Charlie Bucket. Matilda Wormwood. James Henry Trotter. Veruca Salt. Miss Trunchbull. If you know these names, congratulations! You have been fortunate enough to peek inside the mind of renowned Welsh author Roald Dahl, whose stories have inspired dreams and nightmares for decades. In the coming week, we celebrate Roald Dahl 100, the 100th anniversary of Dahl’s birth (September 13th) and reflect on the various characters–human and otherwise–that he brought to the page and, by extension, the screen.
Dahl’s name has been in the news recently; this past July saw the release of yet another film adaptation based on his work: The B.F.G. (Big Friendly Giant, in case you didn’t know). Despite his many successes and enduring appeal, Roald Dahl is an unlikely children’s author. This former fighter pilot began as a writer for adults. He became famous for his children’s books, which are macabre, at best. Other ways to describe his work: grotesque, chilling, and creepy. Think about it: Children getting sucked into chocolate river pipes; a principal who terrorizes her students; witches turning children into rats and trying to squash them under their heels; a giant rolling peach that destroys everything in its path. The children in the worlds created by Dahl rarely have it easy. They often contend with inept or absent parental figures and otherworldly forces that threaten their fragile universes. These are not warm and fuzzy tales.
I will admit that although I have read two of Dahl’s most famous books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, I am much more familiar with the film adaptations, as well as the film version of The Witches. I grew up with these movies; I remember seeing Matilda at the movie theater twenty years ago (!!!), and I consider Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory among my favorites of all time (my poor parents have heard me sing “I Want it Now” more times than I can count, because when Veruca Salt sings, how can I not sing along?). The Witches, more of a cult film, was not in our VHS collection, so I caught it whenever it was on television, and I watched a lot of television growing up. As a kid, I mostly thought of Willy Wonka as a whimsical fantasy and longingly dreamed of oversize gummy bears and wafer tea cups. But, there was that one scene–you know the one I’m talking about–when Wonka takes his guests on the most frightening boat ride known to man. That scene usually gave me the chills. The Witches, on the other hand, was frightening in an altogether different way. Whereas Willy Wonka was colorful and bright, with a dash of the unsettling, The Witches had a dour palette and scared me through-and-through from almost the first scene, in which our hero, Luke, loses his parents in a rain-soaked car accident (what a way to set the tone!). It gets progressively more frightening, leading to the climax of the film, when the witches remove their human “masks” to reveal their terrifyingly grotesque true selves: hooked noses, wrinkled skin hanging from bony bodies, long fingernails. It makes you miss Willy Wonka’s crazy boat ride, doesn’t it?
Before we start labeling Roald Dahl as a writer only concerned with frightening children and showing the darker side of life, let’s not forget his many poetic and inspiring moments. For example, in The Witches, the boy (Luke in the movie, nameless in the book) tells his grandmother, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.” Sweet, yes? My favorite quote, a portion of which I have had saved on Pinterest for years, comes from Dahl’s final, posthumous book, The Minpins: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
That’s the real beauty of Roald Dahl’s work: the magic. Talking foxes, bookworm girls with special powers, a Big Friendly Giant. The magic of Roald Dahl is being celebrated around the world in honor of his birthday, particularly in his homeland of Wales, where The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl exhibit includes handwritten letters and artifacts from the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. While honoring Roald Dahl, we should also give a special mention to Quentin Blake, the talented British illustrator whose drawings bring to life Dahl’s fantastical creations.
For more on Roald Dahl, visit Roalddahl.com. While you’re there, browse his bibliography and stop by the library to pick up a copy of one or more of his books, even if it’s a title you have never heard–especially if it’s a title you’ve never heard! Even 100 years after his birth, it’s never too late to discover an author as magical as Roald Dahl.