Sunday, 2 September 2012

In Defence of a Heinous Accusation Levelled at Dahl

Later this month a day will be set aside to ackowledge the genius of author Roald Dahl. In anticipation of this day there appears to be a lot of articles and the like floating around the newspapers, including a rather sweet interview in The Times with David Walliams who will be dressing up as the BFG to encourage a new generation of children to dive into Dahl's wonderful and fantastical world.

Imagine my complete disgust, then, when a friend passed on another article - from The Guardian online - which opened with a recent experience the novelist and broadcaster Michael Rosen had endured. An MA seminar on children's literature revealed the views of a 'severe Latvian student' on the hugely successful and enduring author. In her words: 'Roald Dahl - no literary merit whatsoever.' Pardon? I had to read this several times to ensure my eyes were not mistaken. I can understand if someone's opinion is based on his or her dislike of a particular work and their recognition of this antipathy; however, this is indeed a bold statement. What does she mean by it? Unfortunately, Rosen's article does not deal with this student's short-minded opinion nor with his own reaction towards it (my own reaction would probably have been to politely listen and then develop temporary blindness if other students wanted to papercut her to shreds). I am extremely interested in her reasoning, if there was any, to reach that conclusion.

There are many critical analyses on Dahl but I wish to address the charge laid at his feet in such a crude manner. The sweeping generalisation of 'no literary merit whatsoever' is inappropriate to, let's face it, almost every book that has ever been published. You may disagree but I would argue that even the most badly written book has some value for us to glean from its pages. For now, let's ignore the fact that Dahl's books have sold in their millions and that probably every child in Britain has read at least one of his novels. Let's simply focus on what literary merit Dahl has to offer both children and adults alike.

One criticism put forward on the comments section of the Guardian article was that it was 'cheap' to portray adults as 'mean dolts'. Looking at a couple of these 'mean dolts' I propose to demonstrate why it is necessary to have characterized them as they are. The farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox are so odious because there are farmers who understandably have to shoot at rural vermin in order to protect their livelihoods, and my own interpretation is that a person writing a children's book needs the reader to be completely on the side of the animals who are the victims and heroes of the story. So we can't be feeling sorry for Farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean who are hell-bent on the eradication of Mr Fox and his family. They are therefore greedy, bad-tempered, and one a drunkard. The moral of stealing is perhaps referred to only vaguely when Badger suddenly feels uncomfortable taking what is not theirs - Mr Fox ends up placating him by saying they are only stealing because their families are starving - but the point of the book is, for me, to make fun of the pointless sadistic will for destruction these men have.

Mr and Mrs Twit are also vicious people who play nasty little tricks on each other. The physical japes are manifestations of the usual  snipes that, often, ordinary couples make. It is a natural part of relationships, particularly when tempers rise, and Dahl expresses this in an exaggerated manner culminating in the creation of this beastly and unhygienic couple. In this creation, Dahl makes it absolutely clear they are characters to hate with their ugly mannerisms and cruel treatment of Mugglewump and his family. Unlike in Fantastic Mr Fox, the characters are shown no consideration or sympathy by the monkeys which is a possible metaphor for children locked in a loveless family and are freed by growing up and travel in the materialization of the Roly Poly Bird. We must despise the Twits because of the cruelty displayed and directed at the defenceless innocents of society.

Of course, not all the adults in Dahl's novels are evil. Esio Trot provides an antithesis couple of the Twits in Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver. The shy neighbour of the widow obsessed with her tortoise is endearing to the older reader in his social backwardness with the woman whom he loves perhaps because there are many individuals out in the world who find it very difficult to strike up conversations. I would argue that the child reader would be more concerned with the growth of the tortoise and the 'magic' used to make Alfie the tortoise grow or shrink accordingly, taking precedence over the story between the adults. A note I would like to make along linguistic terms is when Mr Hoppy explains that the word 'poo' (the phonetically pronounced word 'up' backwards) holds particular strength 'in any language...especially with tortoises.' It may well have been unintentional but the observation actually humorously alludes to Freudian psychology and the frequency with which we all (generally) tend to curse using the harsher version of the word. Admittedly, Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver verge on the more two-dimensional side, but what about Miss Honey in Matilda?

Surely, as children, most of us had that one teacher whom we admired more than anyone else for a short period of time. Miss Honey provides that security and familiarity in a story that deals with the opposite terror of a teacher we feared. One of the reasons a child might enjoy the character of Miss Honey is that she is the kind of teacher we love - young, intelligent, fun, sympathetic, good with children. As an adult, we recognise these traits yet also add on the fact that she, too, has her own story and demons to face as a young adult; Miss Honey is not merely a vehicle for transmitting education and a shoulder for children to cry on. She is a complex person in her own right discovering her own abilities, with the help of Matilda, to finally stand up to her aunt, Miss Trunchbull. In Miss Honey the reader is given a sense of more hope to overcome difficulties because not many of us are born child prodigies and success is only gained through hard work and perseverance. The trials of life cannot be overcome with the distant sort of magic Matilda possesses, but they can be battled by support and a reason to fight them. Matilda provides that reason for Miss Honey and in turn Miss Honey provides that lesson for us.

Leaving Dahl's children's literature, I would now like to examine his Tales of the Unexpected, which are concerned with many events based on his own life. There are a few tales engaging in several events occurring in his time as an RAF pilot. Death of an Old Old Man explores the feelings of a terrified pilot who does not want to die but only admits this to himself - he covers his emotions with British stiff-upper-lip style. Because we are dealing with a pilot we are still left with questions: is the outward physical display of fear only 'bad form' for the fighters or as civilians are we too disdainful of the natural pangs of panic? Does internal conflict inevitably surface or can we control and bury the fear we feel? To cite one of Dahl's beautiful lines '...his was the brain of a frightened man, yet his instinct was the instinct of a pilot'. Evidently, this man's body can control fear in the 'do-or-die' survival mode even while his mind is more concerned with human sensibilities. And in the end, all is quiet. Then there is They Shall Not Grow Old which once more concerns itself with the fate of the pilots and their own feelings as they face uncertainty.

Aside from his tales from the war, Dahl came up with some amusing and shocking ideas. The Umbrella Man is one of my favourites because of its simplicity. Rainy days will never be the same again. Vengeance Is Mine Inc. offers a way in which vengeance is commercialised and privately condoned, if not publicly. The humour is subtle, poking fun at a society that often swears vengeance yet does not care to take the consequences themselves, shifting both the work and blame onto another. The last story I must beg you to read is Genesis and Catastrophe.  Mentioned underneath the title it claims to be a true story. And so it is. The tension as the patient tells the doctor her story and incredibly tragic luck with her offspring is heartwrenching. It builds up as she desperately reaches out for reassurance that the child she has just borne will not go the same way, and the reader is caught up in a mother's anguish and concern for her child's well-being. So caught up are we that when the twist is revealed the shock comes as a physical blow.

In the words of David Walliams 'no one has created a body of work with as much variety as Dahl...each of the books is significantly different to one another, with different themes.' Being only able to skim Roald Dahl's works in this space, this critical analysis is hardly going to win any awards yet I hope that this short article has acquitted Dahl of the terrible injustice to his literary merit.