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Sorry for the radio silence: I have recently accomplished a move (having gotten a new job!) and so I’ve been trying to settle my life and get used to the new job, and sadly this blog fell a bit to the wayside. But no worries, as I’m back now.
I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to the RSC musical Matilda recently, which is of course based on the book by Roald Dahl (which was turned into a fantastic movie by Danny DeVito about 15-20 years ago – I remember seeing it in theaters but I don’t like to think about it too much, otherwise I start feeling very old!), and in listening to some of these songs, especially songs that regarded Matilda’s relationship with her parents, or Miss Honey’s relationship to her aunt, the Trunchbull, I began to think about the sort of extreme coda of abuse that permeates a lot of Dahl’s work. In most of his books, with some very obvious exceptions (like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Fantastic Mr. Fox) often have this incredibly clear message: the most frightening thing in a child’s life is a grown-up.
This isn’t to say that all grown-ups are frightening, in Dahl’s work, because obviously this isn’t the case. Matilda has Miss Honey, James from James and the Giant Peach has very fond memories of his father, and the main character in The Witches has his lovely grandmother. But in the world of these characters, even when there is a supernatural menace, there is still the implication that the worst possible danger to any child is an adult.
The subversion of this particular notion is incredible. To fully understand it, one has to examine children’s literature, particularly in England, in a wider historical context. Outside of possibly Peter and Wendy, adults are by and large almost absent figures from children’s literature, and even in Peter and Wendy the menace that comes from Captain Hook is a buffoon menace, a false menace that is undermined by how utterly Peter does not fear him at all. But in Dahl’s work, adults are not only a menace, they are an incredibly real threat because he is absolutely authentic in his portrayal of how an adult can harm a child. Dahl does not shy away from adults who hate children on a sociopathic level, usually for no reason except that they are children.
For instance; in Matilda, the Trunchbull is almost psychopathically evil, but despite that, everything she does she gets away with for the simple fact that she is the ultimate authority figure – a school headmistress. The notion that any child who spoke up against her, particularly considering the utterly extreme punishments she concocts (like the Chokey, her closet of horrors) and making a little boy eat cake until he practically exploded are too bizarre and too evil to be believed – any child who told their parents about them would be automatically labeled a liar.
Even more insidious, is that Dahl is apt at parents and caretakers who simply don’t care. These are not parents who love their children but are oblivious, or aunts who are too busy to notice mischief. These are guardians who don’t care, who wish malice upon their charges, who are absolutely incapable of raising a child. These are the kinds of adults who upon we would wish a swift call to Child Protection Services.
And then there are the Witches, whose main goal in existence is to wipe every foul child off the face of the earth, but who are disguised as perfectly lovely ladies, and who adults, in general, do not believe in.
What Dahl does is interesting because he presents a danger that is all too real, and does not talk down to children about it. His works continue to be well-received because of that honesty. To tell a child there is danger out there, but your parents will protect you from it is easy, but for many children it is not an honest representation of the world, particularly when the danger is so close to home, or hiding inside of it. Dahl’s message is not that evil is a force with no face, or a monster that easily recognizable – it is that bad people will have power over you, and that is the way of the world.
To tell a child this, especially when children so easily recognize how much sway adults have over their lives, is absolutely critical. But even more critical, it gives children who are in those situations: in situations where child-hatred and child abuse are simple facts of reality, an adult voice that says that yes, this is true, but look, here is someone who recognizes it, and there are ways out. James finds a family in the friends he makes once he lands in New York, and Matilda finds a new home with a favorite and beloved teacher.
It is no surprise that Dahl’s work continues to be popular, then: it present a fiction that is so absolutely grounded in reality.