— This essay originally appeared on Liticism
“‘Tell me one that you liked.’
‘I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ Matilda said. ‘I think Mr C. S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.’
‘You are right there,’ Miss Honey said.
‘There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,’ Matilda said.
‘Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked.
‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.’”
Roald Dahl’s stories are peppered with such metafictional comments as this exchange between Matilda and her teacher Miss Honey on the children’s stories Matilda has read. There is a similarly revealing passage in The BFG: ‘I has ritten a book and it is so exciting nobody can put it down. As soon as you has red the first line you is so hooked on it you cannot stop until the last page [sic].’ And indeed, as an adult, just as much as when I was I child, I can’t put his stories down.
There were many titles I had considered choosing for this post. I’m still enchanted by the eerie fairy stories of Australian writer and illustrator Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, and Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester – the naughty cat, the cherry red of the coat, and that incantation, ‘no more twist’. I loved the linguistic dexterity of Dr. Seuss with his looping, winding rhymes, and I remember spending many an afternoon accompanying the children from The Magic Faraway Tree on their adventures in revolving lands. (As well as that sad moment when you know must ditch Blyton because all your classmates snigger at the mention of the character ‘Fanny.’)
But in that tattered pile of children’s books Roald Dahl’s Matilda was one that had a great effect upon me when I was younger. It’s certainly not an obscure book – indeed, the covers of the most recent editions of Dahl’s stories loudly proclaim his position as ‘The World’s #1 Storyteller’ (perhaps the marketing department should’ve inserted the word ‘Children’s’ there?), but I do indeed remember being utterly captivated by it.
It tells the story of Matilda, a little girl oppressed by parents not only utterly disinterested in their daughter, but willfully cruel – referring to her constantly as a ‘little twit.’ By the age of three Matilda had taught herself to read, and, having consumed all the newspapers, magazines and cookbooks in the house, seeks out novels. Her parents, who subsist on an intellectual diet of television, refuse to buy her a book, and so Matilda wanders down to the library where she finishes all the children’s books and then moves onto Dickens and a significant portion of the canon under the direction of one of the librarians.
Her parents, however, are annoyed by her brilliance: ‘instead of applauding her, [they] called her a noisy chatterbox and told her sharply that small girls should be seen and not heard’ and so Matilda decides to teach them a lesson every time they are mean to her with a series of pranks.
When Matilda attends her first day of school it becomes clear to her teacher Miss Honey that she is a child prodigy – as well as having read books far beyond her age, she can perform incredibly complex calculations in her head, and easily spell difficult words. Yet, Matilda soon discovers that her mental powers extend beyond the scholarly.
The inhabitants of Matilda’s school are held in constant fear under the tyrannical rule of the headmistress Miss Trunchbull and her cruel and unusual punishments. One day, in a fit of rage at the Trunchbull’s injustice, Matilda finds that she able to move objects with her mind. Matilda decides to teach the headmistress a lesson with her psychokinetic abilities, saving her lovely teacher Miss Honey from the clutches of the Trunchbull, and in the process escaping also from her horrible parents.
What was fascinating when re-reading this book was the way in which it addresses its young readers at a very high level. This is a book over two hundred pages long, with complex words like ‘asinine,’ ‘rakish,’ and ‘lyrical’ that would have young readers reaching for the dictionary. Amusingly, it’s also a children’s book with a discussion of the canon. (Sian Campbell wrote a great piece for Killings on the anti-feminist reading habits of television’s Daria, and I found it interesting to note that Matilda’s literary heroes are also mostly male.) Dickens figures strongly in his book – Matilda reads Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist – and there are indeed reminiscences of the literary great in the caricatured descriptions of Dahl’s villains and their wonderfully Dickensian names:
Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was something else altogether. She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of the pupils and teachers alike. There was an aura of menace about her even at a distance, and when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal. When she marched – Miss Trunchbull never walked, she always marched like a storm-trooper with long strides and arms aswinging – when she marched along a corridor you could actually hear her snorting as she went, and if a group of children happened to be in her path, she ploughed right on through them like a tank, with small people bouncing off her to left and right.
Part of what I loved about Matilda when I was younger was that she was an avid reader, and yet, Dahl’s choice to write this quality into his protagonist is surprising. How difficult it is to make a compelling character, especially in a children’s story, from someone who reads books – by its very nature a passive, quiet, solitary activity. But Dahl manages to create a novel in which reading is not only fun but powerful. It makes Matilda strong, liked, potent, able to overcome all those bigger and older than her. And I remember this being comforting to me back then. He made something I already liked seem ok.
Dahl could never be accused, like C.S. Lewis, of having ‘no funny bits in his books’ – Miss Trunchbull’s punishments for Bruce Bogtrotter and Amanda Thripp are hilariously comical, especially with Quentin Blake’s wonderfully mad scribblings – but what was interesting upon returning to the novels is just how dark Dahl’s fictional universe is.
In many of Dahl’s tales, the young protagonists have no parents (or sometimes just one parent), usually the result of some sort of horrific accident: in The Witches the young boy’s parents have been killed in a car accident; in James and the Giant Peach, James’s parents are eaten alive by rhinoceroses and he is forced to live with cruel aunts; and in Matilda, the parents are alive but may as well be dead, so unloving and inattentive are they.
‘Home’, in all of Dahl’s stories, isn’t a comforting refuge or soft place to fall. Though there is occasionally an adult ally – such as Miss Honey – in Dahl’s world, adults are overwhelmingly the enemy. Indeed, though most of the stories have a supernatural element, the ‘monsters’ in Dahl are almost always human: large, cruel adults from which the children must seek refuge in the magical realm.
Thus, in Matilda, the enemies are representative ‘powerful’ adults: her own parents who are utterly indifferent to her, forgetting about her when they pack to flee the country; and her headmistress who inflicts violent punishments on all the smallest students.
What surprised me about returning to Dahl is that re-reading a childhood novel isn’t necessarily comfortingly nostalgic at all. Dahl emphasises the ways in which being a child is frightening, that you can feel powerless and oppressed by those bigger and more independent than you.
Since Dahl’s death there have been a number of pieces written on the man himself, including the biography Storyteller, and it was deeply saddening to learn of the true nature of the author who created these incredible stories: an anti-Semite, adulterer, bullying to his publishers, anti-feminist. As Alex Carnivale wrote in his biographical essay for This Recording on ‘The Macabre Unpleasantness of Roald Dahl’,
The cumulative effect of these horror stories on me was unpleasant. Dahl’s oeuvre, which I consumed with great fervor, illuminated a terrible side of my childhood, one I might rather have been indoctrinated in later on. The fact that the world is full of such misery is not a consoling idea at that age. But so what? To be so gifted and yet so full of disdain for others was Dahl’s problem, not my own. His creations reflect that self-hatred, but if they did not, they would not be honest explications of a cruel and merciless world.
There is, indeed, a terrible darkness in Dahl’s created world. But as Matilda so presciently said, ‘children are not so serious as grown-ups’. I remember this book being special to me because of Matilda’s magical powers. I recall days spent willing myself to be able to move objects with my mind. It never worked. But Dahl’s fantastical stories are written for an age when you truly believe that these things might be possible. I’m no longer small like Matilda, and, being an adult, would probably be considered on the side of the enemy; but though they may no longer be entirely comforting, I’m thankful to these stories for reminding me of those days of magical possibility.