Roald Dahl: Macabre Sensibilities, for Young and Old

Plenty of children’s stories tend to be thought of as light and fun. In truth, they are not all fun and games. There is normally some darkness that lurks within these stories, darkness that helps to make the light and its messages shine brighter. Even the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, regarded as some of the original tellers of children’s stories, contain plenty of mentions of cruelty and violence. Now, some might feel that this could be too intense for children, that these should be scrubbed clean according to a certain set of standards. In truth, there is a certain value in not talking down to children about this. One such author who understood this was Roald Dahl. His stories for children, remembered for whimsical touches and adapted in plenty of media, also possess plenty of darker elements. Perhaps it might be worth looking at what inspires an author to not shy away from these darker elements.

Born on September 13th, 1916 in the town of Cardiff, Roald Dahl was the son of Norwegian parents. When his sister and father had both died when he was three, his mother had the choice to remain in Wales after their passing, even when she had the option to return to Norway. Dahl first began the life of a schoolboy at the Cathedral School in the district of Llandarff. It was that time that he and his friends had gotten into trouble for putting a dead mouse into a jar of gobstoppers (also known as jawbreakers) owned by Mrs. Pratchett, a local sweetshop owner who was mean to the boys. He would go on to be transferred to St. Peter’s boarding school, where he and other students endured a fierce faculty. However, the school which would be a pivotal place to Dahl was Repton School in Derbyshire. Beginning his time there at age 13, he endured cruel treatment at the hands of both students and teachers. From the brutal corporal punishment he suffered and witnessed dealt out by the teachers to the demeaning work of having to serve senior students, Dahl’s experiences there would develop a definite cynicism in him about humanity. His main joy in that time were the candies and chocolates that the chocolate company Cadbury would send to the school for students to test.

As Roald Dahl got older and World War II began to roll in, he would come to join in the Royal Air Force as a pilot. Among the many missions that he flew in, one flight would bring him to Libya. Having trouble finding the airstrip as night approached, He was forced to make a landing in the desert. The result was a crash, one that landed him in the hospital with a fractured skull and blindness. Eventually, he would regain his sight and continued to serve as a pilot, until he was grounded for suffering from a series of headaches serious enough to cause blackouts. After that, he was made an attache to serve in the British Embassy in Washington D.C. From there, he would come to serve in the intelligence division alongside such noted officers as David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming (best known as the creator of James Bond). During this time, Dahl would come to meet the famed novelist C. S. Forester. Forester had been approached by The Saturday Evening Post with writing a story, and he in turn wanted to write a story about Dahl’s experiences as a pilot. Dahl wrote and compiled a number of anecdotes from that time, then provided them to Forester to work from. Instead, Forester provided the story exactly as Dahl wrote it. Thus was born Roald Dahl’s first story, “A Piece of Cake”, which The Saturday Evening Post had published as “Shot Down Over Libya” in order to have a more exciting title. It was also the story that would go on to launch Roald Dahl’s writing career.

Before he became renowned as a writer of children’s stories, Roald Dahl first began as an author for adults. Most of his early work came in the form of short stories. Plenty of these stories concerned deadly gambles, acts of revenge, and bitter spouses. Most of all, they frequently came with endings that served as a macabre punch line to the proceedings. There is no doubt that Dahl’s more cynical view of humanity comes through in stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter”, about a wife who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and tries to cover up the deed, or “Parson’s Pleasure”, about a deceitful antiques dealer who poses as a clergyman for his cheats. However, it is actually his children’s novels where Dahl really cranks up this cynical attitude. While a few stories concern monsters like witches or giants, nearly all of the villains in his children’s novels are rotten, vile adults.

Sometimes they may lord their wealth over others, sometimes they may be verbally abusive to those they see as weaker or lesser, and sometimes they may simply be sadistic with physical cruelty. In any case, these parents are the sort of commonplace evils of which even children are familiar. As dark and imposing as such cruelty may seem, Dahl balances things out with how he presents goodness. The children that serve as the heroes in his stories are not generally portrayed as extraordinary. In fact, they frequently are presented as rather average. Instead, they possess an innate goodness, recognizing the wickedness around them and rising above it. In that way, Dahl offers a way to challenge and overcome the commonplace evil in their own lives. He also delivers it in a more playful, slightly morbid manner than the squeaky-cleaned stories that some believe children should be given. The result is a more naturalistic approach to teaching children about the cruelty of the world and preparing them for it, treating them with respect and understanding they can grasp it without being directly moralized.

For those who have never read any of Roald Dahl’s stories, there are two avenue I might offer, depending on if you wish to try his adult work or his children’s stories. For those who wish to explore his more adult-oriented work, Tales of the Unexpected is an anthology that collects some of his yarns of the macabre. With such stories as “Lamb to the Slaughter”, “The Man Down South”, and “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat”, this collection will help to show how Dahl’s writing career was launched thanks to his clever writing. As for his work for children, the best example I would guide new readers to would be Matilda. Centered around an intelligent and kind-hearted girl named Matilda and her challenges overcoming her obnoxious parents and a cruel headmistress named Agatha Trunchbull, this novel stands to me as a great example of the kind of whimsical yet morbid stories that he crafted for children.

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