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Crossing the culture

Nothing by halves!

Willy Wonka, the Twits, Fantastic Mr. Fox and the BFG are some of the most recognisable and well-loved figures in children’s literature.

Now a new generation are being swept away by Roald Dahl’s mischievous, quirky and subversive worlds.

His famous children’s book Matilda proved the runaway success of theatre in 2012. It attracted large audiences and critical acclaim, culminating in a record-breaking victory at the Olivier Awards. Next summer, a new adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will hit the West End. What is it that makes Dahl’s stories so enduringly popular?

Grown-ups

Dahl can make his young reader squirm, squeal and giggle with delight, because he was able to see the world from a child’s perspective. According to James Naughtie, ‘[His] was a world with rules and if you were young enough they made sense’.1 One such rule is that there will always be a clear line between children, who understand how the world ‘really’ works, and adults, who are outrageously cruel and bizarre or else boundlessly kind. Either way, they are ‘complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets’ (Danny, the Champion of the World).

Dahl was sure to place himself alongside the children. Quentin Blake attributes his success to this fact: ‘He addresses you, a child, as somebody who knows about the world. He was a grown-up — and he was bigger than most — who is on your side’.2

I’m big and you’re small

‘I'm right and you're wrong, I'm big and you're small, and there's nothing you can do about it’ (Matilda).

Dahl developed an early apathy towards authority figures, often attributed to the savage punishments doled out by his public-school teachers. These instilled in him a keen sense of justice: his books set right the reality that the powerful but foolish are so often allowed to bully the vulnerable.

Even as an adult, the world did not seem benevolent to Dahl. He was plagued by tragedy, the most affecting of which was the death of his daughter Olivia, following measles. Desperately seeking solace, Dahl went to see his ex-headmaster, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. Fisher assured him that Olivia was in Paradise, but was insistent that Rowley, the late family dog, was not.

Dahl found this hard to swallow: ‘I sat there wondering if this great and famous churchman really [...] knew anything at all about God or heaven, and if he didn’t, then who in the world did? And from that moment on [...] I’m afraid I began to wonder whether there really was a God or not’.3 His rejection of Fisher’s — and God’s — authority stemmed from his grief at Olivia’s death, and a great sense that the universe was not fair.

For Dahl, just as for Matilda, books offered the chance to plunge into an imagination of friendship and adventure that provided the only escape from a cruel and painful world. Dahl would retreat into his writing hut and anesthetise his pain by inventing playful, savage worlds in which even the tiniest hero can outwit the fiercest villain. This was the case with Matilda, who Dahl insisted should be as ‘titchy’ as possible in order that her victory would be all the more satisfying.

And satisfying it is: Matthew Warchus, director of the new musical version, describes the show as a testament to the ‘healing power of the creative imagination’.4 The New York Times review claimed: ‘For as long as Matilda lasts, this disjointed old world seems fixable through the tools of pure imagination’.5 Our culture is desperate for this sort of feel-good tonic: one that does not deny the sinister elements of life, but balances them with humour and a triumphant sense of justice.

Nothing is impossible

But what if we did not have to venture into the realms of imagination to find this triumphant justice? What if we believed that we lived in a kingdom with its own set of rules: where the only way to enter was to become like a child?6 Where a fearful ten foot giant in bronze armour named Goliath could be outwitted by the ingenuity of a young and inexperienced shepherd?7 Where you can order a mountain to move and it will do so? Where nothing is impossible?8 How would our lives differ if we lived with a conviction that this was not fiction, but the fibre of our daily reality?

Perhaps we would live more boldly, confident in the benevolence of the ultimate authority figure who protects the vulnerable and promises final justice. Perhaps we would not retreat into the world of make believe, but, rather, live in the real world a little more like Matilda suggests: ‘Never do anything by halves [...] Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable’.

Rachel Helen Smith works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles are available at http://www.rachelhelensmith.com

Footnotes

1. BBC Radio 4 (July 27 2012), The New Elizabethans: Roald Dahl
2. Independent (December 12 2010), ‘Once upon a time, there was a man who liked to make up stories …’
3. Telegraph (August 6 2012), Roald Dahl on God: the day I lost faith in 'the Boss’
4. BBC (April 15 2012), ‘Matilda musical breaks Olivier awards’
5. New York Times (January 31 2012), ‘Sugar and Spice, and Something Sinister’
6. Matthew 18.4, Mark 10.15
7. 1 Samuel 17
8. Matthew 17.20, Matthew 21.21, Mark 11.23