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About this book

Roald Dahl is one of the world's best-loved authors. More than twenty years after his death, his books are still highly popular with children and have inspired numerous feature films – yet he remains a controversial figure.

This volume, the first collection of academic essays ever to be devoted to Dahl's work, brings together a team of well-known scholars of children's literature to explore the man, his books for children, and his complex attitudes towards various key subjects. Including essays on education, crime, Dahl's humour, his long-term collaboration with the artist Quentin Blake, and film adaptations, this fascinating collection offers a unique insight into the writer and his world.

Table of Contents


When Roald Dahl died in 1990 he was indisputably the most popular and best-known British children’s writer of his day. In a purely quantitative sense, his dominance is easy to demonstrate: in a survey of favourite books carried by the Young Telegraph section of the Telegraph newspaper in October 1993, for example, ‘8 of the top 10 titles, including all of the top 5’, were written by Dahl. Three years later, the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL) at Roehampton surveyed 9,000 school pupils about their reading habits: Dahl accounted for the top six titles for 7- to 11-year-olds, and six out of the top ten for those aged 11 to 16.1 Nor was his popularity confined to Britain. He broke into the American market even before the UK one, and his first books for children were originally published in the USA. It was in the United States, too, that he found early bigscreen success, with Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).
Catherine Butler

1. Fairy Tale and Anti-Fairy Tale: Roald Dahl and the Telling Power of Stories

Towards the beginning of Matilda, Roald Dahl portrays his eponymous heroine as someone who is knowledgeable about the power of story to have a controlling effect on a listener.1 Matilda has put superglue on her father’s hat and it is stuck to his head. She tells her traumatised father about a boy who got superglue on his finger without knowing it and then got it stuck up his nose.
Mr Wormwood jumped. ‘What happened to him?’ he spluttered.
‘The finger got stuck inside his nose,’ Matilda said, ‘and he had to go around like that for a week. … He looked an awful fool.’2
Deborah Cogan Thacker

2. Discomfort and Delight: The Role of Humour in Roald Dahl’s Works for Children

Many of the literary techniques used to create humour parallel those involved in triggering disgust, and both disgust and humour can be used in multiple ways to trace and traverse our social boundaries. What we find humorous and what we find disgusting signal the limits of the acceptable and unacceptable, telling us what behaviour will allow us to maintain our in-group status and what behaviour will cause us to become outcasts. For this reason, humour and disgust can be used conservatively: not only to define acceptable behaviour but also to urge us to adopt it. But both can also be used subversively, to trace the boundaries of the acceptable in order to call attention to their arbitrariness or even to encourage their demolition. In this chapter, I explore how Dahl intertwines the oddly related pleasures of humour and disgust in order to create slyly satirical commentary.
Jackie E. Stallcup

3. ‘Don’t gobbelfunk around with words’: Roald Dahl and Language

While it is a truism that anyone who tries to write stories must engage in the arduous process of organising words and sentences, it is also the case that for some authors language becomes more central, as it famously does in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books. For Roald Dahl, too, I would argue, the shape, sound and possibilities of language are abiding concerns, often becoming part of the subject matter or plot. The title story of Dahl’s teenage collection, The Great Automatic Grammatizator, and Other Stories, is a key example.2 Here, the protagonist, Adolph Knipe, feeds a primitive computer a range of themes, plots, writing styles, vocabulary and proper names in order to have it generate stories. After initial success Knipe seeks to monopolise the market by having other writers sign a contract agreeing not to write any more but, in return for a lifetime’s pay, to let the agency produce stories under their names. But this third-person story, written in the narrative past, has a Dahlesque ‘twist’ towards the end:
This last year … it was estimated that at least one half of all the novels and stories published in the English language were produced by Adolph Knipe upon the Great Automatic Grammatizator.
Does this surprise you?
I doubt it.3
David Rudd

4. ‘The problem of school’: Roald Dahl and Education

In one form or another, education figures extensively in the work of Roald Dahl. His memoir, Boy (1984), reveals schooldays blighted by violent or even sadistic teachers.1 The same subject is also prominent in his shorter, ‘factual’, piece, ‘Lucky Break’ (1977). The accuracy of these recollections has subsequently been challenged, but it could be argued that this picture reflects part of Dahl’s self-construct as someone whose ability, unrecognised by those in authority, triumphed despite, rather than because of, the endeavours of his teachers. A similar emphasis is to be found in much of his fictional writing. The contrast in Matilda (1988) between the angelic Miss Honey, who recognises her pupil’s potential, and the brutal Miss Trunchbull, who is adamant about the limitations of young children, is consistent with Dahl’s views about the weaknesses of the educational system. It appears that Dahl’s self-edited recollections of the schools he had experienced created in him a tension between appreciation of the sterling qualities of those teachers who encouraged in their pupils a love of learning, and in particular of literature, and those schools and teachers who wanted children to fit their preconceived notions about children as the products of the educational system.
Pat Pinsent

5. The Unlikely Family Romance in Roald Dahl’s Children’s Fiction

Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory concludes by suggesting that Willy Wonka was the true winner in the rags-to-riches tale because he was given the gift of a family. The film’s narrator tells the audience that Willy Wonka had gained a family and that this life-fulfilling pleasure exceeded even the riches and sweetness of owning a chocolate factory.1 Yet in Dahl’s texts the sweetness of family is confused, abstract and often discarded as cultural myth. In George’s Marvellous Medicine the aim of the book is to ‘improve’ (poison) Granny; in Matilda the heroine is pitched head-to-head with her parents in an ongoing battle that ends with them living in different countries; and in James and the Giant Peach James’s repugnant aunts are squashed to death as the peach rolls over them in James’s bid for freedom. If all Dahl’s texts dealt with family in this manner, then this chapter would be relatively straightforward, but the delight of Dahl is that his work refuses such easy categorisation. The family in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory conforms to the Victorian ‘poor but happy’ cliché; Mr Fox in Fantastic Mr Fox is a replica of the archetypal Victorian patriarch; and Danny’s father in Danny, the Champion of the World is nurturing, loving and creative.
Ann Alston

6. ‘When one is with her it is impossible to be bored’: An Examination of Roald Dahl’s Contribution to a Feminist Project in Children’s Literature

Like all literature, Roald Dahl’s children’s books reflect the cultural context of their production. For this study of Dahl’s representations of women and girls, the significant aspects of his cultural context include the reconceptualisation of childhood that occurs in the second half of the twentieth century, and the challenge second-wave feminism poses to the traditional Western gender order that occurs from the late 1950s onwards. Dahl’s oeuvre offers a literary record of the cultural shifts in both these areas of social life. His representation of the shifting power differentials in adult-child relationships is an established hallmark of his children’s novels.1 Aligned with shifting representations of adult-child relationships are Dahl’s shifting representations of female characters and the reshaping of female storylines. This study examines Dahl’s reconfigurations of conceptualisations of ‘girl’, ‘woman’ and ‘family’ across two decades, from The Magic Finger (1966) to The BFG (1982) and then to Matilda (1988).2 The criteria guiding the selection of these focus novels were that the texts foreground ‘girlhood’ and/or female gender issues by having a female character in the primary storyline, and that the storyline represents significant interaction between a girl character and adult characters. The focus novels meet these criteria and attempt the complex task of reconfiguring patriarchal narrative conventions and story constituents to represent the individualisation of female subjects, which was the primary goal of liberal feminism.3
Beverley Pennell

7. An Unsuitable Read for a Child? Reconsidering Crime and Violence in Roald Dahl’s Fiction for Children

In the oft-quoted words of Arthur Ransome, ‘You write not for children but for yourself, and if, by good fortune, children enjoy what you enjoy, why then you are a writer of children’s books.’2 These words could have been written with Roald Dahl in mind; he wrote about what he knew and enjoyed, and although in his writing for children he generally adopted a different narrative voice from that of his fiction for adults, the themes of and the humour in the two formats are uncannily similar.3 But, as Peter Hunt has noted, Dahl had a worldwide reputation as a writer of sinister short stories ‘that dealt with the very dark corners of human nature before he became a writer for children’.4 Hunt goes on to query whether Dahl’s ‘zestful exploitation of childish instincts for hate and revenge, prejudice and violence, [can] be as innocent as it appears’.5 In the developed world, societies tend to define the child precisely as that which is not adult, endeavouring thus to set up clear demarcations between the two states of being, a position evident in children’s literature. In this context, given the thematic similarities in his writing for children and for adults, particularly the pervasive presence of violence and the frequent representation of crime, can Dahl’s juvenile fiction be considered to constitute a ‘suitable’ read for a child?
Heather Worthington

8. All Grown Up: Filmic Interpretations of Roald Dahl’s Novels

To date, seven of Roald Dahl’s 17 children’s stories have been adapted into live action and animated films. In each adaptation, the director has expanded the implications of Dahl’s narratives by introducing new themes and concerns, and placing the stories in broader political contexts which can be particularly appreciated by adult viewers. Many adult viewers are familiar with the original Dahl stories, having read them as children, so watching these adaptations is part of an ‘ongoing dialogic process’ in which they compare the work they already know with the one on the screen.1 As a result, the viewing experience creates a sense of metatextuality, simultaneously adding texture and context to the tales, making them more relevant, more timely and more mature. In other words, these film versions are Dahl’s children’s stories, all grown up.
June Pulliam

9. Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake

When Roald Dahl agreed with his publisher, Tom Maschler, that Quentin Blake should be his collaborator for The Enormous Crocodile (1978),1 he found an artist who shared his vision that the author and illustrator could work together as a team to reflect and augment each other’s contribution, so that the ultimate work of art would embody a combination of the two. Prior to this time, his publishers had selected a variety of different illustrators,2 even using (and not always acknowledging) different artists for the UK and US editions. Dahl ‘wanted the drawings to do part of the work’,3 vociferously demanding more pictures when he thought there were not enough. And Blake’s approach to illustrating another’s text was to ‘bathe yourself in it, be immersed in it before you start to draw’ in order to ‘match the spirit of the book itself’, ‘the whole atmosphere’.4 The extent of Dahl’s repertoire, which covers an impressively wide range of styles and genres — from carnivalesque exaggeration, to vulgar and cruel misogyny, comic fantasy and relative realism — is a challenge to the illustrator. Blake adapted his graphics to respond to the style of the verbal text and further interpret the particular world that Dahl had created, visualising his role as a kind of ‘illustrator-as-theatredirector’,5 one who is presented with someone else’s words and not much in the way of stage directions.
Carole Scott

10. Roald Dahl and the Commodification of Fantasy

It is not inconceivable that in 50 years’ time an historian of children’s books might call the 1970s and 1980s ‘the Dahl moment’. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Peter Hunt
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