When History Comes Calling: Reflecting on the Roald Dahl Controversy

By Samantha Kokkat

Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl Story Company found themselves in the eye of the storm when they announced that new editions of Roald Dahl’s books will be revised to make them less offensive. The move came after the publisher and the author’s estate worked with Inclusive Minds, an organisation that aims to support the children’s book world in authentic representation, to review Dahl’s words. Words with unfavourable connotations such as ugly, fat, and black, have been deleted or replaced. Numerous other changes have been implemented too, earning the parties involved the flak of many prominent figures. 

They have been criticised for meddling with history and disrespecting the integrity of not just the past, but also the written word. It has also been called out as a product of 21st century “woke” culture by which anything and everything is hyper-scrutinised to ensure political correctness. Revered author Salman Rushdie weighed in too, terming the move “absurd censorship.” 

Soon after, the publisher announced that they will continue to print both versions of the books, leaving it to the reader to decide which version of the book to purchase- the original rendition or the sanitised one. 

But sanitising texts to make them appeal to the sensibilities of an age or an audience is no new phenomenon. Shakespeare’s plays were rewritten for a family audience in the 1800s. When illustrator George Cruikshank rewrote fairy tales to incorporate an anti-alcoholism message in them, Charles Dickens published a seething essay, Frauds on the Fairies (1853), to advocate the cause of preserving the “purity” of fairy tales.

In fact, Roald Dahl himself had agreed to remove racist language from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) in 1973 after concerns were raised over the portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas, which was reminiscent of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. Enid Blyton’s books have also been revised and edited to remove elements of xenophobia, racism, and gender bias. 

Editing a body of work to remove objectionable content is no 21st century fad, nor is the debate surrounding it. Penguin and Dahl’s estate have a stake in making his books palatable for the current generation of readers, to sustain readership and ensure the longevity of his books. It is also noteworthy that Netflix acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company around the same time as when the edits to his books were put in place. Efforts to whitewash and cleanse the legacy of Roald Dahl has uncannily coincided with the media giant’s decision to roll out adaptations of his books. 

But if we leave the economics of revising Roald Dahl aside, we are left with a society reckoning with its past. The changes made to his books and the uproar that followed speaks to our unease with our prior and ongoing experience of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Then are these edits an attempt to cleanse the past and thereby ourselves?

While the attempts to make books from previous eras more inclusive may be well-intentioned, the result is the rewriting of history and the erasure of  lived experiences. In a 1973 letter, Doris Bass from Dahl’s publisher Alfred A. Knopf wrote that, “To be responsive to the changes in consciousness over the past decade… is trying to be ‘good people’ as one’s own awareness of other people’s feelings and needs is expanded.” However, when these needs are accommodated through the removal of offensive content from books, we face the risk of  altogether erasing the oppression many groups of people underwent from our collective memory. Communities on whom injustices were afflicted have the right to know their history to understand where they came from and why they are where they are today. Written words are an invaluable record of our tainted past, and they should be highlighted. 

That said, librarians, educators, and parents are justified in pondering over the effect Roald Dahl’s books may have on our children. After all, we are a community that celebrates books as powerful tools of change. 

Some feel that it would be best to let his books go out of print. Celebrated author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, suggested reading contemporary authors like Phil Earle, Frances Hardinge, and Malorie Blackman, who are often overlooked as books by Dahl and Blyton enjoy more commercial clout. Some have also rightly pointed out that nothing can come out of the controversial edits since it does little apart from superficially fixing the language. The themes continue to be problematic.  By giving these books a new print run are we showering legitimacy and relevancy on them? Should we just stop reading Dahl and let his books slowly fade away from cultural memory?

However, he is nowhere near going out of print. He was the 6th most borrowed author on the British Library Public Lending Rights children’s list of 2020-21. His books will continue to occupy shelves in school libraries for ages to come, and we cannot stop children from reading them. Enid Blyton, whose novels have been flagged for its xenophobia, is especially loved in India and Japan. While this is not an affirmative image of themselves for our children, they deserve to see how their communities were villainized and relegated to the periphery. Also, as others have noted, a child growing up in the era of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and body positivity, is unlikely to passively absorb xenophobia, racism, gender roles, and other conflicting and dehumanising portrayal of certain groups of people. Children are curious beings waiting to launch an avalanche of questions on anyone who will lend them an ear, and they are bound to notice the gaps in Dahl’s books. 

It is also worth asking why we celebrate Dahl’s books as “venerated works”. While his books are silly, funny, and entertaining, they sideline many characters and conditions. Readers are only invited to empathise with a few characters and many are easily conferred an “evil” tag. 

That said, for as long as children continue to read Roald Dahl’s stories, we’ll have to hold conversations to discern why it continues to be appealing, without losing track of its fault lines. Conversations about how we read and what we read, such as this one, can only enrich the children’s literature industry. 

While roping in sensitivity readers to ensure authentic, affirmative narratives in contemporary literature is a welcome move, refurbishing literature from other eras is ill-advised. For changing the past can never be the way to affect a positive change in the future. 

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