When Willy Wonka, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the group of obnoxious children and their parents float down the Chocolate River whilst seated in a pink boat made of boiled sweets, they pass by a door labelled “STOREROOM NUMBER 71. WHIPS- ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.” Veruca Salt, described by the Oompa Loompas as a bratty child who is pampered and spoilt like a Siamese Cat, confronts the chocolatier, “What on earth do you use whips for?”. Willy Wonka answers with absurd confidence and sardonic wit that perfectly exemplifies his creator’s downright strange and incredible imagination. He says, “Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all if it hasn’t been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn’t poached eggs unless it’s been stolen in the dead of the night.”
That’s Roald Dahl. Eccentric, hilarious, magical and frightening! His could beautifully synthesize diverse sensibilities and conjure stories that shaped generations of children and adult consciousness. And as September celebrated his 104th birth anniversary, it’s time we reflect upon his works and discern what makes them distinct from his predecessors and contemporaries in fiction.
Dahl normalised the ridiculous, seamlessly imbibing magical fantasy into the humdrum of everyday life. His characters were odd, nasty and nice and he invented bizarre ways of dispensing justice. Recollect the Twits? Undoubtedly, the Twits are the most ludicrous married couple to exist in literature. Retired circus trainers, they spent their days plotting repulsive pranks. While Mrs. Twit lovingly fed her husband spaghetti with worms, Mr. Twit tied her to balloons, hoping she would fly away and never return. Together, they tortured the Muggle-Wump family of monkeys by training them to do everything while standing upside-down. Yes, they were foul. And they met with a ghastly end. The Muggle-Wumps, assisted by a group of birds which the duo had planned to trap and bake, glued all the furniture to the ceiling. Under the impression that they were upturned, the Twits stood on their heads and finally, vanished into a heap of clothes. Critics disapprove of the harsh treatment Dahl meted out to adults. To this accusation, the author said, “Beastly people must be punished.”
Dahl’s greatest strength was never infantilising his young readers. His sarcastic, anti-establishmentarian tone does not attempt to sugarcoat concepts of death, institutional violence and evils of character. He explicitly details Ms. Trunchbull’s barbaric methods to civilize students, how James’s parents are eaten alive by a rhinoceros and Augustus Gloop’s nauseating gluttony. Now, the question that arises is why kids devour his work despite the morbid inclinations? Simply, it’s because they adore Dahl’s unconditional support. He indulges their fantasies, penalises adults and allows the children to triumph. So, in the end, Charlie Bucket gets to live in Willy Wonka’s factory and the insufferable others return with permanent disfigurements. And James, who had an awful childhood with his abusive aunts, befriends the children of New York City while his guardians are squashed to death under the peach. Coming to Matilda and Miss Honey, they live happily while the school improves under a kind headmaster.
The complexity of Dahl’s writing reveals to kids a spectrum of sentiment. Suddenly, they could experience what adults are wary of them knowing. It mirrors their powerlessness when faced with authoritarian figures like parents and teachers. But simultaneously, children are told (and convinced) that it is perfectly possible to overcome odds, rebel against autocratic influences and be the master of their lives. At the core, is always a tale of fulfilling dreams.
Dahl’s relationship with adults is just as intriguing. He once said, “Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.” Funnily, this becomes the current permeating his short stories. He doesn’t shy from experimenting with gore and macabre deaths. Ordinary men and women perform haunting actions. The mundane is elevated to the horrific.
The protagonist of Lamb to the Slaughter, the pregnant Mary Maloney, clubs her disloyal husband to death using a leg of lamb and then cooks it. She hoodwinks the officers and as they enjoy that very lamb, the policemen discuss the possibility of the murder weapon being right under their nose. In the next room, Mary giggles and we are left unnerved. In Man from the South, an old man and young naval cadet participate in a preposterous bet. If the latter can ignite his lighter ten times in a row, he gets the former’s Cadillac. But if he fails, the man will chop his finger using a butcher’s knife. As the cadet prepares to test his lighter for the tenth time, a woman bursts into the room. To reveal what unfolded would be a sin. Dahl truly masters the art of building tension. He neatly arranges every element, constructing a house of cards balanced on intrigue, horror and humorous repartee.
This discussion is incomplete without talking about the more controversial elements of his life and writing. Grown-ups don’t enjoy certain aspects of Dahl’s storytelling. He’s been accused of misogyny, teaching children all the wrong things and pandering to violent fantasies. His controversial personal life (his wife named him Roald the Rotten) and anti-Semitic views constantly come under the scanner. Interestingly, even his closest competitor in children’s fiction, Enid Blyton, has been often accused of racism and sexism.
However, to deny Dahl’s genius is criminal. Having never written a mega-series (like Blyton’s Secret Seven or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia), he continues to be the most widely-read children’s author across decades. The subversive and uncomfortable plotlines are a grave reminder for adults that all is not rosy in a child’s life. A little boy or girl’s reality is frequently plagued by shadows, a sense of powerlessness and fear. And for children, he fashioned unbelievable spaces that are the perfect balance of light and dark. Here, they weren’t looked down upon. Dahl wanted them to be playful, true to themselves and wild and save the day utilising such unruly qualities. Never before was disruption packaged so deliciously.
One may conclude that Roald Dahl is not everyone’s cup of tea. Particularly not his English teacher’s. When Dahl was 15, his report card read “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel.” Now, that’s quite horrigust. What’s horrigust? That’s the word he invented for something that is both horrible and disgusting. But in the end, we must admit that a Roald Dahl book will never cease to be zozimus…the stuff that dreams are made of.
Cover Image: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo / CC0