bod is terrible at it. He tries really hard, but he can’t make himself fade, or slip.
  • Mr. Pennyworth isn’t happy. So, instead, he grills Bod on what they’ve been studying recently – “the humors” (4.39).
  • (Ever hear of the Hippocratic Oath? It’s the promise that doctors make, pledging to do no harm to their patients. It’s named after an ancient doctor named Hippocrates, who wrote a very famous book about medicine. Mr. Pennyworth is teaching Bod about Hippocrates. Hippocrates is most famous for idea that “Health was defined as the balance of the four humors. Disease was defined as the imbalance of the humors.” Read more at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
  • After that, Bod goes to his lessons with Miss Leticia Burrows. She’s easily distracted, so Bod asks her about what’s really on his mind – the witch that might be buried in the unholy ground on the border of the graveyard.
  • Miss Burrows basically says the people over there aren’t good, and that it wouldn’t be a good idea to go there either.
  • After that, Bod doesn’t go over to the Potter’s Field. Instead, he climbs an apple tree. He starts getting hungry, and starts wishing he hadn’t gobbled up all the apples on other visits.
  • Whoa, there – what’s that? A fresh, juicy red apple! He reaches for it. He manages to touch it. But the branch breaks, and he falls and is knocked out.
  • He wakes up in a soft place. Lucky for him, he fell on a pile of grass clippings.
  • Somebody is here with him. She’s older than Bod, but not an adult. She looks smart, but not pretty, and has a goblin-y expression.
  • She asks him if he’s “the live boy” (4.65). Yep, even the people in the unholy ground have heard of him.
  • He asks her if she killed herself, or if she was a thief. She says “no” to both questions.
  • Next he asks her if she’s heard about the witch. She says that the witch was “drowned and burned and buried here without so much as a stone to mark the spot” (4.74).
  • Bod is sure now that she’s the witch, and she settles it, by telling her story:
  • One morning, the villagers came to her home before she was even awake. They dragged her out of bed and out onto the grass, and they held a trial.
  • Different people got up and said what proof they had that she was a witch.
  • A girl named Jemima said that her boyfriend Solomon Porritt has stopped hanging out with her, and only wants to be with the witch. The witch must have put a love spell on him.
  • So, they decided to test her by drowning her. If she were a witch, the drowning wouldn’t work.
  • And it doesn’t. She was still alive after they drowned her, she tells Bod, smiling. Now he sees that she’s pretty, too,
  • The fact that she didn’t die after they drowned her was proof she was a witch, so they burned her to death.
  • (Gruesome! If you are a US reader, you might have heard of the Salem Witch Trials.
  • Neil Gaiman is referencing similar events in British history.)
  • Bod wants to know if any of the people who helped burn her are buried here.
  • She says no. See, somebody sent Mr. Porringer (probably Jemima’s father) a really nice carpet from London. The rug happened to be infested with the plague (a deadly and highly contagious disease).
  • So everybody who helped burn the witch, or saw her get burned, got the plague and died. People who died of plague were then buried together in pits, which is why none of those people are buried in the graveyard.
  • After he hears her story, Bod wants to know her name.
  • She says it’s Liza Hempstock. Liza is sad because she doesn’t have a headstone, and because her gravesite is full of prickly nettles.
  • Bod decides to make it his personal mission to find a headstone for her.
  • After spending a few days and nights making wild and crazy plans, Bod decides he’ll really need to get some money to buy Liza the headstone she deserves.
  • You might remember that four years ago, Bod went to the underground Barrow and saw the Indigo Man. Now, Bod is going back there to get some loot. He walks down the stone stairs.
  • It’s so dark down there. Bod can feel the Sleer snaking around the walls. He can feel its “hate and greed” (4.103) but he’s not scared.
  • Bod hints that he’s going to take some of the treasure the Sleer guards, and the Sleer says “NOTHING EVER LEAVES” (4.106).
  • Bod picks up the brooch and Bod can feel the Sleer getting madder and madder. As Bod heads up the steps he can hear the Sleer say, “IT ALWAYS COMES BACK” (4.115).
  • When he’s back above ground he looks at the brooch in the early morning light.
  • Something kind of like a many-headed snake is crawling around on the clasp of the brooch, and Bod wonders if the Sleer looks like this too.
  • He runs to the unholy ground and finds Liza, who’s trying to sleep. He asks her what name and date she wants on her headstone. She says she wants her initials E (for Elizabeth) and H.
  • It’s about 9am, and Bod finds some old clothes (since his usual winding sheet – what a corpse is wrapped in – won’t quite work in public) and leaves the graveyard. He’s really ashamed that he is going behind Silas’s back to sneak out, while he’s sleeping.
  • He makes his way to Abanazer Bolger’s pawnshop in Old Town. Abanazer is a dishonest guy who doesn’t give people fair prices for the things he buys from them. This can’t go well.
  • Usually he doesn’t buy from kids. Kids usually bring in things they steal from their parents, and before you know it, the parents will be all up in his shop, asking why he bought their precious goods. Way too much trouble.
  • But Bod is the weirdest looking kid he’s seen – smelly, dressed in an old man’s clothes, with no haircut, looking too serious for a kid.
  • First, Abanazer tells Bod that he doesn’t do business with children. But then Bod shows him the Sleer’s brooch. He recognizes that it’s made of something called snakestone, and is worth a lot.
  • Now he’s excited, and he wants to know where Bod got it. He starts pretending to be a nice guy, and leads Bod into his back room.
  • Bod tells him that he got the brooch from a grave, but he won’t tell him where.
  • Abanazer locks Bod in the room to give him time to think about his answer.
  • After that, Abanazer puts the “closed” sign up on the door. He calls up somebody named Tom and tells him to come straight over.
  • Meanwhile, Bod is feeling pretty bad about letting himself get trapped like this. He starts to freak out, but then he calms down and tries to come up with an escape plan.
  • All of a sudden, he hears Liza’s voice. She wants to know what he’s up to, but he won’t tell her.
  • He has to explain to her that even though he can slip through walls in the graveyard (because he has Freedom of the Graveyard), he can’t do that in the outside world.
  • Liza leaves Bod to go see what Abanazer is up to.
  • While Abanazer is waiting for Tom, he thinks of another way Bod could be valuable to him.
  • He finds a card left with him long ago. It has black edges and it only says one word. That word is “Jack” (4.189). Abanazer will have to get a hold of this Jack.
  • Tom Hustings arrives and Abanazer tells him that he’s found “Treasure. Two kinds.” (4.197).
  • First he shows him the Sleer’s brooch. He says it’s from the times of the Druids.
  • (Druidism is an ancient religion, versions of which are still practiced today [link].)
  • Next, Abanazer shows him Jack’s card, and tells him about Bod. Abanazer and Tom imagine an entire barrow full of treasure just like the brooch. They’ll force Bod to show them the way.
  • Liza gets bored and goes back to Bod. She tells him that the men want him to lead them to the rest of the treasure, but she doesn’t tell him about Jack’s card. She asks him why he’s gotten into all this trouble.
  • Bod admits that he’s trying to sell the brooch to get money to buy her a headstone.
  • This, of course, makes Liza happy. She says, “It’s the first nice thing anybody’s done for me in five hundred years” (4.224).
  • She wants Bod to fade. He learns that Mr. Pennyworth’s way for fading only works for the dead, who don’t need much help doing so anyway, since they’re mostly invisible already.
  • Liza does some magic, and says some magic fading words, and shazam! – Bod fades.
  • When he asks how she did it, Liza says, “Just giving you a helping hand […]. I may be dead but I’m a dead witch. And we don’t forget” (4.233).
  • They hear a key turning in the lock. Abanazer is back. He can’t see Bod and is sure the boy’s hiding. Tom comes in but he can’t see Bod either. Liza laughs, whistles, makes wind-sounds, and then fizzles the lights out. Super creepy.
  • Abanazer and Tom leave the room, and Abanazer locks the door again.
  • Abanazer and Tom are greedy and both want the brooch. They start fighting over it. Abanazer offers Tom a drink, and then puts some drops of poison in it. Tom drinks it, and finds out that he’s been poisoned, but it's too late. They fight, and furniture crashes.
  • Inside the room, Bod has figured out a way out.
  • He pushes a page of newspaper under the door, then uses a paintbrush to poke the key out the other side! Finally, he pulls the newspaper back under the door and, voilà, he has the key.
  • Bod and Liza find Abanazer and Tom passed out, Tom on top of Abanazer, on the floor of the wrecked shop.
  • The Sleer’s brooch is right there with Jack’s card. Bod doesn’t want either one. Liza convinces him to take them both.
  • About two hundred miles away, Jack wakes up and goes downstairs. He can smell something.
  • His grandma notices he’s acting funny. As she stirs her pot, she asks him, “What’s got into you now?” (4.290).
  • Jack says he isn’t sure, but whatever it is, it smells very, very yummy.
  • Bod runs through Old Town, up the hill and toward the graveyard. Before he gets to the graveyard, he sees Silas’s velvety form in the air, and then sees Silas the man.
  • Silas is, of course, upset. Bod is crying and he apologizes.
  • Silas picks up Bod, wraps him in his cloak, and flies him (it’s hinted) to the chapel. (So much for Silas not being a hugger!)
  • Bod tells Silas a little about his adventure, including how Liza helped him. When he gives Silas Jack’s card, Silas wants to know the whole story, so Bod tells it. Silas says he needs to take off so he can “dispose” (4.312) of the card. We’re guessing he’s not looking for a paper recycling bin.
  • He makes sure Nobody knows he’s definitely in trouble, and tells him to go home to Mr. and Mrs. Owens so they can give him what he has coming to him.
  • After being properly punished, Bod goes to the Sleer and gives it back the brooch. It seems pleased, and says, “IT ALWAYS COMES BACK” (4.318). Next time, we’ll listen to the gigantic snake.
  • Next, he goes to the Potter’s Field, but doesn’t find Liza.
  • He starts clearing away the prickly nettles growing over her grave.
  • Next he takes a big, bright, glass paperweight, a paintbrush, and some paint out of his pocket. (He pinched these from Abanazer Bolger.)
  • On it, he paints Liza’s initials, E.H., and the words “We don’t forget” (4.325).
  • As he’s leaving the Potter’s Field, he hears a voice say, “Not bad at all” (4.328).

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