Darker side to the author of much-loved children’s books
Associated “with anti-Semitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation” was the damning verdict of Britain’s Royal Mint on Roald Dahl.
As we learnt this week, the committee that picks who is to be honoured with commemorative coins chose not to nominate Dahl in 2016, the year of his centenary.
Not the highest reputation? It depends on how you look at it. His standing as the favourite author of millions of children, established before his death in 1990, has only increased since, as has his status among critics. But it is as what the BFG would call “a human bean” that his reputation is problematic.
If I think myself back into the mind of the small boy who read Dahl’s books over and over again, it is the nasty bits that come to mind vividly: Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker crushed to death by the peach in James and the Giant Peach; Mr Twit making his wife think she is shrinking by adding tiny pieces of wood to her walking stick and chair legs every day.
The message, different from other books I had read, was life is mostly cruel, so you might as well find the funny side of that cruelty and relish it. If Dahl had been a nice man, or a nice all the time, I don’t suppose he could have inflicted such a refreshingly transgressive view on young readers.
Author Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay examining the accusation Dahl was an adulterer, bully and anti-Semite. “Of course, it’s bloody well true,” he concluded. “How else could Dahl have kept children enthralled and agreeably disgusted and pleasurably afraid? By being Enid Blyton?”
Yet wonders how healthy Dahl’s fiction really is; not just how far he drew on the dark places in his own soul, but how far some of his more abhorrent views crept into his books.
There is no doubt he was very anti-Semitic. In the 1980s he made several inflammatory statements. “Our hearts bled for the Lebanese and Palestinian men, women and children, and we all started hating the Israelis” just as “our hearts bled for the Jewish men, women and children, and we hated the Germans” 40 years previously, he said in an article he wrote in 1983 on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
He had suggested that Jews were easy to kill en masse during the Holocaust because “they were always submissive”.
Dahl’s books for children are not notably anti-Semitic, though one wonders what they would have been like without the restraining hand of his editors. They cut racist and misogynist content from Matilda, The BFG, The Witches and Charlie Bucket books. The delightfully naughty Dahl we all enjoy is a diluted version.
Dahl has high-profile defenders, even in the Jewish community. Steven Spielberg, who directed the film of The BFG, has said “nothing in anything he’s ever written has held up a mirror to some of his statements in 1983. I don’t truly believe somebody with such a big heart, who has given so much joy and epiphany to audiences with his writing, was an anti-Semitic human being.”
But Dahl caused pain along with joy. In April 1990, two San Francisco children wrote to him: “Dear Mr Dahl, we love your books but you don’t like us because we are Jews. That offends us! Can you please change your mind about what you said about Jews.”
Dahl replied it was injustice he hated, not Jews; perhaps his words were a comfort to those fans. His children’s books, purged of his more extreme views, will always inspire delight in young readers, I hope; but one can see why the great and the good are careful how they choose to honour him.
An image of Roald Dahl on the cover of a quiz book about him.