The timeless Roald Dahl
We love the books of our childhood with guileless, uninhibited passion – which is why it can be so tempting to go back to them as adults. Who wouldn’t want to recapture that electric thrill of falling through a book into a new world, peopled with characters who speak for us, who become our friends?
And yet, it’s precisely because we remember these books so fondly that it can be dangerous to revisit them. Stories don’t change, but we do. The plots that used to thrill us, the characters who seemed so alive, the prose that made us laugh and cry and reach for the dictionary – all of it can feel suddenly predictable, simplistic, trite.
Thankfully, the work of Roald Dahl suffers none of these problems.
Like many children, I first encountered Roald Dahl by listening to adults read his stories aloud (I have vague memories of my third grade teacher Mr. Forsyth evoking the giants of The BFG with baritone menace). But I hadn’t thought to revisit his stories as an adult until my fiancée raved about a new audiobook recording of Matilda, narrated by Kate Winslet. I began listening to the story during my commute, and for thirty minutes at a time I was utterly transported.
Matilda Wormwood is one of Dahl’s greatest creations. Surrounded by crass, evil adults who undermine her at every turn, Matilda uses intellect (and a little magic) to escape her dire circumstances. Winslet is the ideal reader for the material, equally adept at giving voice to the quietly clever Matilda, the malicious headmistress Miss Trunchbull or the sweet, courageous teacher Miss Honey. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I can honestly say Matilda is one of the best I’ve ever heard.
In fact, I so enjoyed my experience listening to Matilda that I’ve been on a Roald Dahl jag ever since. I’ve particularly enjoyed revisiting Dahl’s animal tales, like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Esio Trot and The Enormous Crocodile. Aimed at younger readers, these stories foreground humor, despicable villains and lots of nimble wordsmithing. I’m especially fond of Fantastic Mr. Fox, where the sly Mr. Fox matches wits with three execrable farmers, and Esio Trot, in which a shy old man named Mr. Poppy concocts a savvy scheme to woo his downstairs neighbor Mrs. Silver. Esio Trot is also a notable showcase for Dahl’s range; his stories are always funny, always clever, but he’s capable of tenderness as well.
And nowhere are all these qualities so evident as in Dahl’s autobiography Boy: Tales From Childhood. Tracing Dahl’s life from birth till his graduation from a prestigious boarding school, Boy is just as entertaining as any of his novels, but it’s also shot through with the kind of candor and pathos we don’t always associate with his fiction.
There are moments of shocking violence, as Dahl repeatedly runs afoul of cruel headmasters and teachers who seem to take disgusting pleasure in beating their pupils. Given these types of experiences, it’s no wonder that Dahl’s vision of adulthood in his fiction is so jaundiced and cynical; especially in his children’s stories, adults are hulking, stupid miscreants – human obstacles that his child characters have to overcome to achieve their happy ends. That Boy manages to balance Dahl’s pain with his distinctive brand of mischievous humor speaks to the scale of his achievement. This is a book to savor, to cherish, and yes, to revisit.
Some authors are like parents, imbuing our early years with knowledge and wonder. Some authors are like friends, seeing our adult selves through the best and worst of our lives. And some authors are like Roald Dahl, bridging our childhoods and adulthoods with humor and wisdom and humanity.
Post Script: Though mostly aimed at young readers and teachers, Roald Dahl's official website is a delightful rabbit hole of information about the author, his books, the movie adaptations and other glorious miscellaney.