December 8, 2020
Roald Dahl’s descendants apologize for his anti-Semitism
by Athena Bryan
Roald Dahl was an anti-Semite. We know this because he told The Independent, “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic” in 1990. So, what you might call an open-and-shut case.
This Sunday, the UK’s Sunday Times brought everyone’s attention to it again because apparently his family had quietly added an apology to their website.
So, here’s the count: His family is very sorry about it. The Roald Dahl Story Company is also sorry about it. Steven Spielberg, who directed a major motion picture adaptation of The BFG recently is confused by and also sorry about it.
I’m going to go ahead and hop on and say that I, too, am sorry about it. Yours truly was not yet aware of this information about Mr. Dahl, and as a little girl who read diligently through Matilda, The BFG, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Danny, the Champion of the World, The Twits, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Twits, and The Vicar of Nibblewswicke. (That’s right, I read all of those—not quite a completist, but damn near close.) So this feels about as bad as the time that I picked up Going Solo in my 4th grade English class, and had a really terrible time reading about his nose being scraped off while waiting for some sort of nittlewick or bumperdink to come in and make it fun.
It was a real bummer!
You always look back on the work of fantasy authors after they reveal some incoherently unevolved opinion and think, “I don’t know how I didn’t see this one coming…” See J.K. Rowling, Gringotts, trans people, etc.
I had a moment when I thought, “But wait, Dahl’s fantasy isn’t constructed around a worldview evidently based on imperialist, racial caste systems,” but then this New York Times article mentioned that oompa loompa’s are a near-miss for extremely offensive…
Yes, I guess there is some real unsavory stuff in his books… The joke about Turkish people tasting like turkey in The BFG… The grandparents in bed as a permanently melded, rat-king-like foursome in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… The Trunchbull’s Chokey… The grandparents in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…
The French have a saying: “Faut-il brûler Babar?” This is in reference to the beloved children’s book in which colonial elephants bring French culture to savage African elephants over the course of several vibrantly-illustrated books. The question is, “Do we really have to reckon with the ludicrously evil ideology underpinning our nostalgic memories of our childhood books?”
In the case of Babar, I’m going to say, uh, yes. Definitely, yes.
But while the licensing and adaptation of Dahl continue apace (The Witches came out this year and Netflix has bought up several Dahl properties) expect apologies to keep rolling. And very little burning.
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.