Roald Dahl and the horrible, nasty, monstrous censors

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Roald Dahl books

The U.K. newspaper, “The Guardian” reports that Roald Dahl once told the artist Francis Bacon, “I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!” he said. “When I am gone, if that happens … I will send along the ‘enormous crocodile’ to gobble them up.”

Well, it’s time for Dahl to send in the crocodile.

Recently, in cooperation with a self-appointed group of censors of children’s books calling itself “Inclusive Minds,” Puffin Books released revised editions of Dahl’s classic children’s books in the United Kingdom, removing or changing hundreds of words and phrases that Puffin has determined violate canons of sensitivity and inclusivity. Because of overwhelming criticism, Puffin has said that it will not revise U.S. editions of the book, and will make untouched “classic” editions available in the U.K. But this does not resolve the fundamental problem. In presuming to make any changes, Puffin has violated Dahl’s artistic vision and falsified the historical, cultural and moral contexts in which they were written. This is not art. It is anti-art, and it should be resisted both for the sake of art and truthfulness.

On its website, Inclusive Minds describes itself as “an organization that works with the children’s book world to support them in authentic representation, primarily by connecting those in the industry with those who have lived experience of any of multiple facets of diversity.” I have deliberately used this quote to indicate at the outset that, whoever these self-appointed scolds are, they are obviously not writers. Another example: “The organization has always evolved with the changing needs of the industry and as awareness of the need for diversity and inclusion has dramatically risen in recent years there is less need for Inclusive Minds to campaign for books to be inclusive and a greater need for the practical services we offer in terms of helping ensure authenticity.” Puffin Books has determined that the people responsible for writing that sentence are qualified to censor and rewrite Roald Dahl’s books.

So, for example, the Oompa Loompas from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” are now “small people,” rather than “small men.” Augustus Gloop is no longer “enormously fat,” but only “enormous.” The word “fat” has been omitted from every book in which it appears, which has caused some passages to be completely rewritten. In “James and the Giant Peach,” “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat/And tremendously flabby at that,” as Dahl wrote the rhyme. In the hands of sensitivity censors, “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute/And deserved to be squashed by the fruit.”

In “The Fabulous Mr. Fox,” Dahl said of tractors, “the machines were both black.” After being scrubbed by Inclusive Minds, they are “murderous, brutal-looking monsters.” In the same book, Dahl wrote that “the tall skinny Bean and dwarfish pot-bellied Bunce were driving their machines like maniacs.” In Inclusive Minds version: “Bean and Bunce were driving their machines with wild abandon.” Mr. Fox’s son has had a sex-change, going from “He had a long way to run” to “She had a long way to run.” And the list goes on.

Both art and the artist are necessarily influenced by and characteristic of their time and place. No more than anyone else, an artist cannot escape the contingent social, moral and political milieu in which he creates. Art, in significant part, is always reflective of those contingencies. That is to say, the “truth” of the art is at least partly found in the way that it reflects the cultural influences of the artist. To change the art to reflect a later generation’s sensitivities (especially a self-appointed, morally suspect interest group’s), is to falsify art. It does not “correct” it; it makes it something that its artist did not — because he could not — have wanted it to be.

For example, some of the characters in Flannery O’Connor‘s short stories use language that was commonly used by the kinds of characters she created in the historical settings of her stories. This includes language that is universally condemned now as racist. Should we, therefore, change the language (and in one case even the title) of the stories? Of course not. The stories reflect the time they were written. More to the point, they reflect something true about those times, even if that truth is painful and objectionable. To change them would be to make false claims about those painful times.

Roald Dahl was a controversial artist in his lifetime, and his books are not to everyone’s tastes. Many of them engage in dark humor, invoking images and language that some parents find objectionable for children to read. If Dahl’s (or O’Connor’s) art is not worthy of reading because of some of its images and language, the solution is to ignore it, not to change it. Puffin has not only violated the artist’s wishes, it has done so for the purpose of profiting from Dahl’s name through the falsification of his art.

This is a dangerous game, and one that should be avoided. Let the artist speak. If his art is not worthy of our attention, then we should not pay it any attention. What we cannot do is change it to our liking and thus make false what an artist claimed to be true.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is an associate professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati. Follow him on Twitter @krcraycraft.