Roald Dahl’s Subversive Storytelling

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Most young readers appreciate the fact that, in his children’s stories, Roald Dahl, who was born on this day in 1916, so nakedly takes their side.

In many children’s books—contrary to what parents tell their children about the meaning of appearances—physical ugliness signifies its moral equivalent. Dahl takes this to an extreme, describing his villains’ repulsive attributes with brio: Mr. Hazell’s “great, glistening, beery face . . .

Anti-Dahlism has been further fuelled by a 1994 unauthorized biography, by the British writer Jeremy Treglown, which presents a complicated, domineering, and sometimes disagreeable man. Dahl was “a war hero, a connoisseur, a philanthropist and a devoted family man who had to confront an appalling succession of tragedies,” Treglown writes. “He was also . . . a fantasist, an anti-Semite, a bully and a self-publicizing trouble-maker.

One compensation for Dahl was that he excelled at games and sports. Being tall probably protected him from a certain amount of torment, too—as a teen-ager, he was well on his way to acquiring his adult nicknames, Lofty and Stalky. He and the other boys at Repton also enjoyed a curious perk, courtesy of the Cadbury chocolate company. “Every now and again, a plain grey cardboard box was dished out to each boy in our House,” Dahl writes in “Boy.

Most of Dahl’s early writing was for adults. He specialized in wartime stories and macabre tales with surprise endings, or what the British call “a twist in the tail.” In a typical story, a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to police investigators. But by the early sixties some of that success had begun petering out., which had earlier accepted several stories, now sent rejection notices.

Several of Dahl’s best books—“The B.F.G.,” “The Witches,” “Matilda”—were written during this late period. In these works, his natural acidity is tempered with sweetness. Each book centers on a relationship between a child and an adult which is a dream of perfect understanding and companionability. The boy protagonist of “The Witches” adores his Grandmamma, who tells him the gruesome truth about witches and helps him defeat them.


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I read one as an adult and found it racist.

...and the little-known fact that Roald Dahl served as a British spy in the US in the 1940's and lived many real life adventures before he started writing fictional ones...

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