Roald Dahl: Magical Realism For Kids

In my father’s collection, mixed with that of my mothers, are Bibles, a set of untouched Shakespeare plays, The Catcher in the Rye and other old high school texts like Paradise Lost, and, most importantly, a substantial number of Roald Dahl books. Together, my father and I read The BFGThe WitchesFantastic Mr. Fox, both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Great Glass Elevator, The Magic Finger. I was well-read in a particular author and genre.

These are books placed in the real world and enveloped with magic, books about misunderstood or impoverished children stepping out into a bigger, more fantastic world. My reading of these books eventually gave way to more intense, deliberate fantasy like that of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, making Dahl’s books a sort of primer for the kind of books I would read independently. The events depicted in Dahl’s work are wild but ordinary–tasteful wallpaper, cunning foxes, dream-catching giants. Yet Dahl’s fantasy is channeled through the lens of a child and is tangential to the “real” world, allowing fantasy to mix with reality in a stew most commonly referred to as magical realism.

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The fantasy worlds presented in Roald Dahl’s children’s books aren’t fantasy at all. Instead, the books present a version of our reality drenched in the surreal and the ridiculous, all of it presented as misunderstood fact. Sure, Fantastic Mr. Fox and James and the Giant Peach feature talking animals, arguably a total departure from reality,  but the events of those books occur away from the “real world,” almost within the imagination of our child narrators. In other works, “real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women,” there is a Big Friendly Giant who kindly and invisibly defends the world against bad dreams, and little orange men run a chocolate factory (and an not a country).

The magical realism of adult fiction is different mostly in that its intentions are far more, well, adult. In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie uses the genre to broach the subject of religious fantasy, Marquez uses it to obscure the passage of time and bind together the Buendía family, but Dahl, in a far more playful tone, uses it to replicate the child’s mind. His characters, in many ways versions of himself, are allowed to imagine themselves out of horrible situations and manifest that imagination.

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Take James, whose parents were eaten by a rhinoceros, for instance. He wishes for an escape from Aunts Sponge and Spiker and, voila, enter the mysterious man with the magic bag. The BFG‘s Sohpie finds herself awake at her orphanage at the worst time of night–that’s the Witching Hour–and is whisked off into an uncanny land of giants. Hopeless Charlie Bucket dares hope for a golden ticket and is rescued by chance from poverty. Perhaps there never was a man with magic beans that grew a magic peach. Perhaps Sophie was dreaming. Perhaps Charlie Bucket never escaped into anything but his fantasies of the future. Dahl writes about escapism through children’s imaginations.

The magical realism here isn’t anything like its older brothers in Marquez, Kafka, and Rushdie, but Dahl’s children’s books certainly represent a proto-genre for the larger world of almost believable magic. At the very least, Dahl’s fantasy is deeply entrenched in representative fiction. It isn’t fantasy for the purpose of writing fantasy, but to tell a particular story.

Growing up with Dahl informed my literary trajectory. Discovering Marquez in high school felt like a logical continuation of this trend. Realizing that fiction layered with abstracted reality can often better represent the truth than cold realism was an important step.

I wonder how many people have a collection like this. Shelves that are weighed down by children’s books that, consciously or not, inform their future interests. My parents, notably, were avid Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew readers and they grew up to read the thriller-mysteries of Greg Iles and James Patterson. Certainly, that isn’t an anomaly for their generation but Dahl’s age group certainly grew into more fantasy and surrealism than the crime dramas of the past.

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