Happy Birthday, Roald Dahl!

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, General Interest

By: Jane’a Johnson

The Witches by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl would be 102 tomorrow. He is one of the best selling authors of all time. His works need no introduction — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda, The Witches, The BFG, The Twits and George’s Marvellous Medicine — several have been screen adaptations. The Witches absolutely terrified me as a child, and stirred up considerable controversy for its depiction of women.

“I do not wish to speak badly about women,” wrote Dahl in The Witches. “Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male… both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH.”

He was wrong, of course, since the concept of witchcraft in the Western world is technically anything not sanctioned by the Old Testament. Males or females could engage in witchcraft, and thus men or women could be witches. It was only later that witchcraft became associated almost exclusively with women. But this portion of The Witches is characteristic of Dahl’s wit and humor.

Dahl’s imaginary Oompa-Loompas, the workers in Willy Wonka’s factory, have also been criticized. They were shown as “African pygmies” in the first edition of the book, a kind of fetid throwback from Britain’s colonial imagination. Subsequent depictions show them with white skin and blonde hair, though they remain wearing animal skins and leaves. The Oompa-Loompas are paid in cocoa beans beans, seem to always be singing and dancing, and were shipped over to the factory in packing cases with holes in them.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald DahlSomewhere between the happy slave stereotype and jolly colonial plantation-factory worker, they are hardly the villains of the story; the words the Oompa-Loompas utter are far more sensical and valuable than the bratty, spoiled children in Wonka’s factory. They are like a Greek chorus, except that their small stature and appearance make it so that the children and many of the adults in the story don’t listen to them. It is still an open question whether their flaccid characterization make children reading the story ignore them too – quite the opposite of what Dahl was going for.

Much like Dahl himself, his stories too are known for sharp wit and for their acerbic humor. His characters – particularly that of Matilda, James and Charlie – are iconic because they remind us all what it feels like to be a child.

The genius of Dahl’s work is that he was able to write children’s stories with morals, all while never being a moralizer.

Fighter pilot, screenwriter, beloved children’s author. Happy Birthday, Roald Dahl.


Jane'a JohnsonJane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.


  • Roald Dahl was a nasty anti-Semite. Having said that, I would absolutely oppose censoring his work or discouraging kids from reading it. In addition to the questionable racial caricatures which you have described, and possibly related to his prejudices against colonials, he made a number of vile statements about Jews, including that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” (https://forward.com/schmooze/349771/the-5-most-anti-semitic-things-roald-dahl-has-ever-said/) Your interpretation of the Oompa Loompas is interesting and persuasive, but Dahl’s contempt for the Jewish people just can’t be squared within the context of his literary works. Again, we should continue reading his books and continue examining the sources, both personal and historical, of his offensive beliefs.

  • Thanks for this comment @ Emily! The Oompa Loompa “tribe” has always been disturbing, and I’d often wondered about what the function is in the story. It reminds me a little bit of the Rudyard Kipling Heart of Darkness argument from Professor Chinua Achebe and Caryl Phillips – there’s a great critique of colonialism in there, but it’s couched in stereotypes. For some people, the price of reading it is too high when they could engage with other works that don’t do such things. I don’t know that the Oompa Loompa’s critique of spoiled, entitled children are worth the price of those stereotypes.

    As far as Dahl being an anti-semite, SHAME. Those quotations are terrible. Racist ideas are on a continuum though – and I do find it interesting that these quotations actually share some of the problems from the Oompa Loompa characterization, since racism has so much to do with reducing people to a bunch of flattened stereotypes to justify that groups treatment, along with whatever benefits one might receive from that treatment, or prejudices one might have.

    Thanks again!

  • It’s always really interesting to read something you loved as a child and see what you didn’t “get” as a kid. I had heard as an adult that CS Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia had a heavy Christian allegory to it an always though “odd, I don’t remember that at all…” I am rereading them now as an adult and definitely have had “Ohhhh I see now” moments. I haven’t read any Dahl in a long time, but I remember loving him as a kid, and I don’t remember picking up on any of the negative undertones that I’ve been made aware of as an adult. I guess that’s one of the wonderful things about kids – that they don’t stereotype until someone teaches them to do so. However, all the more reason it’s disturbing to think of beloved authors or books with a negative undertone.

  • @ Lisa

    It’s funny like that with children – I think they have the ability to pick up on things subconsciously. Maybe they don’t use the academic language of “Christian allegory”, but they can speak to things in pretty sophisticated ways if folks just ask them! Some things they accept, other things they reject. Overtime the accumulation of all of these images, stories, stereotypes, ideologies, ideas become much more apparent – I like to say that they surface. The “Ohhhh I see now” moment that you pointed out!

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