Celebrating a Century of Roald Dahl (and why he’s not just for chidlers)
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Had he lived to see it, Roald Dahl would have been 100 today. Instead, he has achieved the rare immortality reserved for authors whose books are passed from parents to children. Still, it would be a shame if his children’s books eclipsed his short fiction. If you’ve ever read any of his children’s stories as an adult, you’ll know that they play on darker themes than usual for children’s literature. That harrowing undertone is something to bear in mind as you reach for his short stories.
One of Dahl’s most famous children’s books, James and the Giant Peach, opens with the death of the protagonist’s parents. The Witches ends with a small boy forced to live the remaining years of his life as a mouse. Matilda tells the story of a young girl neglected by a family that doesn’t appreciate her. Even the saccharine Charlie and the Chocolate Factory begins with descriptions of the Bucket family’s destitution. Children go missing throughout the chocolate factory… it’s grim stuff.
That dark streak is one of the things that remains so appealing about Dahl’s novels for children. Children never get the impression that these situations have been in any way softened for them. Instead, the characters must navigate dreadful situations largely on their own. Even as an adult, they can make for uncomfortable reading.
In his short stories, Dahl’s style is just as bombastic as in his children’s novels. Here though, the dark undertones of the children’s stories are brought to the foreground. Questions about the human experience are accompanied by wry observations and offhand witticisms.
Many of Dahl’s best short stories thrive on a sense of upset expectations. His first collection of short stories was Tales of the Unexpected, which is telling. Dahl's writing style for short fiction often relies on last-second plot twists. Stories move from endearing to outright horrifying, sometimes oscillating between the two over the course of a few thousand words.
Unfortunately this means that describing those short stories in any detail can also spoil them, so we’ll only discuss the best known here. Royal Jelly is written in a sparse style that's a stark change from the prose of Dahl’s writing for children. The story centres on a pair of new parents worried about their newborn daughter, who has been refusing food and is steadily losing weight.
Her father, Albert, is a beekeeper. In his growing desperation, he begins feeding her the “royal jelly" that fuels the transformation from ordinary bee larvae into queen bee. When the baby begins to gain weight, there is a slow-dawning creepiness to the process. It is a sense of discomfort about the process that comes to a head when Mabel realizes that her daughter has grown to resemble an enormous maggot.
Like Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Royal Jelly presents us with a child struggling in a situation beyond their control, but who goes on to thrive with a little care and attention. That sounds like a typical Dahl story, but then there is that shift in perspective that differentiates Royal Jelly from the rest. It’s that uncomfortable shift that characterizes much of his short fiction.
There are two parts to the shift in perspective. The first is that we see this helpless infant from the point of view of equally helpless parents. She seems near death until Albert is struck with the idea of feeding her the royal jelly. This is where most of the Dahl’s children’s stories end, with the child, having triumphed over adversity, thriving. Instead, we see the idea of the child ‘thriving’ inverted. The ‘success’ in overcoming her illness carries a sense of deep revulsion.
If that seems a long way from the spirit of adventure you remember Dahl for, he also wrote a James Bond movie that's only enjoyable as an adult. If you've already seen You Only Life Twice, now is a good time to consider how many things in it sound like they came straight out of a Roald Dahl story: the spaceship that eats other spaceships, the villainous fortress constructed inside the caldera of a volcano (complete with retractable lake), and the hastily-arranged-marriage (to say nothing of Bond’s procedure to disguise him as “an oriental”).
If you haven’t watched You Only Live Twice as a Roald Dahl movie yet, we’d strongly recommend it. It’s important to be in the right frame of mind, so you might want to start your tour of Roald Dahl’s cinematic outings with the other Ian Fleming novel he helped write the script for, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
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