Every good child takes some pleasure in being bad. It is the perversity of human inheritance that forbidden fruit is fascinating. Childhood courts devious delights while confronting the boundaries of manners and morals. The rewards of virtue have their appeal, but the thrill of crime is a strong contender for the awakening will. While innocence remains inviolate, impish inclinations spar with domestic governments. That innocence, however, can be threatened especially when children experience the terrible or the twisted through a powerful vicarious medium—that is, through stories. Is it harmless or harmful for a child to live out his fantasies of rebellion and retribution in stories that carry them out for his enjoyment rather than his edification? In other words, though every good child has some propensity to be naughty, is it good for children to read naughty literature that tries to embody the extremes of cheekiness and wickedness in playful caricatures of adult stupidity and juvenile supremacy? Welcome to the wild, wicked world of Roald Dahl (1916-1990), whose chocolate factory of children’s books to this day churn a strange sweetness throughout the landscape of literature.
After a turbulent career with the RAF during World War II, Roald Dahl became famous as a saucy, mischievous author who yet holds children spellbound by the energies, grotesqueries, and atrocities of his stories. Dahl’s tales assume a delightfully dark tone of childlike confidentiality with vigor, suspense, and wit which have proved captivating, even if they are often appalling. With all the powers of a master storyteller, Dahl’s zest and zaniness has made him famous in the annals of children’s literature. His books are wonderful, but also weird—which begins to beg the question of their fitting place in a budding imagination. Dahl’s quintessentially quirky way of looking at the world has about it a violence and even viciousness while still maintaining an honesty and indomitability about it, which makes his voice assume a bizarre balance of the paradox of the human condition.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory captures the dilemma of Dahl. Young readers are drawn with sympathy and friendliness to a poor, pleasant child who miraculously wins a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s marvelous chocolate factory; and are then driven to gnash their teeth with pleasure and perversity as rich, unpleasant children are tangled and tortured within the sugar-coated nightmares of Willy Wonka’s factory. The punishments fit the crimes, to be sure, and are comic to an extreme, but the tone is strange and erratic. Moments of warm heartedness are juxtaposed with wild hellishness, with no clear indication of whether laughter or loathing is the order of the day. The chocolate factory is silly and strange. It is delightful and devilish. It has the sublimity of chocolate and the rigidity of a factory. It is the chocolate factory of Roald Dahl, where sweets are produced that are a pleasure, but too much can give the imagination cavities. In Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory, innocence and iniquity are blended or ground or wed together in a mad kaleidoscope of humor, hysteria, and horror. Which is to say, Roald Dahl is difficult to resist. His literature is literary candy, which all children love, but must learn to be wary of. The chocolate factory awaits to swallow the weak.
Roald Dahl’s books are naughty books, and, like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, almost seem to lay snares for the naughty. Though his stories are at bottom moral, there is a twisted quality to them that invites taking some guilty pleasure in rude, revolting, or wrong things. Many parents struggle with this presence of the gross and grotesque in Dahl’s work primarily because his books are so beloved by their children. Children do love to read his writings, wicked though they are. But—though children should not read rubbish just because they enjoy it—the wickedness of Roald Dahl is not wretchedness. Good conquers evil, even though in the process evil conquests good. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a children’s Inferno, but there is a snickering delight in the punishments of the spoiled that has no place in Dante. The BFG is a proper fairy tale, but it offers an improper indulgence over flatulent whizzpoppers and disgusting snozzcumbers. Danny, the Champion of the World is really about Danny becoming the champion of the world, but only because his father was a champion of the underworld. Matilda is a hero, and a rebel. James is a victim, and a vagabond. Roald Dahl is certainly a naughty writer, but that does not mean that he is a nasty writer. His vile villains, his suspenseful plots, and his superhuman children can desensitize sensitive minds, but it is that danger which makes the young engage eagerly to face the thrill and challenge of a fun and funny world that is far from antiseptic. The question remains, is Dahl worth the risk?
Dahl was well acquainted with abusive grown-ups, with chocolate factories, with witches, and with boyish escapades. There were demons and delights in Dahl’s life, and he presented them without filter in his writings. His tales are full of surprises, but nothing in their conclusions is surprising. Dahl presents his fictions truthfully with all the loveliness and ugliness of life, and, in the end, children appreciate that truthfulness. Moreover, Roald Dahl’s stories could be considered a remedy, however strange, against the strains and stains of puritanism. There is a real advantage to allowing children to have some rude laughter over the ruder realities, so long as the boundary is not broken into the aberrant—but, even so, is that a boundary worth flirting with? The writings of Dahl certainly flirt with it, but, in so doing, can introduce children to their humanity—that they are the lords of creation but subject to it at the same time, and that laughing at the foul can render it less of a force.
The works of Roald Dahl are not great literature because they are vulgar, though there is a venerable custom of vulgarity in great literature. Aristophanes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes were celebrated for portraying the coarser, even crasser, sides of life. Their themes dealt with rock-bottom, ribald characteristics of human nature, portrayed in straightforward, comic fashion without shame or apology. The boorish and brash deal with things that most people avoid acknowledging in a manner so direct they become delightful. Thus, the bawdry helps expose those deviant aspects of nature that can paradoxically draw man closer to God by demonstrating with humility and hilarity how much he needs Him. Does this lofty strategy apply to the terribly terrific tales of Roald Dahl? Perhaps.
Roald Dahl offers tales of childhood that are so authentic they are authoritative on the subject of childhood. This gives his books an edge despite their edginess. Roald Dahl may be on the crooked and creepy side of things, but his frank presentation of good and evil and everything in between is something that every boy and girl—and man and woman—can relate to. In the end—and especially regarding the rearing of youth—there has to be some calculated and controlled hazard. Some, unfortunately, will fall if introduced to the brazen tones that Roald Dahl employed in his writings. Some will be Icarus, and it is tragic. Some, however, will find the middle course for the introduction of extremes. The risk of Roald Dahl is worth running, for there must be a balance between the pure and the puritan. Otherwise wisdom will not be wondrous and the farcical will not be funny. Roald Dahl reminds his readers of things both hellish and hilarious, and the perils of his chocolate factory might prove a weird redemption down into the depths for those who find the golden ticket.