The stories of Roald Dahl transport their delighted readers to worlds with chocolate rivers and peaches as large as houses. But behind these magical tales is an author whose personal life didn't always reflect the values we may hope for from a role model; Dahl has been accused of racism and anti-Semitism, though he always denied the charges. Kris Rasmussen knew about this side of Dahl when she decided to write "WonkaMania," her new book for teens, which looks at the lessons of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" through the lens of Scripture. With the new Willy Wonka movie--directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp--now playing, Rasmussen emailed with Beliefnet about Dahl's alleged dark side and why she pursued her project nonetheless.

I've heard Roald Dahl wasn't--how to put it?--a very nice guy. He's been accused of anti-Semitism and racism. From the research you've done, how much truth is there behind these accusations?
Dahl always seemed to stir up some kind of controversy. He would write or say outrageous, often hateful things, and then later insist he was misunderstood and never meant any harm by his comments. For every nasty story I could find about him, there was also an anecdote about Dahl's incredible kindness or generosity. Dahl was a complex man, a walking contradiction even in the eyes of those closest to him.

One of the most controversial moments in his career came in 1983 when he was asked to review a book entitled "God Cried." The book focused on the controversial Israeli invasion of Lebanon at the time. In the review Dahl claimed that once Israel invaded Lebanon, "we all started hating Jews." He made several other inflammatory statements around that time regarding Jewish people, which caused a serious backlash in the United States in particular. Booksellers stopped selling his books. American Jewish readers often returned his books to his publisher with letters protesting Dahl's comments. Dahl later defended his position by saying he was not anti-Semitic but anti-Israel because of the situation in Lebanon.

As I researched all of these stories about Dahl's attitudes and behavior, I concluded that Roald Dahl was a man who was angry with God. Here was a man whose father and sister died while he was still a toddler. As an adult he lost his oldest daughter to illness, then his only son was left brain damaged after a terrible accident. His first wife, actress Patricia Neal, had a severe stroke during this period of time as well. In fact, according to biographer Jeremy Treglown, Patricia Neal said that while Dahl's faith in a God may have wavered over the years, the death of his daughter snuffed out any belief he had left. In fact, at the end of his life he reportedly said that he desperately wanted to believe in Christianity and couldn't. He couldn't believe that if there was a God his family would have been allowed to suffer so much loss.

Revising the Oompa-Loompas

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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

    Was Dahl's personal background a factor in your decision to do the project?
    Yes, because I knew that there was an interesting angle to examine that hadn't been done in this kind of book before. But it could have been a reason for my publisher, which is an independent Christian publishing house, to avoid the book, because up until this point they have really have only examined the themes in relatively overtly Christian work. But Tyndale wanted to do it and gave me a lot of freedom in writing the book, even though I warned them about Dahl's history.

    Can you give an example of how you intertwine Scripture and Wonka?
    I look at the tension between hunger and satisfaction quite a bit in the book. Augustus, Veruca, Mike Teavee, and all of the other people trying to win the Golden Ticket are trying to fill themselves up with something, but none of them acts very happy or fulfilled. They only want more. and more. and more. From a Biblical perspective, that is certainly a dilemma we see in our society today--trying to fill a spiritual hunger with more material things, or with status or success--and still feeling empty.

    I also write about how the first four Golden Ticket winners are actually symbolic of four of the proverbial seven deadly sins--gluttony, envy, pride, sloth. This comes through even stronger in Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie, in my opinion. He plays that up quite a bit.

    Back to Roald Dahl: Do you think parents or teachers should bring up this tension between the man and his work and discuss it with kids or teens?
    As an educator myself, I think with younger children--say fifth grade or younger--it is not such a good idea. I think it is okay to let them enjoy the story for whatever they find on their own in it. We don't need to go out of our way to ruin any illusions.

    However, with teenagers and pre-teens, I think this is a great opportunity to help them enjoy a story while also developing their discernment. It's okay to revisit a story they loved as a child and get something new out of it. We should encourage that. By introducing facts about Dahl into a discussion, for example, teens who are bombarded with media every day can learn to ask questions about the people behind the creation of that media--books, movies, whatever it is--so they can begin to make their own decisions about what they should read or watch.

    In the case of discussing Dahl and his work, I think there is an opportunity for all of us to acknowledge the dark places that exist in the human heart, but not to dismiss the humanity because of it and not to ignore the possibilities for God's truth to break through in spite of the darkness.

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