Five Favorite Roald Dahl Stories

A bulk of my time the past few weeks has been spent delving into the life and work (as far as children’s literature) of Roald Dahl for a project. Reading his works as a child, they were quirky, humorous, and magical. Reading his works as an adult, then, they unsurprisingly held that same magic. Equally captivating and complex was his life, which would merit a biography even if he had not eventually created the multitude of scrumdiddlyumptious stories that he thankfully did. Now having read all of his children’s works (looking toward his adult fiction next), some for the first time, here are five — or maybe more — of my favorites…

1. Danny, the Champion of the World 
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“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you with his mouth but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.” 

This may be the most sentimental, most grounded in reality (no talking animals or magical powers here), most wonderful of all Dahl’s stories. It’s about a young boy, Danny, who lives with his marvelous father in a gypsy caravan. His father operates a filling station by day and engages in poaching pheasants by night. The pheasants inhabit the property of a cruel rich man, Victor Hazell, who sets a trap for poachers, namely Danny’s father. As opening day for pheasant season, on which Mr. Hazell hosts a extravagant party for stuffy rich people, nears, Danny devises a plan to poach ALL the pheasants before the big day — and if he succeeds, he will become the champion of the world!

The relationship between Danny and his father is so sweet — Danny thinks his father is the most wonderful person in the world, and he is! He teaches him, listens to him, walks him to school each day, and tells him bedtime stories, one of which features a character called The BFG…

2. The BFG

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“‘A whizzpopper!’ cried the BFG, beaming at her. ‘Us giants is making whizzpoppers all the time! Whizzpopping is a sign of happiness. It is music in our ears! You surely is not telling me that a little whizzpopping is forbidden among human beans?'” 

Whizzpopping = farting. The BFG speaks his own language, and it is wonderful.

The Big Friendly Giant, aka The BFG, collects and delivers good dreams to children. He is not like the other giants who are cruel, stupid, and eat humans. He is kind, eats snozzcumbers, and teaches himself new words by reading books by Dahl’s Chickens. (Get it? Dahl’s Chickens = Charles Dickens.) One night he captures a little orphan girl, Sophie, and they become friends. Together, they set out to rid the human world of those nasty, human-eating giants.

The BFG, who made his first appearance in Danny, the Champion of the World, was also a bedtime story Dahl would tell his own children, once going so far as to even dress up and visit his daughters’ bedroom window, pretending to be the BFG.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox

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“‘I should like you to know that if it wasn’t for your father we should all be dead by now. Your father is a fantastic fox.'” 

Mr. Fox is absolutely fantastic. He is so clever and outwits those three horrid farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. He does this because he is fantastic and clever and loves his family very much. Some have claimed this is the most autobiographical of all Dahl’s works, as he saw himself as a sort of Mr. Fox, a paterfamilias who held his young family together through crisis after tragedy after crisis — an accident that jeopardized the life of his young son Theo (resulting in Dahl eventually creating a new cerebral shunt to drain excess fluid from the brain), the death of his young daughter Olivia from measles encephalitis, and the stroke of his first wife, Patricia Neal. He even began to think that he was plagued with a neurological curse (he himself had suffered severe head injuries following a crash in his plane en route to his squadron in World War II). But he was resilient. And absolutely fantastic. Just like Mr. Fox.

And because this is relevant to my interests, here’s Damon Albarn reading an excerpt from Fantastic Mr. Fox:

Sigh. What a reading voice!

4. Matilda

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“‘Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked. ‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh.'” 

Matilda is a bright, humble, young girl whose abilities go unnoticed and unnourished by her uncaring and dishonest parents, and so she escapes into a world of books. Miss Honey is her kind teacher who recognizes how special she is. But Miss Honey has problems of her own — like her cruel aunt who robbed her of her inheritance, Miss Trunchbull, who also happens to be the principal of Matilda’s school. Miss Trunchbull is truly horrid, throwing “naughty” children into the “chokey” and making a young boy sick on chocolate cake. Dahl had similarly cruel headmasters, masters (teachers), and matrons at the English boarding schools he attended. Unlike Matilda, however, he did not have any special powers to exact revenge on them. Then again, creating books filled with horrible characters based on those old teachers just might be the best revenge and most special power of all.

5. The Witches

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“‘Tell me what else to look for in a witch,’ I said. ‘The eyes,’ my grandmother said. ‘Look carefully at the eyes because the eyes of a REAL WITCH are different from yours and mine. Look in the middle of each eye where there is normally a little black dot. If she is a witch, the black dot will keep changing color, and you will see fire and you will see ice dancing right in the very centre of the coloured dot. It will send shivers running all over your skin.'”

Dahl’s father died when he was 3, but his mother was a great influence on him, telling him great stories about Norwegian myths, legends, and mythical creatures that would influence him as a storyteller. The grandmother in The Witches is undoubtedly his literary tribute to her. She, like his own mother, tells the story’s protagonist, a young orphaned boy, great stories, including a handful about REAL witches. Yes, there are real witches, and oh, are they horrid. While staying in a hotel, the young boy discovers the Grand High Witch conducting the annual meeting of England’s witches. During the meeting, the Grand High Witch unveils an evil plan to turn ALL of England’s children into mice. The young boy and his grandmother then design a plan of their own to rid England of all its witches.

Although I kept waiting for the story to end differently, I am sort of glad it didn’t. Its ending celebrates a love based on the kind of person you are inside, not what you look like on the outside. And they said Roald Dahl was macabre…

6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 

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“‘I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do this his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child. I want a good, sensible, loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious sweet-making secrets – while I am still alive.'”  

Of course I have to mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nearly everyone knows the story of poor Charlie Bucket, who finds the final coveted golden ticket to enter Willy Wonka’s marvelous chocolate factory. I love the Oompa Loompas singing their songs to those naughty, naughty children. I love the idea of a chocolate river. I love the idea of winning a golden ticket, visiting this extraordinary chocolate factory, and eventually inheriting that factory.

One of Dahl’s happier experiences during his time at boarding school was that he was able taste-test chocolate bars for Cadbury, inspiring a lifelong love of chocolate. He was an expert on chocolate and its history. He ate a chocolate bar every day and instead of throwing the silver wrapper away, would roll it into a ball, which he kept in his writing hut. Love this guy.

7. Boy: Tales of Childhood  

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“One day, when we lifted it up, we found a dead mouse lying among our treasures. It was an exciting discovery. Thwaites took it out by its tail and waved it in front of our faces. ‘What shall we do with it?’ he cried.
‘It stinks!’ someone shouted. ‘Throw it out of the window quick!’
‘Hold on a tick,’ I said. ‘Don’t throw it away.’
Thwaites hesitated. They all looked at me.
When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful. Truth is more important than modesty. I must tell you, therefore, that it was I and I alone who had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot. We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.
‘Why don’t we’, I said, ‘slip it into one of Mrs. Pratchett’s jars of sweets? Then when she puts her dirty hand in to grab a handful, she’ll grab a stinky dead mouse instead.'”

Part of what made Dahl such an effective writer for children was that he was able to enter the mind of a child so easily, remembering how they see the world. That skill partly derived from his equally important skill of being able to vividly recall his own childhood, a skill he deftly demonstrates in Boy. Although Dahl occasionally sacrificed complete factual accuracy for the sake of an exciting and entertaining narrative, Boy is nonetheless rooted in reality and is as compelling as any fictional story he ever wrote. The Great Mouse Plot is incredible.

Roald Dahl was a spectacular storyteller. His stories are varied and timeless — and hopefully children (and adults, too!) will continue to read (…kids still read, right?) and enjoy them for years and years to come.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014)

Whoa! Apologies for the severe lack in updates — I’ve been preoccupied trying to fathom that there are people who miss the most annoying character in television history AKA Diane Chambers on Cheers (who needs Diane when you have Woodrow Tiberius Boyd? Actually, who needs anybody when you have Woodrow Tiberius Boyd?), sobbing over the third season finale of Homeland (and contemplating what I am now supposed to do with my life), and attempting to answer the most dreaded question any child could ask you, ever: “Who broke up the Beatles?” Yep. Oh, and I’ve also been re-decorating my room with these kind of timeless treasures that have been kindly donated to Goodwill:

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“Hollywood’s Most Eligible Bachelors, continued
MARLON BRANDO
Although he dresses as if he didn’t have a cent to his name, Marlon gets $150,000 per picture and invests most of it in cattle. He’s financially sound but while he can be charming on occasion, most girls don’t go for his moods and unconventional behavior.”   

Moods? Cattle? Uh, count me in.

Besides leaving the house to buy this, I also did manage to briefly step into the real world to see a movie made this century: X-Men: Days of Future Past.

That’s right. I broke my vow that I would never pay money to see a superhero movie again. Why? Two words: James McAvoy.

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And you thought Magneto’s helmet looked stupid…

Yeah. And we’re not just talking about any James McAvoy. We’re talking long-haired, bearded, tastefully attired in 1970s flowery print shirts, flared bottoms, and sweet shades, I-look-like-I-might-be-wheelin’-and-dealin’-drugs-even-if-I’m-not-wheelin’-in-my-wheelchair James McAvoy. Translation: Worth the price of admission.

Having never seen the earlier X-Men movies and not really caring about superheroes even if their dad is Marlon Brando, I was surprised when I enjoyed X-MenFirst Class. Besides lovin’ McAvoy, I loved watching the X-Men discover their abilities, the development of the friendship between Charles and Erik, and, best of all, Charles Xavier in sweats. Even though Days of Future Past does not feature Professor X in sweats, it is equally enjoyable.

Basically, in the future, the X-Men are hunted by these Sentinels created by a researcher who came into contact with the X-Men in the 1970s. In order to save themselves, the future X-Men send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past to prevent a certain event occurring, thus hopefully preventing the invention of these Sentinels and the subsequent destruction of so many X-Men. Got that? No? Here’s another summary:

1. Magneto does bad things, all day, every day. Bad things like juggling little metal balls, throwing them at people’s heads, and breaking into a high-security place where his helmet is stored (’cause he’s been imprisoned in the Pentagon for “killing” JFK — but he didn’t kill JFK! He was deflecting the bullet because he was trying to save JFK because JFK actually was a mutant. Duh!). I thought that part was funny. But nobody else in the theater was laughing, so…maybe not? No, I’m pretty sure it was funny. Anyway.

2. Charles is sad and angry because Magneto does these bad things all day, every day. So he puts his fingers to his forehead and hopes, prays, and wishes that Magneto will stop doing those bad things. But guess what? He doesn’t. So he just starts yelling, “Erik, no! No Erik! NO ERIK!!!!!!!!!”

3. Magneto is all, “I prefer Magneto”, puts on his dumb little helmet, and starts levitating away. Uh, when the heck did he get that power? Charles is sad. But Beast is there, so it’s okay.

4. Oh, and in the middle of all this is Hugh Jackman having really bad headaches because he’s hovering between the past and the future. Get it together, Wolverine. Marty McFly never had this problem.

Does that help? No? Er…one more time.

1. In the future, Magneto looks A LOT like Gandalf from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Magneto and Professor X are good friends. The X-Men are being hunted by huge robots or something invented in the 1970s by a descendant of Reverend Trask from Dark Shadows (I think). Wolverine is in the future trying to stop this from happening but it’s not that easy because Magneto is so bad and makes Charles so sad in the past so it’s taking awhile. But the bad robots are getting closer to finding the X-Men in the future! At one point, Gandalf — I mean Magneto — gets so frustrated, he leaves Professor X to head back to the Shire.

2. In the past, Jim Croce plays while a young Quicksilver helps Charles and Wolverine get Magneto out of the Pentagon so they can stop this Trask dude. It’s my favorite scene in the whole movie. Once again, however, no one else was laughing…

3. Maybe they should have left Magneto in the Pentagon because he is SO BAD. He basically ruins the plan to stop Trask and the Sentinels. But before he starts doing bad things again, he and Charles play a game of Chess that is more romantic than…Titantic? Yeah.

4. There’s a huge battle with these Sentinels in the past. Mystique runs around changing into every other person. Wolverine ends up in the bottom of the ocean in the past but what about the future? Did he succeed in stopping the Sentinels?

Well, you have to see the movie to find out. It’s a good time. And I’m pretty sure there are no worthwhile movies coming out anytime soon because every single preview I saw looked dumber than Magneto’s helmet and Professor X’s little mind reading head-gear combined.