This Friday I’m doing a session at a local school for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, to celebrate their Roald Dahl day. It’s a very exciting prospect, but also a little daunting for me: after all, mostly I tell old legends and folktales; it’s actually quite a sideways step to focus on material by a modern-day author – and a giant of WRITTEN stories at that.
What I’m discovering, though, as I prepare, is how easily his novels lend themselves to oral tellings: the events are so vivid, the characters so grotesque and lurid, they’re just as much fun to talk ABOUT as they are to read. Perhaps that’s why they stuck in our heads so much since we all first read or heard the books: I remember friends, family and I would natter about them when I was little in just the same way as we’d share our excitement at a movie or TV programme (media which, as many have pointed out, Dahl’s stories have lent themselves to at least as successfully for years!). They really have stepped out of the pages and become fixtures in the public imagination.
It’s like his stories are bigger, more communal and more vibrant than any one form can tame. Maybe it’s something in the eternal childlike-ness of his perspective: there’s the boorish, tyrannical adults, the occasional kind one who GETS your point of view, the unashamed playfulness and streak of real mischief, the ultimate message that the kids, listening to the stories or participating in them, have agency and opinions and really should be listened to. I could say more, about how the adventures children dream of when the adults are out of the way is a part of some of the most memorable stories ever (The Wizard of Oz, Narnia, the Psammiad books, Susan Cooper, even Harry Potter) – but that would intellectualise this too much. I don’t know what Roald Dahl thought of such things – but I know he got the childish impulse (that we ALL retain) to let our imaginations run riot and HAVE FUN.
(And what a life the man had himself… blimey. Childhood filled with love and tragedy, boarding school horror, postings in East Africa, war, fighter pilot, spying and Hollywood. No wonder his autobiographies themselves made such cracking stories. I wonder if they’ve ever been dramatised themselves?)