Roald Dahl doesn’t deserve to be bowdlerized

The nastiness is a feature of his stories, not a bug.

Roald Dahl, left, signs books in Amsterdam in October 1988. Photo by Rob Bogaerts/Anefo/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Roald Dahl was a nasty piece of work, as a person and as a writer, but because nastiness has always had its appeal for kids, Dahl’s has not kept his stories from establishing themselves in the canon of children’s literature. To the contrary.

Nevertheless, and times being what they are, in 2020 the Roald Dahl Story Co. (now owned by Netflix) hired “sensitivity readers” to examine the stories so that words and phrases deemed offensive could be replaced, rewritten and/or explained. Now gone from the Dahl oeuvre is “fat” wherever it appears, and likewise “black” and “white” and “female” and “boys and girls.”

And then there’s the following sentence, which has been added to a paragraph in “The Witches,” explaining that witches wear wigs because they are bald: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

Well, yes. For example, Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs after marriage in deference to rabbinic rulings on hair covering.

The witches in “The Witches” also have large noses. And their leader is incredibly rich. And they live in communities all over the world. And they have a plan to get children killed by turning them into mice. And all the witches in England end up getting turned into mice and being exterminated themselves. And the good guys have a plan to exterminate all witches everywhere else.

Is there anything wrong with that?

Shortly before he died in 1990, Dahl described himself as “antisemitic,” and that was not the only time he declared his animosity toward Jews. As far as I’m concerned, “The Witches” is his Holocaust Fantasy, a fairy-tale “Inglourious Basterds” in reverse. 

The only way to render it inoffensive, at least to me and my kind, would be to turn the witches into some other beings — say, evil Valkyries. But why do that? Why, for that matter, imagine that a Dahl story without “fat” is any less nasty than one with it? 

Let’s keep the stories intact. And make it our business to let people know just how nasty they really are.

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