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20th March 2023

Roald Dahl and the politics of language

To censor the works of Roald Dahl would be counterproductive, and would protect no one. So why are we doing it?
Roald Dahl and the politics of language
Photo: Solarisgirl @ Wikimedia

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the works of Roald Dahl were to be rewritten to remove language that readers may find offensive. 

Although the decision has since been rescinded, Puffin Books have made the decision to remove – and in places replace – words related to gender, race, and physical appearance, such as weight and facial features, that could offend a modern audience.  

It should be noted that the language adjustment would only be made in English. Puffin Books, the children’s branch of the Penguin Books publishing company, publishes Dahl’s books for the United Kingdom. French publisher Gallimard stated they would not make any such changes: “We have never modified Roald Dahl’s writings and we have no plans to do so today.” 

In terms of the changes made, much of the language regards physical features. Every iteration of the words ‘fat’ and ‘crazy’ were dropped, as well as descriptions of double chins and ugliness.

For example, in James and the Giant Peach, Aunt Sponge’s description had been altered from “terrifically fat and tremendously flabby at that,” to “a nasty old brute and deserved to be squashed by the fruit.” Aunt Spiker changed from “thin as a wire and dry as a bone, only drier” to the much less powerful “much of the same and deserves half of the blame.”

This announcement was met with backlash from not only the public but also political figures and fellow authors. In a Downing Street statement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weighed in on the issue from an angle of censorship, stating that, “we shouldn’t gobble funk around with words. I think it’s important that works of literature and works of fiction are preserved and not airbrushed. We have always defended the right to free speech and expression.” 

In a piece for The Guardian, children’s author Philip Pullman suggested the books should go out of print. He said this to negate rewriting them and argued that the millions of already printed copies cannot now be altered. Instead, he offered that children should instead read works by Malorie Blackman and Michael Morpurgo.

Similarly, Salman Rushdie issued a tweet condemning the change. Rushdie, a polarising figure who has faced intense violence and threat for his work ‘The Satanic Verses’, described the move as “absurd censorship.” 

And it’s true. The removal and subsequent replacement of many words is a form of censorship, whether it is done with good intentions or otherwise. While many often perceive censorship to inherently be a tool of propaganda, censorship can also be applied under the guise of ‘political correctness’. If altering Dahl’s work is given a pass because censorship is undertaken in the name of progress, what is stopping this from becoming the excuse for further restrictions? 

Authors use certain language for specific reasons. Dahl did not describe Augustus Gloop as “enormously fat” simply to be mean, but rather to express the character’s extreme greed. Similarly, Mrs. Twit is “ugly and beastly” on the outside because she is on the inside: her horrible nature is too powerful to be contained by her skin. 

Although it is expressed clumsily and may be insensitive, it has been done in a way that children understand. The language may be outdated and uncomfortable. To notice that is a good thing; it highlights the progress we have made. 

Children should not be shielded from difficult topics, especially racism and fatphobia, as many already experience this. Attempts to shield them only result in the privileged few having no concept of issues already affecting their peers. They therefore no empathy or understanding, creating further division. 

I believe altering the wording in this way would have been a mistake. In changing Dahl’s word choice, his intentions behind the story are fundamentally altered. The nastiness, the discomfort, and the grimness are essential to the nature of the stories — it could be argued that that is what makes it Roald Dahl.  

Although Dahl as a person was fundamentally flawed in his views (especially regarding Jewish people), little of this is expressed in his stories. Dahl’s views became more radical in later life; he is quoted as saying he “had become anti-Semitic” around 1983, long after the publication of his children’s works.  

In fact, the words removed are not what I would describe as problematic. Fat is not a bad word nor a rude word; it is a description. I believe this continues to reinforce fatphobia by shying away from the word.  

Besides, children love mess, ugliness, and violence; there’s a reason everyone remembers Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda more than Esio Trot and Danny, Champion of the World. The grimness makes it fun! 

Surely, rather than changing the wording, it would be easier to include a disclaimer highlighting that the wording could be offensive. Or create a new story; as Pullman said, write your own story, let it become more popular, and let Dahl’s works fade into insignificance as they are replaced with more period-relevant stories. 

Stories do not stay around forever; in the same vein as everything else, they will move in and out of the public conscience. If a story is outdated or has language that should not have a place in the modern world, it is more fitting for it to render itself obsolete than it is to constantly hack at and update it like cosmetic procedure after cosmetic procedure. After all, those sorts of surgeries can only change the surface level – what is underneath will always remain. 

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