Why Roald Dahl still matters

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“Ow, Fuck”

Those were the parting words of perhaps the finest children’s author of the last century, as he received the lethal dose of morphine that would finally curtail his remarkable life. Roald Dahl, son of Norwegian parents and child of Cardiff, expired in Oxford on the 23rd of November, 1990. On the 23rd of this month, 22 years will have passed since children lost their favourite storyteller.

That somewhat abrupt final goodbye was emblematic of a life spent scoffing at sentimentality and neglecting social graces. Dahl wrote books that unabashedly dealt with the darkest of themes, turning convention on its head for children’s fiction.

The Twits regularly glued the tree in their garden, so as to have a ready crop of helpless birds for their pies. The BFG’s countrymen gobbled up children in the middle of the night. Danny, ‘the Champion of the World’, was forced to live with his father in the most dreadful penury, subsisting on poached pheasants. A similar fate befell Charlie Bucket before he discovered the ‘golden ticket’, his only chance to escape destitution, and the ‘Fantastic’ Mr Fox had his tail blown off, as he was exhaustively pursued by the nefarious farming triumvirate of Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

But Dahl’s favourite theme of all was that of child abuse. James (of ‘Giant Peach’ fame) was an orphan, forced into an upbringing of appalling abuse from his two hideous aunts. Similarly, Matilda was neglected and ostracized by her family, to such an extent that she was eventually adopted by her compassionate teacher, Mrs Honey. In ‘The Witches’, demons had taken on the guise of women, and intended to counteract the foul stench children emitted by every last one on earth.

Dahl wasn’t scared of introducing his readers to evil; he knew that they were often better equipped to deal with the macabre aspects of life than their parents. He saw resilience where others saw fragility, and he saw intelligence where others saw innocence and naivety. In fact, the self-confessed key to Dahl’s success was that he conspired with children against the awful, foolish world of adults.

He had that rare gift of being able to effortlessly mould reality into the most fantastic and compelling worlds. In fact, ‘Reality’ meant something altogether different to Dahl. A compulsive liar in his private life, he showed a negligible appreciation of the distinction between fact and fiction. What was true wasn’t nearly as important to him as what could be. Because of this he was able to pull his readers through the most depressing and frightening of plots with the tacit assurance that in the end it was just a story. It just could have happened. His visions were unfettered and incomplete; it was up to the readers to fill in the blanks, just as they had filled the protagonists’ shoes, night after night.

In the 22 years since his death, Dahl’s pre-eminence in children’s literature has rarely been called into question. It is a nice thought that, in these tepid times, a generation of children have been shown the world through the imaginative guidance of the same man who kept his surgically-removed femur as a paperweight.

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