Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, writes Hephzibah Anderson.

Once upon a time a small orphan was packed off to live with his aunts. They were a sadistic pair, these sisters, and rather than console and nurture they abused and enslaved him, bullying, beating and half-starving him. But he got his revenge, literally crushing them as he finally escaped, bound for adventure and a better life. It doesn’t sound much like the set-up of a bestselling children’s book, but what if I told you that the boy’s getaway vehicle was a gargantuan fuzzy-skinned fruit?

James and the Giant Peach sprang from bedtime stories Roald Dahl told his daughters. He’d already seen modest success with his short stories for adults, twisted tales with grisly punch lines, which were published in magazines such as the New Yorker and Playboy. This was his first work for children but it left plenty of adult readers deeply disturbed. Though the book appeared in the US in 1961, Dahl had to wait until 1967 before a British publisher would risk it, and even then, he had to agree to stump up half the costs himself – a savvy-seeming move when the book later became a bestseller.

James and the Giant Peach has been lambasted for its racism, profanity and sexual innuendo

He followed it with more than 15 other books for children, stories bursting with gluttony and flatulence, in which wives feed their husbands worms and the young are eaten by giants and changed into mice by bald, toeless hags. Villains loom large; as mean as they are ignorant, they tower over pint-sized protagonists, twirling them around by their pigtails or banishing them to places like ‘the Chokey’, Miss Trunchbull’s nail-studded punishment cupboard.

Today, titles like Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG and Matilda, which was released just two years before his death, aged 74, in 1990, regularly appear on lists of the most popular kids’ books ever. All told, his work has sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. The controversy has never gone away though. In the decades since its publication, James and the Giant Peach has been lambasted for its racism (remember that bit where the Grasshopper declares “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican”?), profanity (‘ass’ appears at least three times), references to drugs and drink (all that snuff and whiskey), and sexual innuendo (a scene in which a spider licks her lips got readers in Wisconsin hot under the collar), not to mention its alleged promotion of disobedience and – wait for it – communism.

Chocolate and witches

It’s easy to poke fun at such prissy parental responses but take a closer look at Dahl’s writing for children, and you’ll find something to offend almost everyone. If he was a bigot, he was an equal-opportunities bigot. Teachers tend to be villainous, and even when benign, fail to impart any real wisdom. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas were originally depicted as small black pygmies with warlike cries. Female characters tend to be either warm or wicked with nothing in between, while Revolting Rhymes brands Cinderella, that fairytale girl-next-door, “a dirty slut”.

Maria Nikolajeva, professor of children's literature at the University of Cambridge, disputes the notion that there is any darkness in Dahl’s books for younger readers. “He is one of the most colourful and light-hearted children's writers”, she insists. But for all the funniness and dazzling linguistic acrobatics of his prose, she acknowledges that there are problems with his vision. Consider Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“Wonka is vegetarian and only eats healthy food, but he seduces children with sweets. It's highly immoral”, she says. And then there’s The Witches, whose child narrator, having been turned into a mouse, decides against returning to his human form because he dreads outliving his beloved grandmother. He’d rather die with her, as his abbreviated rodent lifespan will guarantee. “This is a denial of growing up and mortality, but mortality is one of the aspects that makes us human”, Nikolajeva points out. “To tell young readers that you can escape growing up by dying is dubious  – drawn to the utmost an encouragement of suicide – and therefore both an ideological and an aesthetic flaw”.

Dahl knew what his readership liked: the kind of filthsome, frightsome fare that makes kiddles squirm

Yet there’s no denying that Dahl knew just what his juvenile readership liked: chocolate and witches and – to borrow some Gobblefunk, the language he invented for his Big Friendly Giant – the kind of filthsome, frightsome fare that makes kiddles squirm with gleeful revulsion. “Children love disgusting stories”, Nikolajeva says. The revolting serves “an important cognitive-affective function: we know it's disgusting, and the knowledge makes us superior. It's healthy. But it must be disgusting in combination with humour. Because extreme violence is not healthy. But Dahl is never violent, not even with naughty children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”  

‘Roald the Rotten’

Darkness, for want of a better word, has forever been a secret – and not so secret – ingredient in children’s literature, whether it’s tales by the Brothers Grimm and Heinrich Hoffmann, or Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games. If you’ve ever paid attention to the words of a nursery rhyme like Ring a Ring o’ Roses or Oranges and Lemons, you’ll know that suckling babes are reared on it – and with good reason. As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explained in his seminal study, The Uses of Enchantment, the macabre in children’s literature serves an important cathartic function. “Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it. As a result, the child remains helpless with his worst anxieties – much more so than if he had been told fairy tales which give these anxieties form and body and also show ways to overcome these monsters,” he wrote.


It’s not hard to see where Dahl might have drawn his own darkness from. Having lost his older sister and father when he was three years old, he was packed off to boarding school aged just nine. The first volume of his memoirs, Boy, recalls in great detail the headmaster’s penchant for floggings so vicious they drew blood.

As a young RAF pilot in World War Two, Dahl came close to dying. Invalided out after crash landing in the Western Desert, he spent the rest of the war in the US, seducing heiresses and wealthy widows in the name of counterintelligence. His first marriage, to the actress and celebrated beauty Patricia Neal, had far from a storybook ending. The couple lost their eldest daughter to illness, and their only son was left brain damaged by a traffic accident. A few years later, Neal herself suffered a series of strokes.

To write brilliantly for children, an author must retain an element of the childlike – sometimes, that blurs into childishness

It was Neal who coined the nickname ‘Roald the Rotten’, referring to a mean, dyspeptic streak of which she saw plenty. He cheated on her, and the years-long affair that would eventually end their marriage was with a friend of hers. He could be a thoroughly unpleasant man outside the home, too. Despite his towering success, he was chippy about being a children’s author. And he made no attempt to hide his anti-Semitism. In 1983, he announced in the New Statesman that Hitler had his reasons for exterminating six million men, women and children. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity”, he said. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

Read enough along these lines (there’s plenty more out there) and the sprightly horror of Dahl’s narratives no longer slips down quite so easily. Should we let this ruin his writing for us? Nikolajeva is unequivocal: “Frankly, I don't care about writers as real people”, she says. “If Dahl had been a sweet, benevolent storyteller would he have survived at all? Who wants sweet, benevolent stories?”

There was undoubtedly an element of provocation in much of his nastiness, both on and off the page. As the lives of the likes of Lewis Carroll, Margaret Wise Brown, and CS Lewis illustrate, to write brilliantly for children, an author must retain an element of the childlike. Sometimes, that blurs into childishness. To quote Dahl himself, the children’s author “must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things”.

But it’s also worth recalling this: though childlike has come to refer to positive qualities associated with children, at its most basic, it simply means resembling a child. And as the magnificent Maurice Sendak observed, “In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy. There's a cruelty to childhood, there's an anger.” If Dahl’s books contain just one message for us adults, it’s the reminder that a child’s world isn’t all sweetness and light, it contains shadows too – extravagant, scary, wickedly entertaining ones.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.