Roald Dahl: the bad influence

In the early days, he was a lone anarchist on a rampage and there were angry letters from librarians, but we learned to love his strange stories

 

Here are some things that happen in Roald Dahl’s books for children:

A duck-hunting family have their arms replaced with wings while giant ducks with human arms and guns take ownership of their house.

A boy engages in chemical experiments with household products which he tests on his horrible grandmother until she disappears. His mother reluctantly accepts her absence as a good thing.

After a squalid couple trick each other into eating worms and put frogs into each other’s beds, they are glued to a ceiling by vengeful birds and monkeys where they shrink into nothing.

A child turned into a mouse by a coven of grotesque witches is content because it will mean he won’t outlive his beloved grandmother. This is pitched as a happy ending.

Children are put through a series of manipulative tests by an eccentric and unpredictable entrepreneur. The winner wins a factory. The losers are respectively, lodged in a pipe, turned into a giant blueberry, shrunk (a recurring theme) and thrown down a rubbish chute.

After his miserable aunts are flattened, an orphan floats off in a giant piece of fruit accompanied by giant talking insects.

This is the stuff of David Cronenberg, really. It’s kind of amazing that Roald Dahl, the author of James and the Giant Peach, The Twits, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the undisputed king of hilarious children’s literature and not the ghoulish emperor of body horror.

Where did it all come from?

Many of Dahl’s stories are power fantasies in which a child, like the narrator of the Magic Finger, the eponymous Matilda or George of George’s Magic Medicine, ends up wielding supernatural power with gleeful abandon. Great power does not come with great responsibility in many of Dahl’s stories.

Understandably, for someone who lost his father at a young age, most of his protagonists are orphans. Less understandably, given that he grew up in an anglicised Norwegian houseful of sisters, they are also only children (though the matriarchal household might account for his many strong female protagonists).

Parents are usually absent in Dahl’s books and parental stand-ins are often cruel despots, dispatched violently and without mercy (flattened by a peach, for example). The two exceptions are The Fantastic Mr Fox and the father in Danny, the Champion of the World, who are, respectively, a thieving fox and an anarchist poacher who drugs birds to death (that the antagonists in The Magic Finger are tortured for hunting ducks, while Danny’s father’s duck-killing ways are lauded, speaks to a certain lack of consistency in Dahl’s books).

You can argue that all this darkness and power lust were earned in personal tragedy. In his childhood, Dahl lost his father, Harald, to pneumonia, and his sister, Astri, to appendicitis.

During the war he crashed his RAF Gloster Gladiator fighter in Libya, leading to facial and back problems for the rest of his life (after he was invalided out of active service, he became an attaché and sometime intelligence officer in Washington where he learned to love both writing and spending time with famous people).

 

The heartache didn’t stop there. Later Dahl’s only son, Theo, was brain damaged in an accident in New York, his beloved daughter, Olivia, died of measles, and his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, then the main breadwinner in their household, suffered a series of strokes.

Dahl held the family together through a mixture of charisma, stubbornness and bullying. He refused to accept Neal’s medical limitations and eventually had her back on film sets (years later, Dahl divorced Neal and married Felicity Crossland). He personally co-designed a stent to help drain fluid from his son’s brain, a device which was widely used for decades after.

He wrote his way out of hospital debts with a pencil on yellow pages in a small hut in the garden of their home in Buckinghamshire (“The Valley of the Dahls” as his daughter Tessa later called the area).

He was a control-freak with a tendency towards fabulism. Many details of his own memoirs have been disputed by subsequent biographers. When he started out as an author he wrote compellingly dark, often unpleasant stories for adults, published in publications like the New Yorker and Playboy. These were disturbing yarns awash with misanthropy and horror, like Skin, about a man who ends up selling the tattoo on his back, or Royal Jelly, about a ravenous child who seems to be turning into a bee.

Many of his early stories originated at dinner parties as a way to shock female guests. Yes, despite writing some excellent female heroes, Dahl had a misogynistic streak. He also had a racist streak (the Oompa Loompa were, in the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, imported pygmies) and an anti-Semitic one (“There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” he said to an interviewer in 1983). Your favourite authors always disappoint you.

Writing for children softened his misanthropy, tempering it with comedy and tenderness. Many of his stories began as tales told to his own children at bedtime. By the time I was reading Dahl in the early 1980s, his books were illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, his perfect visual foil, and he was in the midst of a particularly golden period during which he wrote, in quick succession, The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine, The BFG and The Witches. His books had a huge influence on me, though in retrospect I’m not sure I should have looked there for moral guidance.

Here are some things which a young reader will learn from reading his books: The universe is chaotic. Bad things happen. Authority figures should be distrusted. Your parents may be lying to you. Human bodies are amazing and disgusting. Farts are funny. Some people are more special than others. Own your power whatever that might be (a magic finger, a wondrous medicine, a massive giant friend, a chocolate factory manned by willing slaves, a giant mobile piece of fruit). Revenge is a reasonable goal and a comeuppance is joyous to behold. Magic exists. True magic has blood and guts in it. Try to survive.

Why such subversive messages were permitted in mainstream children’s literature in the 1970s and 1980s is hard to fathom, and there were many angry letters from librarians in the early days. I suspect that his ascent was a consequence of what society had learned from the counterculture at that point: a lone anarchist on a rampage does little damage and is very entertaining, especially if it’s a child or Roald Dahl.

Dahl sought acclaim. His adult short stories were praised but they were understandably overshadowed by his incredible work for children and his two adult novels were relative flops. When, in 1961, he published James and the Giant Peach, he believed that children’s writing was just a diversion from his real work, and though his view on this changed, throughout his life he yearned to be taken seriously as a significant author.

Which is funny, because those of us who grew up with his books know this: Roald Dahl is a very significant author. We loved him. He taught us about power and anarchy. He was very funny. He was a bad influence on us and we needed it.

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