In common with many people who spent their childhood in the 1970s, I loved Roald Dahl’s novels for children, especially “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Of course, as a 9-year-old clutching a well-thumbed copy of the Puffin edition, I had no idea about the character of Roald Dahl the man. By the time I discovered that Dahl was a misogynist, a bully, a racist, and especially, an antisemite, my childhood infatuation with the angelic Charlie, his long-suffering family and candy mogul Willie Wonka had long vanished.
Still, I’d be lying if I denied having felt a crushing sense of disappointment when I first learned that Dahl detested Jews and had expressed understanding for Adolf Hitler’s mission to “pick on them.” It was a bit like having a once kindly, affable uncle suddenly spit in your face. Yet I remain reluctant to tell friends with young kids to proscribe Dahl’s books, as they remain, much as I hate saying it, a wonderful introduction to the craft of writing and a testament to the power of imagination in children’s literature.
The debate over Dahl and his legacy heated up again last week when British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weighed in to criticize the recent decision of the writer’s estate and publisher to revise some of the characters that populate “Charlie” and his other novels. In a statement that was a little too frivolous in its invocation of one of Dahl’s play words, Sunak’s office asserted that “when it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with ‘The BFG’ [the main character in Dahl’s 1982 illustrated book of the same name] that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.”
The “gobblefunking” here mainly concerns the descriptions used to animate Dahl’s characters; for example, Augustus Gloop, a child we would probably recognize these days as suffering from a severe eating disorder. In Dahl’s original words in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Gloop, who is fixated on food, is variously “fat,” a “hippo” and a “fat pig.” In the proposed revised version, he would be merely “enormous.”
Similar treatment has been dished out to Dahl’s other novels. Mrs. Twit, from “The Twits,” is now just “beastly” when she was “ugly and beastly” before. Words like “crazy” and “mad” have been excised from the books in deference to sensitivities over mental health. Race, too, does not go amiss; a reference in “The Twits” to a “weird African language” is slated for removal and even a phrase like “white as a sheet” (from “The BFG”) has been switched to “still as a statue.”
These awkward depictions that appear throughout Dahl’s books have been revised before, including by the author himself. The Oompa-Loompas, who work in Willie Wonka’s factory, were originally described as hailing from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.” In a later version, Dahl rendered them as “long-haired, rosy-cheeked and white, hailing from the island of Loompaland.”
It’s tempting to think that if these revisions to Dahl’s work continue, very little of the original will be left, which is why some observers are arguing that the project of sanitizing his novels is a waste of time. “If Dahl offends us, let him go out of print,” the British author Phillip Pullman told the BBC after Sunak made his comments. “Read all these [other] wonderful authors who are writing today, who don’t get as much of a look-in because of the massive commercial gravity of people like Roald Dahl.”
Pullman is right that allowing Dahl’s novels to naturally fade into obscurity is a better option than actively censoring his work. Indeed, you can argue that updating his books to match a contemporary mindset does a disservice to the fight against antisemitism and racism in that any clue about Dahl’s toxic views would be removed, and all for the sake of enabling his estate to sell more of his books.
Nevertheless, there is some value in the fact that Dahl, thanks to Sunak, is once more a topic of conversation. Two years ago, Dahl’s family proffered an apology for what they described as his “incomprehensible” antisemitism, “buried deep in the author’s website,” as The Guardian put it. That drew short shrift from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who charged that the apology should have “been made long ago—and it is of concern that it has happened so quietly now.” Importantly, the board did not call for Dahl’s books to be censored or removed, arguing that the teaching of his books “should also be used as an opportunity for young people to learn about his intolerant views.” Doing that is far more sensible and educationally useful than tinkering with Dahl’s phraseology.
The views expressed by Dahl included a 1983 interview with the New Statesman magazine in which he opined that there “is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. … Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” These are standard antisemitic views, casting suspicion over the supposedly tribal attitudes of Jews in general and ascribing the reason for their persecution to Jewish behavior, rather than non-Jewish stupidity, paranoia and conspiracy-mongering.
Dahl also loathed Zionism and Israel precisely because he loathed Jews—and this point should be a vital element in any attempt to raise awareness of his bigotry. “I’m certainly anti-Israeli, and I’ve become antisemitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism,” he told The Independent in 1990. “It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media—jolly clever thing to do—that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.”
No doubt, Kanye West would agree. What Dahl’s outbursts show us is that the themes stressed by antisemites today—deliberately and falsely presented as revealing a dramatic truth “the Jews” wanted to keep secret—are long-established. They return and often flourish in times of crisis. Were Dahl still alive today, I have no doubt that he would be hawking the same garbage in media interviews. And that is the only part of his legacy that really matters.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.