“Once upon a time…” Lucy Mangan explores our enduring love of Roald Dahl

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Lucy Mangan
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Once upon a time there was a writer who charmed, amused and terrified children with his stories. Now, 100 years after his birth, why do we still worship Roald Dahl?

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was the first ‘proper’ book I ever read. One with words, not pictures (like Where The Wild Things Are), and telling just one story (not like Teddy Robinson, who had lots of little ones), divided into real, grown-up chapters, which gathered you up, whizzed you along at a glorious, dizzying pace, transporting you with its sense of recklessness, of adventure, of dreams tethered just close enough to reality to allow you to think that they might honestly one day come true, before tipping you out, dazed, breathless but – crucially – not confused, at the end. At which point, all you had to do was turn back to the first page and start again, this time with the joy of anticipation infusing it all with an extra mouthwatering sweetness. Magic.

Up and down the land for the next few months, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who created this whipple-scrumptious fudgemallow delight of a book will be celebrated with 100 events – exhibitions, picnics, readings. The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary explaining the meanings of words including ‘trogglehumper’ and ‘frobscottle’ has just been published and, come July, we’ll be able to watch Steven Spielberg’s The BFG on the big screen. Meanwhile, Dahl’s books still sell in their millions, 26 years after his death and over 50 years since the first one was published. He may have been accused of cruelty, misogyny and violence in his work but, if anything, he is more beloved today than ever before. Which begs the question: why?

On paper at least, he perhaps seems a surprising children’s icon. By the time his first book, James And The Giant Peach, came out in 1961 in the US – where Dahl was then living – he had already lived several lifetimes’ worth of extraordinary experiences. A trainee with energy company Shell in Tanzania when war broke out, he became a fighter pilot in the RAF. He suffered massive injuries when he crash-landed in the Libyan desert and became an attaché to Washington instead – oh, and a spy for British Intelligence. Tall, handsome and trailing clouds of military glory, he mixed in glamorous political and literary circles and was also quite the ladies’ man until he met and married the Hollywood star Patricia Neal. Not content with already making Don Draper look like a Croydon sales rep, he became a successful writer of macabre short stories for adults and the father of (eventually) five adored children with Neal. And then, aged 44: “Having read my children all the available books and come across some really crummy ones, I thought – why not try and write a children’s book?”

So he did. James was based on the bedtime stories he had been inventing for his two oldest children, Olivia and Tessa, and became a bestseller. So too was his next one, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. During the Seventies he produced such delights as Fantastic Mr FoxThe Enormous CrocodileDanny, The Champion Of The World and Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator. In the Eighties, he seemed to tap an even greater wellspring of creativity and gave us a straight run of utter brilliance with George’s Marvellous MedicineThe TwitsThe WitchesThe BFG and Matilda all appearing in this, the last decade of his life (during which one in every three children’s books sold in the UK was a Dahl – a simply frogboggling statistic), all of them instantly loved, all of them enduring for generations since.

What is it about Dahl that we loved then, now and all the years in between?

At its most basic level, it is simply that Dahl is a wonderful, natural storyteller. You can see it in him even as a child in his letters to his mother from boarding school. The same economy and vividness with which he conveys the results of a roller-skating adventure (“I sat down in the middle of it. My bottom is all blue now!”) infuses everything he ever wrote. Remember the very first pages of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, when the author addresses you directly – “This is Charlie. How d’you do? And how d’you do? And how d’you do again? He is pleased to meet you”? That’s Dahl reaching out from the pages, hitching you up and pulling you into the story with a swiftness and confidence that only increased as his career went on. I remember particularly my teacher reading The Witches to us at primary school and having to say that witches could be anyone, even “your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment”. Oh, the unspeakable thrill of such transgression!

As a child you could sense that Dahl understood you, even without knowing that he once resigned from a national educational committee when they refused to read Enid Blyton’s works in schools due to concerns about xenophobic sentiment. He argued that children loved Blyton’s books and she got them reading. He was a writer firmly on the side of the child and you could feel it on every single page.

Yet Dahl has had his fair share of detractors too. After all, his books deliver a good dose of anarchy – the Twits mindf***ing each other, George mixing his grandma’s well-deserved toxic medicine – for the young mind. His critics used to hate it. He was often accused over the years of being too violent, too sadistic and too altogether vulgar. The characterisation of a child suffering at the hands of twisted, cruel adults cropped up again and again in his work: Matilda was subjected to the cruelties of sadistic parents and teachers while James of Giant Peach fame was orphaned after a rhino killed his parents and sent to live with his evil aunts. Yet the vulnerability of children was a core concern of Dahl, who himself lost his father and sister at a young age before being sent to boarding school where he was repeatedly beaten.

An early reviewer of James And The Giant Peach was appalled by the “violent exaggerations of language” and its gross characterisations. Fellow children’s writer Eleanor Cameron condemned Charlie as “one of the most tasteless books ever written for children… like candy [it is] delectable and soothing while we are undergoing the brief sensory pleasure it affords but leaves us poorly nourished with our taste dulled for better fare.” By the Eighties and Nineties, the charge of misogyny was being laid at Dahl’s door – George’s grandma was treated too cruelly, Miss Trunchbull was a negative portrayal of spinsterhood, and a book called The Witches didn’t deal in wholly positive versions of femininity either.

But there have always been enough readers and critics to see that Dahl’s books are modern fairytales. They – and their violent moments – are not to be taken literally. Charlie’s rags-to-riches story is, like Cinderella’s, a promise that whatever your besetting problem is – from intractable maths homework to divorcing parents – it, too, shall pass. Dahl’s ‘vulgarity’ is the equivalent of the broad, bright strokes in which the classic fairytales are painted. The ‘sadism’ is part of the tradition of extremes the form requires. “In writing for children,” says Dahl, “You have to exaggerate a million times in order to ram the point home.” As for the misogyny, Dahl the writer hates adults generally, rather than women specifically. In real life things were possibly a bit more complicated (I think he had a good dose of misanthrope in his make-up and a few beliefs about women that would seem unenlightened to us but were standard-to-liberal for a man of his class and era). For every Trunchbull or witch, after all, there is a Miss Honey or heroic grandma. Child heroes can be called Charlie or Sophie, Danny or Matilda. The male and female Twits are equally vile.

Despite the misgivings, beneath the anarchy of Dahl’s world lies comforting order which ensures our enduring loyalty. The Miss Honeys, Dannys, Matildas, Sophies and kind giants of this world are rewarded. The greedy, savage and cruel are punished. As children, we identify with characters and like to feel both imperilled but ultimately safe. Dahl encompasses both desires and exploits the tension between them better than anyone. It’s an addictive pleasure and keeps children coming back for more.

And of course the love of Dahl’s work has proved catching. After all, if you have loved a book in childhood, what do you do? That’s right – you pass it on to your own kids in turn. Many of the readers Dahl captivated in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties have gone on to become parents and grandparents, and have passed on the big, friendly, witchy, Twittish torch accordingly. His characters and stories – aided by various film and theatre adaptations – are part of a heritage that unites us all. He even added entirely new words to our vocabulary. Tell someone there’s been a whizzpop in the room and they will know exactly what you mean. There is no word that will ever better encapsulate the joy and silliness of farting than that. Willy Wonka is now shorthand for any kind of eccentric genius. Having a golden ticket is synonymous with getting an access-all-areas pass to anything desirable. A century after he was born, Dahl lives on in the very language we speak.

In 1972, his literary agent Mike Watkins wrote to Dahl to tell him that they had sold over 200,000 copies of his (then) three books – Charlie, James and Fantastic Mr Fox – that year. “Imagining that each copy must have a minimum of five readers,” he said, given that children share and that plenty of copies would have been bought by school and libraries, “you have given an enormous amount of pleasure.” How much more truly, wonderfully, gloriously, fantastically incomputable – 44 years and 19 books later – that calculation is today.

Happy birthday, Roald Dahl. Here’s to the next hundred years.

Lucy Mangan is the author of Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory: The Complete Story of Willy Wonka, the Golden Ticket and Roald Dahl's Most Famous Creation. 

Photos: Getty Images, Rex Features