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The rewriting of Roald Dahl is propsposterous

There will be no literature left, once the rewriters have their way


Roald Dahl Wikimedia Commons

The rewriting of Roald Dahl is <em>propsposterous</em>
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The censorship of Roald Dahl’s children’s books has set off a firestorm. From the man on the street to the British prime minister to author Salman Rushdie—who knows something about censorship—writers, public figures, and other observers have expressed their anger. They should be angry, because, as Dahl would say, the whole thing’s a bunch of despungable rummytot.

As first reported by The Telegraph, the latest editions of Puffin’s Roald Dahl children’s books have been chopped, altered, and added to in order to bring them into conformity with contemporary sensibilities. To “protect children” the editors have exorcised from Dahl anything they deemed racist, sexist, body-shamming, or cruel. Purged are hundreds of references to someone’s size, intelligence, complexion, gender, attractiveness—or lack thereof. The overhaul is both alarming and profoundly ignorant.

If the editors found Dahl’s material so objectionable, a disclaimer on the copyright page that the books were written many years ago and might contain language now deemed outdated or offensive would have sufficed. Readers could decide for themselves whether and how to proceed. Instead, the editors assigned themselves the right to strip future readers of the freedom to know what Roald Dahl had even written. But the editors hold past generations captive too. Dahl is no longer alive to either protest or approve the changes. This should alarm everyone. Is the precedent now set that henceforth whoever holds legal ownership of cultural artifacts that do not depict their values is free to change them until they do? The prospect is Orwellian:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered…History has stopped.

Just as disturbingly, the pearl-clutching revisionists don’t even understand the writer who offends them. Yes, alongside the cracking narration and jocular diction there is a darkness to Dahl. But he was writing what he knew. His own childhood, while it included joy, was as troubled as any he penned. He lost both his sister and father when he was just three. He was soon shunted off to boarding schools where, he told us, he endured a world of hazing, bullying, ritual savagery, and status domination. “All through my school life,” he wrote, “I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely.”

Whatever the objections of his pursed-lipped critics, children—as proved by more than 250 million copies sold—have always found Dahl’s books so gloriumptious.

Punishments included canings so vicious they drew blood. Dahl himself was flogged by his headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at a local sweet shop as revenge against the “mean and loathsome” proprietor. Griefs continued through adulthood. A fighter pilot in WW2, Dahl endured the horrors of combat, fallen friends, and terrible injuries following a crash in the Libyan desert. Later, his son suffered brain damage after nearly being killed when a taxicab struck his baby carriage. A short time later, his daughter, seven, succumbed to measles encephalitis. The shadows of such grief are everywhere evident in Dahl’s writing.

Beyond all that, Dahl, was apparently at times a mean, dyspeptic, and hugely unpleasant man. Perhaps tragedy exacerbated this. But if the cruelty and heartbreak Dahl endured helped embitter him, it rightly revolted him as well. Better still, it also honed his sense of justice. This is essential. Whatever else is said about the darkness of his children’s books, it must be observed that throughout them runs the insistence that cruelty toward the vulnerable by the powerful invites ruthless retribution.

This simple moralism in Dahl’s stories has always instinctively appealed to children. Dahl’s villains are swing-kids-by-their-ponytails-villainous—and they have physical descriptions to match (which helps make their typically horrible comeuppance more gratifying). Dahl’s heroes—even the small ones—are shown capable of triumphing through courage, cunning, and kindness. Through it all, Dahl allows his reader to have an enormously good time. His writing is brisk, clever, confiding, pleasantly twisted, and funny.

Whatever the objections of his pursed-lipped critics, children—as proved by more than 250 million copies sold—have always found Dahl’s books so gloriumptious. Made of stouter stuff then they are often credited with, children know that childhood is a mixed bag—a blend of both golden phizzwizards and trogglehumpers. There’s cruelty in it, even savagery. Terrors too. And plenty to make one angry. And because children know this, Dahl doesn’t shy away from depicting the difficulties and often unjust hardships that are unavoidable in a child’s life. Dahl doesn’t “protect” children. He endorses their proper anger, and he confirms their moral instincts.

Dahl also leverages the darkness to remind children that there is magic in life too. That magic part may include violence and the brutishness, bullies and traumas, but these can all be survived, resisted, and even overcome. Best of all, as Dahl’s stories remind us, children might even have a whopsey bit of fun while thinking about such things, as they must.


Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.

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