In a lot of ways, Roald Dahl is one of the most unique children’s writers of all time. Born in Wales in 1916, he ascended to literary fame in the 1940s and has since produced some of the most recognisable and beloved children’s literature of our time: Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach — just to name a few!
Dahl’s scrumdiddlyumptious concoction of fantasy, horror and folklore are now a sample of every young readers first literary experience. From whimsical stories of boat rides along chocolate rivers to battles amongst giants after a charming visit to Dream country, his tales were very much textual reimagining’s of every child’s dream; filled to the bibbling brim with wild extravagance yet also gifting adults their own golden tickets to enter the once-closed gates of youth.
Yet, upon reflection, I realise I’ve underestimated how much Dahl’s stories educated me growing up. His funny, albeit often dark narratives, fostered a feeling of hope and empowerment amongst those of us out there who felt different, lonely or mistreated. He was never afraid to show us how dark life can get sometimes whilst equally balancing it with the quirky imagery and limitless vocabulary. Thus, diverse groups of readers are given morals and life lessons that they can treasure as they grow older. Here are just a few that have resonated most strongly with me:
The empowerment of children
There is no better showcase of childhood brilliance than in one of his last novels — Matilda. Sweet, charming, mature and very intelligent for her age; our title character is nothing short of a child prodigy. However, throughout the book, her talent is routinely scorned at and under-appreciated by her head teacher and members of her own family.
Her eventual magical capabilities are thus a direct result from the fact that all this intelligence inside of her is being squelched. Her brilliance outwardly manifests itself through these telekinetic powers that go away as soon as these toxic individuals are out of the picture. Dahl uses Matilda to demonstrate how you cannot squelch children’s abilities because if you do, they’re going to find some way to shine through no matter what. Although it’s not implicitly said within the book, the impression is that this sort of power could be available to any child who feels repressed in some way or another. Within every child, there lies a special passion, if we nourish that gift and let it flourish naturally it will shine through and produce something amazing. A great lesson of empowerment that will hopefully encourage every child to rise up against adversity and know that nothing can undermine their brilliance.
The value of friendship
True friends can feel like an extended family which is a feeling emulated in James and the Giant Peach. After the death of his parents, from then on, James lives with his two spiteful aunts who persist in making him feel as isolated from the outside world as possible. He yearns to meet some new friends and for that sense of belonging.
And his wish is granted when a magical peach spontaneously grows in the garden which introduces him to a wide array of wonderful, eccentric and most importantly caring and protective friends. Fun fact: peach trees actually symbolise life and longevity! Bearing this in mind, we can see how Dahl’s ingenious use of metaphors symbolise how a nurturing friendship can give you that happiness, strength and confidence which a previous environment may have taken away. This narrative shows that love can be found in all shapes and sizes and it is something to be welcomed and appreciated.
Perseverance conquers all, co-operation prevails
Here we are again with Matilda! And this moral, in some ways, ties into the first lesson discussed. Throughout the story, Dahl portrays the school almost like it is a war zone with the students waging this constant battle against Miss Trunchbull’s cruelty. In fact, for the whole second part of the story, Matilda’s is a bystander to this battle and she sees soldiers fighting and falling. It is only when she is specifically targeted by Trunchbull that she becomes involved and simultaneously where her powers manifest.
Matilda’s role in the finale is thus to give these students that final push in a long distressing battle. The advantage to this is that, as aforementioned, the power that Matilda demonstrates in defeating Trunchbull is the power that any child, anywhere, can have. Therefore, through all the students rising up in an act of revolution against Trunchbull after chapters of passivity, it demonstrates that every child can and should be able to stand up for themselves when faced with overbearing individuals.
On his birthday today, we should recognise that Dahl has created a fantastic array of life lessons that everyone can, and should, take away from his fantastic fantasy stories.
By Katie Heyes
Image: by Christchurch City Libraries via Creative Commons