Roald Dahl would have been 101 years old on 13th September 2017; he lived through much of the 20th century in his varied roles as a ‘spy, an ace fighter pilot, a chocolate historian and a medical inventor’. But it is as a well-loved writer of children’s books that he is mostly remembered; almost every child seem to have encountered (and loved) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda in some form, whether book, film or musical theatre.
Throughout Dahl’s career as a writer there have been dissenting voices on his work, often focussing around the violence many of his stories contain. This is usually directed at parent or guardian figures who are cruel to the children in their care and come to unpleasant ends as a result, and sometimes at equally disagreeable children. Whether it be the aunts’ flattened beneath a massive peach or the various fates of children at the chocolate factory, there is no lack of physical retribution. One response is to consider such material unsuitable for children; another is to see it as a means of expressing (and thus defusing) the anxieties resulting from ‘the unequal power relationships between children and adults’.
Dahl’s stories have a forerunner in the similarly vicious ends provided for the enemies of the protagonists in traditional fairy tales (which are rarely about actual fairies, and generally about some unnatural or supernatural happening). Even in the Grimms’ cleaned-up versions, we find the lazy maiden covered in boiling pitch (‘Mother Holle’) and the false bride dragged through the streets ‘inside a barrel studded with sharp nails’ (‘The Goose Girl’). As Neil Gaiman has pointed out, ‘these stories have power’, not least because of the ways in which they reveal how we imagine ourselves encountering, overcoming and dispatching our opponents.
Dahl’s stories can usefully be understood in relation to the ideas of another great writer for children – and adults. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, JRR. Tolkien notes that children have a natural desire to see justice served through punishment for those who have done wrong. Tolkien also shows that such supernatural stories ‘offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation’. ‘Fantasy’ is the ‘sub-creative art’ by which authors imagine and make other worlds in which their stories can take place. ‘Recovery’ refers to ‘regaining a clear view’ while ‘Escape’ describes the relief that such stories can offer, not only from ‘evil and ugliness’ but from ‘hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death’. The ‘Consolation of the Happy Ending’ allows the story to resolve in a moment of unexpected joy.
Dahl’s works are typically premised on these four things. Hence, Fantastic Mr Fox offers a world in which talking, speaking foxes regain their strength and animal community in an escape from human selfishness and cruelty, ending in an uproarious feast. Matilda’s telekinetic powers enable her to gain a different perspective and escape the tyranny of her headmistress as well as the neglect of her parents, leading to the happier guardianship of Miss Honey. George’s Marvellous Medicine and James and the Giant Peach offer similar patterns of fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation. That Dahl’s tales include danger and malice in fantasy worlds is not strange; that they include merciless punishment of wrongdoing is only to be expected. Invariably, however, Dahl also offers his readers recovery, escape and consolation: hunger satisfied, friends gained and security restored. These books do not attempt to model behaviour for children; rather, they provide reassurance and hope in the face of fear and uncertainty. Dahl’s writings may not be about fairies, but by this understanding they are definitely ‘fairy-stories’.