The Dark Side of Roald Dahl

The beloved author may have held offensive views, but we can still find redeeming messages in his books

BY: Interview with Kris Rasmussen


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In what ways can we see hints of this side of Roald Dahl in his writing?

The most well-known example is the original depiction of the Oompa-Loompas in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." The first edition of the book described them as dark-skinned pygmies from Africa who let out warlike chants. This brought about accusations of racism from the NAACP and other groups. Mel Stuart, director of the 1971 film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," knew Dahl's description was offensive and depicted the Oompa-Loompas as the orange and green elf-like creatures we are familiar with.

Shortly after that, Dahl apologized publicly for the misunderstanding, saying he never meant to appear racist, and changed the description of the characters in the book to "rosy-white dwarves."

On a slightly less obvious level, Dahl's depiction of authority figures in all of his children's books--especially "Matilda" and "James and the Giant Peach"--mirrors his own unhappy experiences in boarding school in England, where the headmaster was brutal to many of the students but at the same time also preached sermons at the school chapel services about grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Dahl never forgot the hypocrisy of that and goes into detail about those experiences in his memoir, "Boy." So that is partly why many of the parental or adult figures in his books come off as harsh, cruel, or as just plain idiots.

Given that Dahl had this dark side, how can we as parents, teachers, or just responsible adults reconcile his dark side with our love for his books?

I believe if we knew about the dark sides of many authors whose work we've enjoyed, we'd be shocked. It doesn't mean there isn't anything worthy or redemptive in their work.

The best answer I can give to that question is that I believe Dahl used his children's stories as a means to attempt to reconcile his own pain. In his stories he could do what he could not do in real life--create a happy-ever-after ending. That's why "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was dedicated to his son, Theo. The story is in many ways a love letter to Theo. So I believe we respond to his work because we have that longing in us as well, the longing to have everything work out in the end, no matter how hopeless life can seem at the time.

You've written a book looking at the moral lessons of Willy Wonka through the lens of Scripture. Seems like an unusual endeavor. Why did you decide to write the book?

It was not my original intention! The plan on my part was to include my thoughts on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" in another book I wanted to write. However, an editor and friend said to me, "No, I think Willy Wonka is your book. That's what you need to write about." So I did a lot more research on the history of the first movie and on the life of Dahl and finally realized she was right. This story has an iconic status in our culture that few stories do. It has been hugely successful for more than 40 years. It speaks across generational lines to parents, children, and teenagers. I wanted to examine the "why" of that, and I wanted to do it from a Biblical worldview.

My conclusion is that the story is, in fact, an imaginative moral fable. Goodness and kindness are rewarded in the end. Greed, decadence, selfishness are not rewarded. We all want to behave more like Charlie, when we are at the same time all too aware of the fact that we really behave more like Veruca or Violet.

Talking to kids about Dahl

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