Roald Dahl told painter Francis Bacon in 1982 that he did not wish to be edited posthumously. “I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!” he announced. “When I am gone, if that happens…I will send along the ‘enormous crocodile’ to gobble them up.” He had no intention of passing along control over his texts to anyone else: he would decide if editing himself was necessary and execute the job himself.
He famously characterized his audience as “much more vulgar than grown-ups. They have a coarser sense of humour. They are basically more cruel.” Not everyone will agree with this (although those who protest may need to watch children play unsupervised) and even those who are sympathetic have grounds to fault him for the extent to which he stooped to engage them. It’s fair to ask if he might have put his gifts to better use than he did, but perhaps the truth is he deployed them perfectly.
Critics have found it easier to attack Dahl’s anti-Semiticism, racism, and misogyny than his craftsmanship. . Yet the wild word play, tumbling energy of the prose, and ability to conjure up extravagant characters in few words are not within the powers of an indifferent or careless writer, any more than is the creation an instantly recognizable fictional world where downtrodden children overcome monstrously cruel adults. It’s a world which recalls the rise fairy tale and Dickens, with the knock-about humor of a Punch and Judy show punctuated with the gleeful cautionary alarms of Struwwelpeter.
As the years have passed, Penguin has found its star children’s book author’s unpleasantness more problematic. No one released a crocodile last week when Puffin Books, a division of Penguin-Random House and Roald Dahl Story Company announced that the author’s most popular works for children would be published in new texts revised to be more accessible and inclusive, a decision made on the basis of a routine reassessment of steady-selling older stories that contain elements likely to offend a new generation of prospective purchasers, according to Rick Behari, a Story Company spokesman. The study began in 2020 before Netflix purchased the Story Company to obtain the film rights to Dahl’s books in 2021.
The announcement raised as many questions as it dodged. Not a word was said about the release dates of the new editions. According to a British and an American bookseller I spoke with, they had no copies for sale and had no idea when the books would be shipped. Another interesting conundrum: would the revised and original texts both be available simultaneously, or would the originals be withdrawn, following the precedent of the six Dr. Seuss picture books judged in 2021 unacceptable by today’s standards.
Yesterday Puffin retreated in the face of criticism from PEN, Sir Salman Rushdie, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and a host of Dahl defenders in the media. A set of the seventeen novels in the original versions will be reissued as “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection” at the end of the year alongside “the newly released Puffin Roald Dahl books for young readers, which are designed for children who may be navigating written content independently for the first time.” The various stakeholders in this venture seemed to be avoiding the mistake of Hachette’s attempt to alter outdated language and gender-role stereotypes in Enid Blyton, the only other children’s writer whose popularity approaches Dahl’s. Her “Famous Five” series was tweaked, but the publisher withdrew the improved texts some years later when it became clear that readers had not responded enthusiastically.
The Daily Telegraph published the changes detected by four staff writers after collating the 2001 and 2023 texts of ten Dahl titles. (The Telegraph also sprung the story that the sensitivity consultant Inclusive Minds, an organization dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion in children’s literature, was secretly engaged to edit the stories.) Eliminating the shaming adjective “fat” was a obvious target, given Dahl’s delight in creating grotesques whose bodies are as overweight as their personalities are repellent. In the passages devoted to Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the word “fat” no longer appears, “enormous” having been substituted for it. The comparison of his face to “a monstrous ball of dough with two small greedy curranty eyes” now reads simply a “ball of dough.”
Perhaps these smallish changes would be improvements if the rest of the passage had been carefully edited as well, but his mother still tells the journalists that “He eats so many candy bars a day that it was almost impossible for him not to find one. Eating is his hobby.” He still steals down to the chocolate river and kneels “scooping hot melted chocolate into his mouth as fast as he could.” “Deaf to everything except the call of his enormous stomach” now reads “Augustus was ignoring everything” as he still sprawls down “full length on the ground with his head far out over the river, lapping up the chocolate like a dog.” How many readers, regardless of age, will fail to agree with the Oompa-Loompas when they sing that Augustus Gloop is a “great big greedy nincompoop” by the time he blocks the pipe? Will the ninety-year-old Sir Quentin Blake be asked to redraw his two illustrations so that Augustus no longer personifies gluttony? And Penguin is powerless to soften the even more hateful representation of Augustus Gloop in Tim Burton’s film, which leaves nothing left to the imagination and reinforces distasteful stereotypes of Germans.In The Witches, the edits in the scene where the grandmother teaches the little boy how to tell a witch from a real woman has received a good deal of publicity. When the grandmother explains that a real witch is bald and conceals her bare head under an expensive wig, the boy no longer responds with “Horrid.” His suggestion that he’ll pull the wig off is flatly rejected. “Don’t be foolish,” she says.“You can’t go round pulling at the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.” This has been struck and replaced with “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” Would the grandmother, an old Norwegian witch hunter say anything like this in the middle of revealing her secret knowledge about these diabolical creatures to her grandson, who is completely enthralled? Was the intention to remove triggers for women stricken with aleopecia or cancer? By the way, why wasn’t the grandmother’s dirty of smoking “foul” black cigars that “smell of rubber” eliminated?
If the revisions were supposed to neatly and unobtrusively excise offensive elements from Dahl without significantly altering the ethos, then the exercise was indeed a success, although a Pyrrhic victory, because largely cosmetic changes were not enough to dismantle his fictional world. Parents made uncomfortable by his nastiness may feel pressured to introduce their children to the books because they rank among the classics of children’s literature for the moment. But if the stories are not consistent with their values, they can vote with their pocketbooks or library cards. A classic for children does not live forever, but has a life span, contrary to received wisdom. When it no longer finds an audience, it will go out of print. As Philip Pullman suggested, let Dahl’s books run their course and in the meantime encourage children to explore the works of other better writers who are not household words.. There may be no perfect solution to this conundrum, but for my money the home is a better place to ban or censor books than the publisher’s offices.