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Roald Dahl Day: Celebrating a legacy of cruel, gross and wonderful books.

September 13, 2010

While I admire much about the English, seldom comes the time I actually want to be in the land of fog, soccer hooligans and old maids solving cozy murders. Sept. 13, when merry schoolchildren celebrate Roald Dahl Day, presents an annual exception.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Dahl’s death. Since then, his stories and books for children have only grown more popular, with translations into 50-plus languages and worldwide sales of more than 100 million copies of his books.

Partly this is the result of the many movies adapted from his work — Witches, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Charley and the Chocolate Factory (twice), and, most recently, The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

But even without the Hollywood boost, Dahl would reign as one of the top children’s authors precisely because his books are nasty, scary, gross and unsettling — just what the kiddies want (and need). Dahl’s books share, in other words, the very qualities that make the Grimm fairytales perennial favorites.

Of course, it helps that Dahl is also a storyteller of great skill. Before he started writing books for kids, he was already a well-established author of macabre tales for adults, in the tradition of Poe or Saki.

A representative example is “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a story of a young wife who strikes and kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb during a heated argument, then calmly cooks  the meat and serves it to the police detectives called to investigate. The story ends with one of the coppers remarking that the murder weapon is “probably right under our noses.”

I did not discover Dahl until I was searching for good books to read my own children. I immediately took to his work, which satisfied my belief that children like scary stories with violence and cruelty, which discharge their fears and anxieties about the real world.

In fact, at very young ages my children exhibited three primal anxieties: Fear of abandonment, fear of being eaten, fear of loud noises. A story like “Hansel and Gretel,” in which children are abandoned by their parents, then murder the witch who is about to cook and eat them, not only entertains and titillates, but helps children accommodate powerful anxieties that have no obvious inspiration in their modern daily experience.

Dahl’s stories do the same thing: Matilda‘s parents are cruel and indifferent, and her schoolteacher is a sadist; in the Witches, the title characters form a secret society for the sole purpose of ridding the world of children; The Enormous Crocodile goes around telling the other animals about all the children he plans to eat.

Roald Dahl Day was established in 2006 for what would have been the author’s 90th birthday, according to the Guardian. But it proved so popular it’s not only been continued but also enlarged to take up the entire month of September. “We thought it was going to be a one-off celebration but, because the previous years have been so successful, we can’t stop,” said Felicity Dahl, the author’s widow.

British children’s author Philip Ardagh, a winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, has chosen his top 10 Dahl books: The Twits; Matilda; The Witches; James and the Giant Peach; George’s Marvelous Medicine; The Fantastic Mr. Fox; The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me; Esio Trot; Charley and the Chocolate Factory; The BFG.

An exemplary list, impossible to argue with. But I would add Danny, the Champion of the World, a story of uncommon charm about a boy living with his father, a poacher, behind a filling station in a gypsy caravan; and Boy: Tales of Childhood, Dahl’s autobiography of his tender years.

This month also marks the publication of Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Daniel Sturrock, which sketches in Dahl’s life as the child of Norwegian immigrants; his heroic service as a wounded RAF pilot in World War II; his time as a British spy in Washington (!); his marriage to the movie star Patricia O’Neal; the death of his daughter, Olivia.

Despite the cooperation of Dahl’s family, Sturrock has written a warts-and-all portrait, according to an early review in the Indepedent. Dahl, it seems, was a womanizer, a bully, and, at times, a thoroughly disagreeable person.

None of which should stop us from celebrating his life, nor denying ourselves the raptures of reading his books.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 13, 2010 4:28 pm

    I love Matilda.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 13, 2010 8:09 pm

      Matilda is a fine novel, and the film version is one of the better ones.

  2. September 14, 2010 9:07 am

    Haven’t come across his children’s stories yet but I read the memoir Boy and became a huge fan. He knows about childhood fear all right.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 9:37 am

      If you find you have world enough and time, you should search out his children’s novels before you die. You’ll be glad you did…I make this kind of recommendation reluctantly, ever mindful of the great books (of all varieties) I may never get to in my allotted life span. So many books, so damned little time.

  3. Sean permalink
    September 14, 2010 10:38 am

    Great post. I’ve never read Dahl but saw “Lamb to the Slaughter” on ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents.’ It was one creepy teleplay. At this link there’s a great photo of Barbara Bell Geddies as the wife, in full backswing.

    I learned a lot about Dahl from this NYT obit of his former wife, the actress Patricia Neal. After she had had several strokes, he was cruel but effective in pushing her to rebuild speech and motor skills. The obit quotes Neal’s autobio: “I knew at that moment that … Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water. Where I belonged.”

  4. Sean permalink
    September 14, 2010 10:39 am

    And let me just add I am in no way suggesting that Patricia Neal should have hit Roald Dahl with a leg of lamb.

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