By: Jane’a Johnson
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.
Somewhere 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 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.