Roald Dahl: Guerrilla in a Time Machine

Submitted by dalcassian on 10 February, 2017 - 10:48

Roald Dahl, who died of cancer last week at the age of 74, was a phenomenally successful author of books for children. He deserved his success. His children's books are truly remarkable.

The world of this writer's imaginary children is a world of magic and free-wheeling fantasy. But it is not a never-never world, because his child protagonists are not never-never kids. They are real children.

The world they inhabit is not the real world his readers live in, but it contains the real sorts of people and relationships between them his readers would know.

It depicts the real relationship between children and adults. Heightened and exaggerated and, sometimes, idealised, as in the father-son relationship in 'Danny, the Champion of the World.' But nevertheless, the sort of relationships his readers would live every day of their lives.

His is a world in which children are weak and vulnerable and, unless they fight back - and thereby hangs Dahl's tales - at the mercy of hostile, predatory and indifferent adults.

Dahl's genius as a writer for children was rooted in the fact that he never forgot the feel, or the pain, of being a small child at the mercy of those adults.

He never lost his sense of grievance at his own ill-treatment as a boy, and told about it in the autobiographical 'Boy'.

The heroes of his stories experience triumphs and happy endings, but you are never left with an Enid Blyton or Richmal Crompton feeling that the best of all possible worlds has thereby returned to its natural benign state at the end of the story.

Dahl has been criticised because there are truly nasty things in his books. So there are. And so there are too in a child's world

The young Dahl kept pace with the adult, and in his children's stories the adult waged a sort of literary guerrilla war from the child's viewpoint against the adult society his childhood self had loathed.

The ageing, grizzled author, one time diplomat, war-time fighter pilot, remained at heart a peevish, mildly sadistic, unreconciled, resentful child. He was a wonderfully inventive guerrilla sniper for children.

Further investigation might, I suspect, reveal that the unheated shed at the bottom of his garden where Dahl did all his writing, was really a time machine in which he cruised back over the decades to his childhood. That's why his feel for childhood remained so fresh.

He was also something of a misogynist. I think the criticism some feminists levelled at 'The Witches' on this score was justified. And he was in his older years an avowed anti-Semite, because, he said, of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

But he was a brave old man. Not long ago he stopped a gang of policemen beating up a black motorist in the street for disobeying a traffic signal, and then gave evidence against them in court.

He hated bullies and oppressors of all sorts, and it was this attitude, rooted in his own childhood, which gave his fantasies their peculiar tang and flavour and, no doubt, their appeal to children.

Socialist Organiser Nov 30 1990