All This Roald Dahl Outrage Is Missing One Key Point

Is it writing over history – or turning famous novels into ever-evolving legends?
British novelist Roald Dahl, photographed in 1971
Ronald Dumont via Getty Images
British novelist Roald Dahl, photographed in 1971

New editions of some of Roald Dahl’s classics have just been slightly tweaked to remove a few more offensive phrases – and everyone seems outraged.

Editing novels so they fit with the context of the time is nothing new, but plenty of people disagree with the idea of supposedly censoring the author’s work.

It has of course stoked up the anti-political-correctness crowd, too.

Even the Queen consort Camilla appeared to weigh in on the debate on Thursday, telling authors to ignore any attempts to curb their freedom of expression.

Puffin Books have since announced that they will continue to publish the “classic” texts alongside the “modern” ones, following a week of intense and widespread backlash.

But, here’s what you need to know about the argument which engulfed the country for a few days – and why it might not be as sinister a move as people fear.

What’s happened?

Dahl, who died in 1990, was a famous novelist whose books still live on today and have even been transformed into plays and movies. In fact, Netflix bought the rights to his works in 2021 for a reported £500 million.

Dahl’s estate, the Roald Dahl Story Company and publishers Puffin Books and Inclusive Minds (a collective working on inclusion in children’s literature) revealed this week that some of the best known works – like The BFG, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – have now been updated.

Some of the changes identified by The Telegraph:

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Augustus Gloop is now “enormous” rather than “enormously fat”
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Oompa-Loompas are no longer “tiny” just “small”
  • The Twits: Mrs Twit is now just “beastly” rather than “ugly and beastly”
  • The Twits: An “African language” is no longer “a weird African language”
  • Matilda: A threat to “knock her flat” is now “give her a right talking to”
  • Matilda: Miss Trunchbull now a “most formidable female” instead of “most formidable woman”
  • James and the Giant Peach: Passages described one aunt as “terrifically fat and tremendously flabby at that” changed to “a nasty old brute and deserved to be squashed by the fruit”.

What brought about the edits?

The Roald Dahl Story Company said the changes came about through a review process by sensitivity readers which started in 2020.

They were “small and carefully considered”, and the goal was ensure that the author’s “wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”

For a bit of context, Dahl’s work has been under a sharp spotlight since 2020 when Hollywood released the film The Witches – the villains had fingers missing from each hand, as they did in the book.

But, it was criticised for being offensive to the limb difference community and Warner Bros had to apologise.

Dahl’s problematic statements from the 80s – including one where he admitted he had “become anti-Semitic” – resurfaced in 2020, too.

His family apologised for these comments, explaining they recognised “the lasting and understandable hurt caused by Roald Dahl’s antisemitic statements.”

But, it’s worth noting that the French publisher of Dahl’s books, Gallimard, have “no plans” for a rewrite and that his texts will remain “intact.”

A Gallimard spokesman said: “This rewriting only affects Great Britain. We have never modified Roald Dahl’s writings and we have no plans to do so today.”

ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images

Why are people calling it censorship?

The edits have been pulled into the so-called “culture wars” which have been playing out on the public stage in recent years between more conservative traditionalists, more liberal progressives and everyone in between.

For instance, Sir Salman Rushdie – author of the Satanic Verses, which is still banned in some parts of the world for its depiction of Islam – tweeted: “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman also said that works of fiction should be “preserved and not airbrushed.”

The spokesman used a word the author invented for playing with language, Sunak said: “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.

Some called it “literary vandalism”, and said a “content warning” should be used instead.

Others pointed out that the censorship isn’t even thorough.

Author and comic David Baddiel pointed to a passage about a “wonky nose and a crooked teeth shaming” which remain in the edited versions.

He tweeted: “What about wonky nose or crooked teeth shaming. Once you start on this path you can end up with blank pages.”

And the re-writing of various passages came under fire, too.

Could there be another approach?

Rather than re-writing the novels, people have weighed into the debate to suggest that we just let such books fall out of fashion if they no longer keep up with societal values.

Comedian Russell Kane suggested on TikTok that while he supported making the world a more sensitive world for “all types of people”, there isn’t anyone who was “actually bothered” by Dahl’s language – instead, the way the world should be taught.

British GQ’s Sam Parker said that Dahl should have either been cancelled “for good”, or printed as they are to prompt “actual conversations with children.”

Similarly, children’s author John Dougherty told BBC Radio 5 Live: “There’s no reason the BFG shouldn’t have a black coat. That just seems absurd.

“And Augustus Gloop, for instance – the whole point of the character is that he’s hugely overweight because he won’t stop eating - he’s greedy.”

“Now, there might be an argument that that’s offensive in today’s world,” Dougherty continued. “I think if you’re going to decide that, then the only answer is to put the book out of print. I don’t think you can say, ‘So let’s change Dahl’s words but keep the character’.”

Researcher Tabitha Mcintosh suggested just letting texts go out of print when the “world moves on” – a view shared by children’s author, Philip Pullman, who wrote His Dark Materials.

Pullman told BBC Radio 4 that the books should be “allowed to fade away” if people do not appreciate the content.

“If Dahl offends us, let him go out of print. Read all these 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.”

Does anyone think the current edits are ideal?

Not everyone thinks the edits were a bad idea.

Poet and author Debjani Chatterjee told BBC World Service that it is “a very good thing that publishers are reviewing his work”.

She told BBC World Service: “I think it’s been done quite sensitively.”

Has this happened before?

Yes. The thing critics seem to be forgetting is that children’s books have been edited for years.

Dahl himself was asked to edit some of his earlier works to remove racist tropes. For instance, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory first included Oompa-Loompas who were enslaved from “the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle”, and described in incredibly derogatory terms.

By 1973, they had become “little fantasy creatures” after being rewritten several times.

Many fairy tales we now take for granted used to exist in a much more grotesque form when they first emerged centuries ago, as they’ve altered over time for a younger audience.

Originally, Pinnochio was a murderer, the Little Mermaid actually gets her tongue cut out, and Snow White’s evil stepmother has to dance on burning coals until she dies.

The original Goldilocks included the three bears setting her on fire.

Even very ancient texts like the Bible have been changed too, having been around for centuries.

The edits (usually) contain the same core legend, but are updated for the audience’s tastes each time as culture and society shifts. So perhaps we should see it as a way to keep a story timeless, rather than a malicious form of censorship.

The Guardian’s Gabby Hinsliff said: “The books themselves were starting to show their age compared with modern children’s titles.

“They’re fighting for space in a market of politically conscious millennial parents and school libraries whose inclusivity policies might in future make them think twice about a book like The Witches.”

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