Illustration by Quentin Blake
It’s no accident that my Twitter handle is @thetwits2. Since my shamelessly bookish childhood, I’ve read and loved many of Roald Dahl’s tales. I’ve consumed anything from the delightfully disgusting The Twits to Dahl’s less obliquely dark, adult short-story collections – like Over to You, an anthology based on his career as a war-time pilot. (But, as the “2” in the handle suggests, I didn’t get in quite fast enough to beat another punobsessed Dahl fan.)
When I think back, though, aside from Mr Twit’s revolting habit of picking out and eating food scraps stored in his filthy beard, the scene from Dahl’s vast body of work that first comes to mind is from James and the Giant Peach (1961). Specifically the succulent flesh of the large fruit that the hapless James finds himself travelling in… “The walls were wet and sticky, and peach juice was dripping from the ceiling,” wrote Dahl. “James opened his mouth and caught some of it on his tongue. It tasted delicious.”
Despite such tasty passages and the children’s picturebook-esque title, the story is laced with the stuff of childhood nightmares. James Henry Trotter is a little boy whose parents die violently (eaten by an angry rhinoceros), leaving him to the far-from-tender mercies of his aunts (a pair of Dahlian grotesques named Spiker and Sponge), who starve and beat him. In a play on the Jack and the Beanstalk fable, James encounters a strange old man who gives him some magical crocodile tongues…which, after being spilled on a barren peach tree, result in the fantastically sized fruit and a similarly sized adventure.
As an adult re-reading this childhood favourite, I realised why children would find it so powerful. Dahl perfectly captures the imaginative process that ameliorates childhood: the sense of the world as a magical place of possibility, and the ability to transcend some of the ugliness. And far from avoiding the darkness, Dahl embraces it – in the cartoonishly terrifying form of childish terror.
Dahl’s unnerving ability to tap into children’s brains has given him a hold over his readers that extends far into their grown-up years. As Annabel Brady-Brown explores in this edition’s cover story (‘Fantastic Mr Dahl’, p14) many Dahl fans have tried to capture his works on film – most recently Steven Spielberg with his reimagining of The BFG. And even off film, as with the recent stage adaptation of Matilda. The show, Matilda the Musical (now in Melbourne, and set to tour Australia), has been scored by a local lad – the darkly humorous Tim Minchin, whose comedic alter ego would be quite at home in the pages of Dahlian fantasy.
Roald Dahl died in 1990. But, had he lived, this year he’d be celebrating his centenary. And it’s clear his influence is as fresh as ever. While we’re on the topic, no Dahl tribute would be complete without the work of the author’s long-time collaborator, the illustrator Quentin Blake. His famous image of The BFG (The Big Friendly Giant) features on this cover.
It’s important to remember that while Dahl’s books are aimed at young people, there’s still plenty of rich material in there to capture older audience members. In fact, as Emily Laidlaw explores in a piece that complements our cover story – ‘Young (Adult) at Heart’, p16 – at least half of those who read books aimed at teens are a lot older than the intended audience. Why, you ask? Well, I suspect you know. But, if not, come right up close. And we’ll show you something wonderful.
Melissa Cranenburgh, Acting Editor