The dark side of Roald Dahl

Dahl, according to Nikolajeva, is “one of the most colorful and lightest children’s authors”. But for all the funniness and dazzling linguistic acrobatics of his prose, he admits that he has problems with his eyesight. Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “Wonka is a vegetarian and only eats healthy food, but he tempts children with sweets. It’s very immoral,” he says. Then there’s The Witches, whose child narrator, turned into a mouse, chooses not to return to human form for fear of outliving his beloved grandmother. He’d rather die with it, as the rodent’s shortened lifespan guarantees. “It’s a denial of growing up and mortality, but mortality is one aspect of what makes us human,” Nikolajeva points out. “Telling young readers that they can die, escape from growing up, is dubious – it draws them to the end, encourages them to commit suicide – and is therefore an ideological and aesthetic mistake.”

Darkness, for lack of a better word, has always been a secret – and not so secret – component of children’s literature, be it the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Heinrich Hoffmann, or Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games. If you have ever paid attention to the words of a nursery rhyme, such as Ring a Ring o’ Roses or Orange and Lemon, you’ll know that breastfeeding babes are raised on the stuff—and for good reason. As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explained in his seminal study The Uses of Enchantment, the macabre in children’s literature serves an important cathartic function. “Without such phantasies, the child does not get to know his monster better, or get suggestions on how to master it. As a result, the child remains helpless against his worst anxieties – rather than being told Fairy Tales that give them form and body to anxieties and show you how to overcome these monsters,” he wrote.

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Light and shadow

It’s not hard to see where Dahl got his own darkness. After losing his sister and father at the age of three (his sister to appendicitis, his father to pneumonia), he was packed off to boarding school at just nine years old. The first volume of his memoirs, Boy, recounts in great detail the headmaster’s penchant for whippings that were so cruel they drew blood.

As a young RAF pilot in World War II, Dahl came close to death. Invalidated after landing in the Western Desert, he then spent time in the United States seducing heiresses and wealthy widows in the name of diversion. His long first marriage, with actress and celebrated beauty Patricia Neal, ended far from a fairy tale. The couple lost their eldest daughter due to illness, their only son suffered a brain injury in a traffic accident. A few years later, Neal also suffered a series of strokes while pregnant with their fifth child. When he learned to speak again during his recovery, he invented a language that inspired the BFG’s lexicon.

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