A child's pleasure in making flesh creep

Literary Notes: Cedric Cullingford

THERE IS no doubting the popularity of Roald Dahl. The reason for this might be obvious at first. He writes with unselfconscious exuberance, his stories move at a manic pace and are full of a mixture of exaggerations and simple jokes: "China's so full of Wings and Wongs everytime you wing you get a wong number."

At the same time Dahl relishes the disgusting. He makes great play of a child's pleasure in making the flesh creep. Thus we are cajoled into reacting against sentimentality:

It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their revolting offspring that we start shouting "Bring us a basin! We're going to be sick!"

There is palpable pleasure in such an exaggerated feeling. The Twits' revolting habits are described in lurid detail. The idea of crunching the bones of young children returns as a theme again and again:

I'm off to find a yummy child for lunch. Keep listening and you'll hear the bones go crunch.

He cannot resist reiterating, with glee, the pleasures of the revolting.

I'll bet if you saw a fat juicy little child paddling in the water over there at this very moment you'd gulp him up in one gollop.

When the Enormous Crocodile at last meets his match it ends up being swung round and round and being thrown into the sun - "And he was sizzled up like a sausage!"

All harmless fun? One of the pervasive features of Dahl's books is the sense of manic drive coupled with a delight in the nastiness of human beings. The books are, in fact, driven by half- disguised anger. This might seem like a righteous anger at injustice but is a deeper seated outcry at the human condition.

The parents of James (of The Giant Peach) are quickly disposed of:

Their troubles were over in a jiffy. They were dead and gone in 35 seconds flat.

This leaves others to deal with unhappiness as best they can; in the shape of a world full of men "as nasty and mean . . . as any you could meet". Dahl talks of the life of a writer as "absolute hell", where he lives in "a world of fear". This is not just the fear of running out of ideas but of a deep sense of injustice and anger.

Behind the humour the books convey great conflict. They are about overcoming authority, with rebellion emerging out of a sophisticated conspiracy. The themes depend on "us" against "them".

"Them" is both no one in particular and everyone. The hatred derives from a sense of revenge and punishment:

punishing one or both of them each time they were beastly to her made her life more or less bearable.

Dahl himself is aware of this fascination with pain, even if it is of an exaggerated kind. In his autobiography Boy he writes

you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it . . . I have never got over it.

The abiding sense of anger and shame and the grievance against Dr Coggan, later the Archbishop of Canterbury, for relishing inflicting pain on pupils, is palpable. The whole book, however, is full of pain, of boils and scalpels, and canings and humiliations, either suffered or directed against others.

At first sight the manic energy of Dahl seems quite simple and unselfconscious. But it is driven by something deeper . . . When we recognise that children enjoy all the relish of exaggeration we should not forget why this should be so. The pain that Dahl expresses is recognised by his readers because they also share it. Whereas Enid Blyton seeks escape from trauma by creating a perfect, safe and ordered world, Dahl rushes into a wild alternative set of images that use anger as a means of overcoming suffering.

Cedric Cullingford is the author of `Children's Literature and Its Effects' (Cassell, pounds 45/pounds 15.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot