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Dahl and his fairytales

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Building a Dahl house

By Molly Frank


Read the entire article at the above website


 What do the Brother’s Grim, a burning firehouse, and dead mice have in common?  These are all elements found within the writings of the master of “dark humour, surprise endings, and subtle horror”: From reading Dahl’s works, we discover that much of his genius is drawn from his childhood experiences.  His multi-faceted work is really a concealed compilation of the misfortunes that he encountered as a young adult.  Writing became a means by which Dahl could disguise his painful past.  He covers up his heartbreaking childhood by using common fairy tale motifs: tricking the reader into approval of sociably unacceptable acts and implementing a common theme of the effects of parental mortality at a young age.  Elements of humour are also commonly utilized to help smooth the transformation from childhood to adulthood, allowing the reader to cope with the masked tragedy apparent throughout many of his stories.   Dahl views childhood through the double lenses of fairytale and humour, providing distance from his own painful memories. 


            After reading various short stories from “The Best of Roald Dahl”, I had become attuned to his style of cleverness, spontaneity, morbidity, comedy, and irony.  Not only had reading stories like “Pig”, “Galloping Foxley” and “Madame Rosette” brought me a closer understanding of the twisted mind of Dahl, but also of his past.  Various aspects of his background, especially childhood, are recalled throughout his stories, which provide to be a means for him to vent and take revenge on his past tormentors.  For example, “Galloping Foxley” is about an elderly man, William Perkins, whose memory of earlier school days is sparked after encountering an old school bully.  This menace made a personal and punishable slave out of him, making his junior high school experience a nightmare


The various English schools in which Dahl attended throughout his childhood: Llandaff Cathedral (where he was severely beaten by the Headmaster for placing a dead mouse in a store keeper’s candy jar), St. Peter’s Boarding School (where he lived in fear of the hall matron), and Repton private school (where Dahl was caned many times for failure at menial tasks).  When asked about his school years, he described them as “days of horror”. 


Dahl had lost his father at the young age of four (Boy 20).  This tragic absence appeared to spark a common theme within his children’s literature.  It seemed that within these stories, the main character, usually a child, is often orphaned, motherless, fatherless, or grows up surrounded by cruel adult parental figures.  In “Matilda”, Matilda is left alone to discover the power of her brain and build up her witch-like characteristics because her lousy, non-caring parents are too busy scamming other people to notice.  James’ parents in “James and the Giant Peach” are dead, leaving him left with two wicked aunts.  The little boy from “The Witches” is also parentless and left with his grandmother after his parents are killed in a car crash.  All of these examples, and more, left me yearning to discover the truth and convinced that his fatherless childhood had an impact on his mischievous writing trend, which tends to view adults in a bad light. 



The various uses of irony seemed to pop out at me at first glance. The different kinds of irony- verbal, situational, and dramatic- I became aware of the incredible amount of depth that is buried beneath massive amounts of comedy, morbidity, and shock “Lamb to the Slaughter”, not only as a collection of assorted types of irony, but also as an insight to the reader’s sense of character.  That the reader’s response to Dahl’s purposeful withdrawal of evidence and Mary Maloney’s murderous crime is really an expression of our suppressed primitive beings).


 The similarities found within fairy tales.  Both fairy tales and “Lamb to the Slaughter” are written in a way that the reader becomes tricked into approval of sociably unacceptable acts.  We become disoriented and find it justified when one is killed by a giant lamb chop or sliced open in order to release an eaten grandmother. 


Although Dahl had no known violent experiences with T-bones or chicken breasts, this obsession with morbidity revealed what might be a mode of dealing with childhood revenge.  Specifically pertaining to the Great Mouse Plot of 1924, when Dahl was beaten by his Headmaster after placing a dead mouse in a jar full of gobstoppers, writing about a similar revenge attack may have been a way for him to cope with his tragic childhood, except this time he was doing the beating (Boy 49). 



At first glance, Roald Dahl appears to be simply a clever and comical children’s author.  Yet after delving deeper, one becomes aware of the connections between Dahl’s fiction and his painful past.  Tragic experiences of a fatherless childhood and school “days of horror” impacted his writing style.  Not only is there an evident connection between his childhood and his writing genre, but also an obvious commonality to fairy tales.  Both fairy tales and Dahl’s literature spark a similar reader response full of distorted interpretations of right and wrong and approval of sociably unacceptable acts.  Another fairy tale motif of evil adult supervisors, in place of parental figures, is frequently seen within much of his work.  Yet the connection is not exactly precise; the implementation of elements of humour to lessen the blow of morbidity and parental mortality make the link less obvious.  Dahl views childhood through the double lenses of fairy tale and humour, providing distance from his own painful memories. 


Dahl experienced both physical and emotional pain as a young adult.  The physical tragedy had a great impact on his interpretation of childhood, openly expressed within his writing.  In many stories, such as “Galloping Foxley”, there is an obvious tie between the brutal “fagging” he endured while at Repton and the torture that Bruce Foxley inflicts on William Perkins moments after he fails to do the menial tasks demanded of him with perfection:


… the voice, the clipped, pip-spitting voice was saying, “So which is it to be this time?  Six with the dressing-gown on – or four with it off?”


            I never could bring myself to answer this question.  I would simply stand there staring down at the dirty floor-planks, dizzy with fear and unable to think of anything except that this other larger boy would soon start smashing away at me with his long, thin, white stick, slowly, scientifically, skillfully, legally, and with apparent relish, and I would bleed 



This ridiculous “legal” tradition of punishable servitude, such as warming the seat of the commode in the outhouse during a snowstorm, which he suffered, made Dahl “dizzy with fear”.  When his senior year rolled around and it became his turn to take a stab at “boazerdom”, the art of becoming a slave master with the privilege of beating your fag and forcing him to do menial tasks, he not only refused to accept this position, but also was denied this opportunity by the heads of the school for fear that he would not adequately continue the tradition (Boy 162).  Various images of blatant cruelty and morbidity envelop much of his work; their source from tragic experiences like this. 


            Much of the emotional pain that Dahl endured as a child weaved its way into his writing career.  With the recent death of his favourite daughter, Astri, who died from appendicitis, Dahl’s father went down with pneumonia a month or so afterwards. “[His] father refused to fight.  He was thinking…of his beloved daughter, and…wanting to join her in heaven.  So he died.” (Boy 20)  This double blow not only was hard to handle, but also left Dahl fatherless, without a positive role model and lacking the will “to fight” at the young age of four.  After these deaths, both St. Peter and Repton boarding schools became his home for the rest of his childhood, as Dahl’s mother could not find the time to take care of six children at home without her husband.  Living away from his mother, he grew up surrounded by negative and violent influences.  This tragic emotional loss and its effects in turn became the source for much of Dahl’s twisted, morbid, and sad stories, such as “Man from the South” and “The Witches”. 


            Dahl’s outlook on childhood is also shaped by fairy tales, which, after researching many, he frequently mimics throughout many of his stories.  One fairytale motif is shown when the death of wolves being spliced open by lumberjacks in order to release eaten grandmothers and little girls dressed in red shawls seems justified. Common in many of Dahl’s works is this tendency to infuse a morbid, violent, and usually sociably unacceptable act that fogs up our impression of who the real “bad guy” is.  The moment where Mary swings “the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and [brings] it down as hard as she could on the back of [Patrick’s] head” within “Lamb to the Slaughter” becomes a shining moment of glory to the reader rather than a brutal act of murder.  Similar to children, who openly express their feelings on what is seen as good and bad, we too are allowed to relate to our inner child and label Mary as good and Patrick bad.  We dissent from civilization, which causes us to suppress our primitive beings, and return to a fairy tale reversal type of interpretation of  “Lamb to the Slaughter”.  Dahl uses writing as a mode of ventilation of his frustration, abusive past, and concealed inner child.   


Dahl is like a magician who manipulates the reader in a way that forces us, unknowingly, to reveal our true identities and sense of character within the course of reading one of his stories.  In “Lamb to the Slaughter”, we are tricked into approval of a forbidden crime and do not realize our acceptance until the murder weapon is consumed.  This “grotesque” comedy/crime fiction:


… turns out to be a story about the fundamental-and fragile-devices of civilization, and about the ease with which the seemingly law-abiding citizen lapses back into the murderous brute


We are the “seemingly law-abiding citizen[s]” who break the traditional model of right and wrong which our civilization has established.  We become “caught up in the fantasy of vengeance”, revealing a sense of our personal, primitive and morbid beings that tempts us to give justice to the killer for eliminating her spouse.  This comical story is really an invitation to the reader’s mind, for it causes him to drop his or her guard and take pleasure in violence and murder, a popular trend found within fairy tales, many of Dahl’s stories, and his abusive childhood.


            Dahl also imitates another aspect of many fairy tales: the use of evil adult figures at the expense of parental mortality.  Just as Cinderella is left to grow up under the strict supervision of her evil step-mother and sisters, James from “James and the Giant Peach” is left under the care of his two wicked aunts after his parents die.   Luke from “The Witches” must also suddenly learn how to cope with both of his parents’ deaths as he takes on his next challenge: riding the world of witches as a mouse (Witches 18).  Charlie’s, from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, remains fatherless, just like Dahl (Chocolate Factory 31).  Although Matilda’s parents are both alive, she must also face her vicious Headmaster, Ms. Crunchbull, alone for they are too busy scamming other people and wasting away their lives in game shows and T.V. dinners (Matilda 48).   The roots of this malevolent adult influence at the expense of positive parental role models lie deep within Dahl’s childhood, where he ran throughout the halls at school in fear of the dreaded Matron, Headmaster, or boazer (Boy 85).   The only positive role model Dahl had was his mother, which he infrequently saw. 


            By incorporating the fairy tale style throughout his work, Dahl is able to take important steps toward healthy child development.  According to Bruno Bettelheim:


         The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fairy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence (Enchantment 73). 


Dahl adapts the role of fairy tales to his own writing with the same intent of exposing children to important concepts and “essential steps” that they will one day have to face.  The most obvious one is death, shown though a number of violent, morbid, and gruesome ways in both Dahl’s literature and common fairy tales, allowing children to be exposed to reality at an early age.  Without this key part of “personal development”, a child may receive a mixed impression of right and wrong, not to mention a false interpretation of real life.


            Dahl tries to adapt this fairy tale style, yet in a more discrete manner with the help of comedy.  At first glance, many readers are attracted to the infinite amounts of dark humor found within his writing.  Yet there is an even bigger purpose to this wit than sheer entertainment.  These elements are infused within his work to sort of mask his fairy tale mimicking style and smooth the transition from childhood to adulthood.  If taken literally, much of the tragedy and events that take place within most of Dahl’s work would seem horrific. Dahl uses humor to disguise violence and morbidity. 


The necessity of humour, according to Dahl, in entertaining the reader and tricking them into approval of sociably appalling acts is shown when asked for his opinion on the movie “The Witches”.  In response to viewing this motion picture, based on his original story, Dahl said that he did not find it pleasing for it lacked essential elements of humour.  Although the movie production excelled in expressing situational irony, a characteristic found within much of his writing such as “Lamb to the Slaughter”, as The Grand High Witch became one of the many creatures that she turned naughty little children into everyday (a mouse), it failed to meet Dahl’s standards of applying sufficient amounts of humour to conceal the violence. 


            Although much of Dahl’s writing may be seen solely as entertaining and clever literature, it is actually a means by which he is able to cope with his painful childhood through the use of various fairy tale motifs and humour.  Many of his stories, such as “Galloping Foxley” and  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” reflect specific aspects from both his physically and emotionally tragic childhood.  Along with combining facets of his own personal past within his work is the parallel to fairy tales.  Dahl adapts this fairy tale style in many stories to invite the reader to drop his or her own guard, awaken their suppressed primitive beings, and see right in wrong.  This fairy tale image is also applied as a contribution to a child’s development in entering reality.  Yet the correlation between Dahl’s stories and universal fairy tales is not perfect; humour sets Dahl’s works apart from the Brother’s Grim in order to ease the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Writing not only became Dahl’s way of making a living, but also a means by which Dahl could distance himself from his heartbreaking childhood.  Perhaps storytelling is also a release and a means of coping with his scarred youth, a cathartic experience for his own survival. 












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