John Sturgis

Roald Dahl was vile, but it would be a pity to cancel him

Roald Dahl was vile, but it would be a pity to cancel him
Roald Dahl (Getty images)
Text settings

Where the Chilterns rise over Roald Dahl's family home, which is now a museum, diggers are at work, tearing up the beech woods that inspired one of his greatest books, Danny the Champion of the World, to clear a path for HS2. In the wider world, however, it is Dahl’s reputation that is being dug into. 

Dahl’s family recently issued a quiet apology for infamous anti-Semitic comments he made in interviews in the final years of his life. ‘I’m certainly anti-Israel,’ he said in 1990, eight months before his death, ‘and I've become anti-Semitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism’. Worse still, in another newspaper interview, Dahl claimed that ‘even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them [Jews] for no reason.’ 

The family — who net £12 million a year from his estate — were contrite: ‘Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.’  

His anti-Semitism has always been abhorrent — so why the apology now? It probably has something to do with the renewed focus on Dahl and his work ahead of a busy time for the Dahl estate. The family's statement comes just weeks after social media outrage over the new Warner Bros production of The Witches that was seen as mocking disabled people. 

While there is no evidence that his repulsive anti-Jewish views filtered into any of his children's stories, a renewed focus on his oeuvre will turn up other unfortunate offences. Netflix are planning a new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a planned spin-off about those factory workers, the Oompa-Loompas, who some have long suggested were originally a crudely-drawn caricature of exploited black Africans, a racist trope. And there’s a biopic, To Olivia, starring Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes, which is due out next year. The focus on Dahl is only likely to intensify.

The reason for The Witches furore was that the villains were depicted as having just three elongated, twisted fingers which prompted criticism for perpetuating stereotypes of ‘limb difference’. Anne Hathaway penitently avowed: ‘As someone who really believes in inclusivity and really, really detests cruelty, I owe you all an apology for the pain caused.’ The book it was based on mostly escaped direct blame. British Paralympian swimmer Amy Marren, for instance, says the depiction ‘massively exaggerates the Roald Dahl original’. 

Does it, though? Dahl does physically demonise many of his characters, not just the witches. The three fingers may have been invented by the new film, but Dahl's original witches are depicted as monstrous: their hands are ‘claws’, their toes are missing completely, their scalps are hairless so they become ‘foul bald-headed females’. 

Thousands of social media users have lately shared memes of a quote from Dahl: ‘A person who has good thoughts can never be ugly.’ The passage, from The Twits, goes on: ‘If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on their face... and the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.’ 

There exists across Dahl's work a conflation of goodness with beauty, and ugliness or deformity with evil, which sits uncomfortably with modern sensibilities. Dahl’s is a world populated by grotesques and for every sweet note, for every golden chocolate bar, there’s a sourness, a gross and greedy child who deserves what's coming to them. 

In the autobiography, Boy, for instance, he writes with great fondness of the Cardiff sweetshop he frequented in his 1920s school days. But the woman who runs it is ‘an old hag’, ‘a horror… loathsome... disgusting’. And when this ghoulishness becomes feminised, when it's attributed to women or girls, it's easy to conclude (as people increasingly are) that he was a misogynist.

There’s another reason for that impression, if you’ve tackled his adult fiction, particularly, My Uncle Oswald. It’s adult in the 1970s sense; I’m struggling to think of a book with more sex. It's hard to defend as comic in the #MeToo era when its central premise involves drugging people for sex. Jolly japes in 1979, no doubt, but not so much now. 

Once you’ve read Oswald you can no longer think of Dahl as avuncular, the model for the loveable BFG. The comments pages on book group sites by fans of his children’s books who have graduated to the adult ones like Oswald are a litany of horror and outrage — and it's growing all the time. 

Even if the producers of the new Dahl productions are likely to be sympathetic to Dahl and bend backwards to avoid giving offence, their films will surely encourage fresh attacks from those who aren’t. I fear we will likely soon reach a tipping point, and start to see librarians refusing to lend him, teachers refusing to allow him to be read, parents binning him as a triggering throwback. That would be a terrible shame. For darkness in children’s books is a tradition going back to Hoffmann, the Brothers Grimm and the folk tales that preceded them. And it is such darkness that has always drawn children to literature. In other words, the reason Dahl ever became so popular in the first place is, in no small part, because of what is now easy to cast as problematic. 

Dahl was always fond of coining neologisms, compounds of existing words whose meaning could be easily guessed. Here’s mine — we are witnessing the ‘problematification’ of Roald Dahl. But for all his sins — he was, at his worst, simply vile — his cancellation would ultimately be a terrible shame, because the true magic of his work lies is that he actually persuades children, millions of children, to read. And no amount of unsavouriness in his character — or his work — detracts from that.