Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Roald Dahl: Literary hero

James Murphy lauds Roald Dahl as a literary hero


My last article focused on Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl provides a natural sequel. Like Fleming, Dahl’s work continues to film and television from beyond his grave. Tales of the Unexpected enjoys regular re-runs; Steven Spielberg is prepping the BFG and Richard Curtis has adapted Esio Trot.


Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990)
Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990)

There are further connections linking the pair as Dahl penned the screenplay for You Only Live Twice, the 1967 James Bond film that amped up the fantasy quotient of global Armageddon stakes, space race politics, volcanoes and Ninjas in Japan. Fleming also had an idea for a tale about a leg of lamb used as murder weapon and suggested it to his friend Dahl. He gave it life with Lamb to the Slaughter: a classic short story.


Fleming described his Bond novels as “fairy tales for adults”. Dahl’s work exhibits a similar ideal. His stories for children deliver timeless wisdom via primitive horror. His ‘adult’ stories are pure wish fulfilment and playful prurience.


George’s Marvellous Medicine is a story for kids in which the eponymous hero develops a magic potion. The ‘medicine’ of course is not the story itself, but a convenient device for a child’s fantasy, which then propels one into a moral.


Like George himself, Dahl took his magic formula and simply duplicated it to an adult dose in the novel My Uncle Oswald. It is a very naughty, colourful romp. The hero devises a magic potion and adventures ensue.


Granted, the potion here is an ultimate aphrodisiac (‘Blister Beetle’) enabling the collection of sperm samples from great historical figures. Naturally, there is sexual content including an encounter with Marcel Proust, whereby the heroine must disguise herself as a man, with help from a strategically placed banana.


Prima facie, it’s not the kind of book a boy should read, but the sex is relatively innocuous; certainly less harmful than the casual violence that children now witness in soap operas. The material probably goes over the heads of most adolescent males, despite paradoxically appealing to every illicit whim.


My Uncle Oswald was something of a hit in my school dormitory when I was a child in the Junior House at Worth Abbey. The house master put a stop to that particular book’s circulation among my fellow conspirators, I think, and quite right too. Oswald returns in short stories, compiled in the likes of Switch Bitch and gets his comeuppance, contracting a nasty STD. So, there is a moral to the story; allowing precocious kids and stunted adults to get sex-education from Roald Dahl.


Dahl’s own memoirs of childhood make for a more traumatic read. Boy features a rather ghastly matron feeding soap to a sleeping student and some of his later children’s literature has the villains not as Brothers Grimm style witches but very real domestic abusers such as the parents in Matilda.


His books for young readers are far more frightening and arguably more ‘mature’ in their morality than Oswald and all his sexual shenanigans or the woman who murders her husband with a leg of lamb. The source of this unique formula is Dahl himself. He never patronised children and neither did he believe that ‘adulthood’ should mean foregoing a joy in the ‘macabre’.


Dahl understood the human condition, perhaps because his own life experiences were varied and distinguished. From tasting chocolate for confectionary companies as a student at Repton, to representing Shell Oil and flying planes in the Second World War as a young man, his was a life full of adventure and rivalled the fictional exploits he devised.


He applied a child’s curiosity to adult endeavours and a veteran’s scepticism to simple folklore. Dahl knew that a naïve child is sometimes ironically more observant than their later adult self and that we are united in both states by common fears, desires and aspirations for happily ever afters via the slaying of personal dragons. It was a reinvention of reading for families.


His childrens’ books, especially those illustrated by Quentin Blake, are worth a thousand Harry Potters or Mr Stinks and his more adult works are right up there with the greatest thrillers.


A literary legend, Roald Dahl is much imitated but never bettered. His work embodies the brilliance bred from a wartime idiom of endeavour, and a playful sense of fun that always finds a dawn in the darkness. If only he were around today; we could all use his help in these uncertain times.


James Murphy is a graduate of New College, Oxford and the University of Law. He is currently working on a screenplay named the Anthony Claret Adventures.



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