The renowned children’s author undoubtedly has a way with words, but he’s also a master of confronting the difficulties of life.
I’ll never forget the first time I read one of Roald Dahl’s books: I was in the first grade and my friend let me borrow his battered paperback copy of Matilda. Even at a young age, I noticed the way the prose danced. I had never read anything like it before. But even more powerful than Dahl’s dazzling ability to construct musical sentences was the darkness on each page. These are the images that keep in a young mind: screaming matches, schoolyard humiliations, terrifying disciplinarians. Years later, I find myself wondering: Why was Dahl so dark?
Dahl’s books are as gilded with whimsy as they are filled with sorrow. His heroes are precocious, often lonely children whose guardians are at best neglectful and at worst horrifyingly abusive. The author, having served time as a pilot in World War II, was no stranger to human cruelty. Indeed, almost all of his novels are suffused with a kind of morbid curiosity. The B.F.G., or the “Big Friendly Giant,” features child-eating monsters with names like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler, and the three villains of Fantastic Mr. Fox are the personifications of obesity, greed and evil. But this darkness in Dahl’s books serves a greater purpose.
As children, we need to believe in not just big friendly giants, but ones who eat kids too. Our understanding of the world would be imperfect without villains, without a bit of darkness. But the best children’s books contain more than a measure of sadness; they confront the cruel realities of the world without weighing us down. Dahl did this with humor, wit and passion. Like the cunning hero of Fantastic Mr. Fox, who uses little more than his own smarts to beat three dumb lugs at their own game, Dahl understood the power of mischief-making and how it can liberate us (not to mention enrich a story).
Dahl’s young heroes are capable, possessed by a zeal that forces them to shoulder their burdens more acutely. The author presents childhood as an age when terror and wonder are bedfellows. When Charlie Bucket, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, momentarily escapes his derelict home, it’s to a paradise where all of his desires coalesce. From the bottom rung of despair, he is rocketed into a rapturous dream that is otherworldly. But can the visit to the chocolate factory last forever? Or is it just a temporary reprieve before Charlie must hang his head low and return to his poor, ailing family? Likewise, in James and the Giant Peach, the abuse James Henry Trotter suffers at the hands of his malicious aunts is made all the more tragic by the happy, bright child we see in the first few pages of the novel — that is, before his parents are trampled by a rhino.
Such is the damning logic of Dahl’s universe. It is in this juxtaposition of life’s highs and lows that his books make us consider childhood. Everything then seems so much bigger, grander, more important. Pranks become quests, crushes become passions. The middling pragmatism of adulthood is not even a speck on the horizon then; during childhood, Dahl seems to be saying, life is meant to be lived. That’s why, in spite of the often bitter and savage imagery, his books remain hopeful.
A deep, palpable darkness runs through all of Roald Dahl’s books, to be sure. But acknowledging that darkness, looking it square in the eye and countering it with the best you’ve got, that’s the reason for all those runaway rhinos, those child-eating giants and those sweet, lonely, smart, unfortunate kids.
Nicholas Laskin is a Los Angeles-based writer who primarily works in screenwriting but also dabbles in prose and journalism. He is the co-creator of the upcoming web series Talents and has worked for the American Film Institute and Sundance. In his spare time, he can be found doing one of the following things: reading, writing, binge-watching movies, making meager efforts at the gym or seeking out exotic and possibly dangerous Thai food.
KEEP READING: More on Novelists