The gloriumptius world of Roald Dahl – 100 years on

On the centenary of writer Roald Dahl’s birth, Martina Borg talks to Maltese writers and teachers about what made his writing so memorable and timeless, and whether his works still hold the same appeal as they once did...

Perhaps one of the strongest testaments to the evergreen nature of Roald Dahl's legacy is the relentless flow of adaptations of his works
Perhaps one of the strongest testaments to the evergreen nature of Roald Dahl's legacy is the relentless flow of adaptations of his works

It might seem like a wholly eclectic world for adults, but for children, words like delumptious and scrumdiddlyumptious, made perfect sense.  And even today, for anyone who read widely when they were young, these words are likely to bring back fond memories of chocolate factories, telekinetic powers and flying giant peaches… 

Although the variety of children’s books has risen immensely since his first children’s book publication in 1945, few have arguably been as notable and influential as Dahl’s works.

“Once the books are presented to children, they instantly fall in love with his peculiar yet relatable characters,” says Literacy class teacher, Rachel Lombardo.

“Roald Dahl’s stories are funny, creative and descriptive and his characters come alive on each and every page.” 

Perhaps one of the strongest testaments to the evergreen nature of his legacy is the relentless flow of adaptations of his works. Including the recent Spielberg movie adaptation of Dahl’s The Big Friendly Giant (BFG) and the musical adaptation of Matilda. Not to mention Charlie and the Chocolate factory – which has been filmed twice, once with Johhny Depp, the other with the late Gene Wilder in the classic 1971 version.

Lombardo – who often shows these films to her classes - says having such adaptations could in fact be the key to keeping Dahl’s popularity alive. 

Golden Hollywood: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the silver screen with Gene Wilder in the part of Willy Wonka
Golden Hollywood: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the silver screen with Gene Wilder in the part of Willy Wonka

“However, it is of utmost importance that the written work is not abandoned for the sake of the movie adaptations,” she says. “Nothing can ever replace the beauty of the written word as Dahl himself reminds us in one of the Oompa Loompa songs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,

Go throw your TV set away,

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall.

Then fill the shelves with lots of books.”

One would venture to suggest then that Roald Dahl’s works were never meant to be read in a vacuum and that they always relied heavily on the visual experience – originally provided by the illustrations of Quentin Blake. 

Blake’s sketch-like illustrations have in fact become synonymous with the writer’s work, and they continue to enhance many of the themes and eccentricities of the worlds depicted within the novels. According to University of Malta children’s literature lecturer, Dr. Giuliana Fenech, these eccentricities are in fact one the writer’s most significant legacies.

Celebrating the weird and wonderful

“Possibly, his greatest gift to us was an eloquent celebration of the weird and the wonderful,” Fenech says.

“Like Lewis Carroll, Richmal Crompton, Arthur Ransome, P.L Travers, and Edward Ardizzone before him, Dahl was not afraid of pushing social and literary boundaries,” she argues - such as the language games he used, his unusual characters, plot twists and keenness to have his work illustrated. 

Fenech goes on to point out how Dahl’s unusual stories also presented readers with different ways of viewing the world and their own potential, while rejecting rules that constrained their creativity.

“They are filled with strong human values championing plenty of unlikely victors: small children triumphing over crafty adults, poor families winning over wealthy moguls, and so on; and they also feature a disregard for social expectation and rules that keep us penned in, unable to express our full potential,” she says. 

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to gauge whether a writer is still influential in the present day is to take a look at his impact on contemporary writers, says Fenech. Because many of the most successful ones it seems show a great indebtedness to the unique worlds he created.

“Dahl’s influence is definitely felt in the work of contemporary writers including Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Michael Rosen and Lemony Snicket among others. Like Dahl, these writers are unapologetic about their themes, beginnings and endings. They are not after adult approval, but rather the pure delight that their work inspires in those who read his books.” 

Unapolegtic about life

Interestingly, the writer’s influence is not constrained by language, and Maltese children’s writer Clare Azzopardi explained that although she was not entirely conscious of it, many of Dahl’s characters had influenced her own creations.  “The protagonists for my children’s books are all children. Ġużeppina, the girls in Mingu, Jake Cassar and Mandy and Wendy. The DeMolizz Brothers who are wicked and hate children and try to get rid of all their schools and dreams. Yes there is something of Dahl’s magic there,” she laughs. 

Like Fenech, Azzopardi also points out that Dahl’s stories were unapologetic about life and the difficulties people might have to face like bullying, poverty, the death of parents and terrible headmasters or headmistresses.   

George’s Marvellous Medicine: the Quentin Blake illustrations became a hallmark of Roald Dahl’s characters
George’s Marvellous Medicine: the Quentin Blake illustrations became a hallmark of Roald Dahl’s characters

“In Dahl’s world, things can go wrong, sometimes repeatedly, but there can always be one stroke of good luck, that little bit of magic, that one golden ticket if you will, that dream which is solely yours,” she says, adding that it is this mixture of reality and imagination that makes his stories so highly pertinent. 

“They tell children – just like Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant – you have the right to dream and nobody can take that right away from you. You have the right to stand up against the authorities just like Matilda stands up against tyrannous and cruel headmistress Miss Trunchbull. And you have the right to be nasty to people who are nasty, just like George reacting to his horrid grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine.”

Azzopardi also says that Dahl’s writings never sought to be patronising or moralising towards children who might be reading them, something that becomes blatantly clear in the gender roles depicted. Think of the spunky Sophie from the BFG and Matilda from the eponymous novel. Indeed Dahl’s work offers up a varied cast of young heroines to admire. 

A moral lesson

Likewise, renowned Maltese writer Trevor Zahra, who has reached something of a royal status in the local literary scene himself, suggests that the sense of never looking down at children also informs the actual language Dahl uses in his novels. 

“Dahl is never concerned or afraid of using complicated or invented vocabulary. He has absolute faith that his young readers will be creative enough to understand him and enjoy those aspects of his work,” he says. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Zahra’s literary style evokes a keen sense of the fantastical and whimsical that is reminiscent of Dahl’s works - an influence to which Zahra freely admits.

“One of the things he definitely taught me is never to underestimate readers whether they are children or adults.” Zahra makes particular reference to the bizarre worlds created in Dahl’s works for adults, including the 1979 short story collection Tales of the Unexpected. 

Despite their undoubtedly light and entertaining structure, Dahl’s novels also had some moral lessons to teach youngsters.

Quoting Philip Pullman’s Carnegie Medal acceptance speech in 1995, University of Malta children’s literature lecturer, Dr. Giuliana Fenech told me: “All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions, and Dahl’s work is no exception.”

“They teach us that we are able to triumph no matter what obstacles our perceived weaknesses or our disempowering social positions bring,” she says.

His stories continue to remind us that it is okay to laugh at life, and above all to be daring, to dream big and to hope that we can achieve what others may say is well beyond us. 

Rachel Lombardo also agrees that Dahl’s focus on the outcast and on eccentricities means that young readers realise that being unique can be truly magical in a world where everyone is expected to blend in. 

She reminds us: “Another lesson that children can learn from his books is that looks can be deceiving. Think about the scary giant and how friendly he is with Sophie in the BFG, or on the flipside about how awful the beautiful witches are from The Witches.”

But beyond the morals and lessons, Clare Azzopardi thinks that Dahl could also teach aspiring writers a thing or two about his remarkable storytelling. 

“His plots move forward effortlessly and he is a master of twists and of using the third as well as the first person narrator. This makes him an excellent model to follow, especially for writers who are just starting out,” she says. 

But despite the fact that his works have now reached a quasi-canonical status, Dahl was no stranger to controversy, both in the novels he wrote, and in the comments made in his personal life. 

Critics have at different times taken issue against the [spoiler alert] unpardoning ending in The Witches, where our beloved protagonist (known only as the narrator) is never seen coming back into his human form. While others have criticised the physical punishment doled out to some of the nastier characters throughout the novels. 

Indeed the bizarre, horrid events depicted in some of the novels led some to question whether the works ought to be handed out to children at all.

But perhaps some of these more unconventional aspects of his work can be explained through his even more unconventional and often tragic personal life. As Fenech puts it, Dahl used stories to share his experience of life and to connect more meaningfully to others - most of all with his own children.

In fact, a look at his own history reveals the reason behind the fascination with bereaved characters and the cruel if spectacular physical punishment placed on some of his characters. 

Dahl had traumatic experiences at boarding school where physical torture was common. He had to endure the death of his sister and his daughter at a young age.  The trauma resulting from the sickness that plagued his son and wife, as well as the war that he was unwillingly called to participate in no doubt cast its pall on his mental disposition. It was these dark events that laid many of the foundations for the stories we have grown to love over the years.

Fenech says that Dahl was influenced by real life events as much as literary ones. But whilst he may have held some offensive views - his memory has also been tarnished by suggestions that Dahl might have been a Hitler apologist and an anti-Semite - there are still plenty of mostly redeeming messages in his books.

“Claims that he was racist and anti-Semitic are followed by accounts that he expressed himself clumsily in these matters and was quick to offer subsequent apologies,” says Fenech. “Beyond these claims, which deserve to be considered in more detail when studying his influence, I think it is safe to say that his storytelling legacy remains a positive and exemplary one.”

Perhaps the true legacy is in just watching a child read a Dahl book today, she adds. 

“Hearing children giggle as they listen to descriptions of the Twits and watching them rejoice as Charlie finds that Golden Ticket, while James escapes Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge climbing aboard the giant peach, is testimony to the power of stories and the joy that they bring.”