Stop Waiting for Children to Save You

We seem to be surrounded by Roald Dahl villains—but that doesn't mean we should rely on his child heroes

Before this year, I don’t think I had ever compared a real, living human being to a Roald Dahl villain, but now I do it all the time. It is my response to 75 percent of tweets about Greta Thunberg. It is something of a mental refrain. You sound like a Roald Dahl villain. You sound like you are about to lock Matilda in a closet!

To sound like a Roald Dahl villain, to be clear, is to be absurdly and openly cruel to children. His baddies draw their power from the idea of children as a special, sacred class—the idea that mistreating a child is palpably more unforgivable than mistreating anyone else.  There is a kind of piety and propriety around the treatment of young people that I absolutely buy into, which is why I have recently found the time in my busy being-appalled schedule to be appalled by tweets about Greta Thunberg. Dahl’s villains give the lie to this piety with style. There is absolutely nothing preventing adults from being ghastly to children, and in fact they do it all the time. 

Dahl’s villains call children disgusting little cockroaches, and shot-put them over fences. They turn them into vermin and have them squelched.

But Dahl villains are exaggerated beyond reality, even beyond parody. That’s what makes them work. In a 1988 interview, Dahl said “I found the only way to make my characters REALLY interesting to children is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities, and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel… that, I think, is fun and makes an impact.” Despite the nod here to “good qualities,” Dahl’s heroes are not particularly exaggerated. His villains, however, are insane. They call children disgusting little cockroaches, and shot-put them over fences. They turn them into vermin and have them squelched. They rant (at length) that all children smell of dogs’ droppings.

Kids go absolutely nuts for this kind of thing. They adore characters who hate children. Tell them about a mean old man who is allergic to kids and thinks they should all be stuffed into Tupperware, and they will scream with joy. Intimate to them, (as Dahl does in the glorious introduction to The Witches) that the nice school teacher reading a chapter book out loud is plotting their demise, and they will roll deliriously at your feet. 

Perhaps I should say: kids go nuts for this kind of thing, when they know it isn’t real. In real life, children need to trust adults, even bad adults, or they can’t survive. They know they can’t operate in the world without protection and guidance. Obedience is how they stay alive and cared for, and they absolutely require a reality in which adults are stable, wise, and honest.  Any other kind of reality means trauma, or worse—but most of the time, until it gets really dire, kids keep trusting. What else can they do?

Fiction is another matter.  If a wise and stable authority figure (like a teacher or a children’s book author) presents them with an imaginary character who breaks the norms of adult engagement towards children, kids come into an emotional state that I can’t really define, but it involves screaming. Their biggest fear has been invoked, and burlesqued. They can examine that fear, toy with it and laugh at it. And they can, in total safety, practice for it.

Dahl leans towards children and tells them something they have long suspected: certain grownups cannot be trusted.

Dahl leans towards children and tells them, in his conspiratorial way, something they have long suspected: certain grownups cannot be trusted, and if you find yourself in their power, there is no act of disobedience too extreme. Run, hide, trick them, trap them, flatten them with a giant peach and roll away smiling. When they break the rules, you break them back harder.

“A REAL WITCH,” Dahl writes, “hates children with a red hot sizzling hatred that is more sizzling and red hot than any hatred you could possibly imagine.” But, he warns in The Witches, a novel about a small boy and his grandmother defying an international cabal of wealthy child murderers, they often look like normal adults—or even like especially caring, concerned ones. For starters, he is very explicit about the fact that all witches are women. 

This can strike people, reasonably, as misogynistic, but I think it’s something else: an intensification of the gap between how trustworthy adults should be, and how evil villains are. Women, for a man of Dahl’s era, are meant to be caretakers: nurses, teachers and mothers. And the witches, when our hero stumbles across them at their annual child murder plotting meeting, do not present themselves as ball-busting business women, but as the members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 

When Dahl’s hero is initially trapped with the RSPCS, he’s unbothered, thinking these particular ladies must be wonderfully kind. This is the state of ignorance known as innocence, which adults understand is something to be preserved.  If you are in charge of a child, and you allow them to lose their innocence about adults, you have failed, utterly failed, as a guardian.

Listening to young people on the megaphone at September’s climate strike,  I thought about innocence and failure. Today’s teens have grown up doing active shooter drills, and while school shootings might be a relatively minor percentage of gun deaths, there has to be some psychic impact to making children perform in a pageant of fear, silence and obedience, while we simultaneously make it clear that we are not going to do anything for them. 

There’s a ghoulish quality to our current political interactions with children. It seems like we’ve stopped pretending.

There’s a ghoulish quality to our current political interactions with children. It seems like we’ve stopped pretending. You’re supposed to be able to invoke harm to children, and get anyone who claims to be a decent human being to care. The persistent breaking of this norm gives the daily news a fascinating sense of unreality.  Situations that should be Dahl-esque—kids threatened with guns, kids locked in literal cages—are now commonplace. I think often of the passage in Matilda where Miss Trunchbull, the magnificently abusive headmistress, visits a classroom of five year olds and enacts a series of creative and spontaneous punishments:

The children sat there hypnotized. None of them had seen anything quite like this before. It was splendid entertainment. It was better than a pantomime, but with one big difference. In this room there was an enormous human bomb in front of them which was liable to explode and blow someone to bits any moment.

I feel this way most of the time right now. Really, we have no business trying to tell them that we’ve got things under control.

The flip side of fear is fantasy. Because, having been abused in school, he knew how scary it was to be helpless in the hands of adults, Dahl made a point of giving his child heroes agency—making sure they were the ones who made the plots and took the risks. At one point, while writing The Witches, he realized the hero’s grandmother was too wily and effective.  He had to go through and make sure that, while she was a repository of helpful knowledge, her grandson was the one with all the clever international-child-murderer-cabal busting ideas.

For an adult reader, Dahl’s books offer a different fantasy, in response to a different fear: I cannot keep them safe. I might not personally be a torturer or a murderer of children, but am I doing anything to stop it from happening? In this context, the books are unintentionally relaxing. They suggest on some level that this is okay: that the job of good adults is to sit back and let children be the heroes. 

In these villain-centered books, the best adults are kind but ineffectual. Miss Honey, the sweet schoolteacher in Matilda, who I remembered as almost a caricature of crushable femininity, is actually rather finely drawn as a survivor of long-term abuse by Trunchbull, her aunt. In her twenties, she is employed by and still hands over almost her entire salary to Trunchbull. On some basic level she has failed to understand that she is an adult now, that she is supposed to have some power.  Over tea, she explains to Matilda in so many words the perils of obedience:

I think what I am trying to explain to you… is that over the years I became so completely cowed and dominated by this monster of an aunt that when she gave me an order, no matter what it was, I obeyed it instantly. That can happen, you know.

Matilda is one of an entire community of rebel children who strike back at their oppressor Trunchbull with gratifying pranks, taking the extra punishment that results as preferable to obedience. Every one of them is adorable, splendid, and heroic—from Hortensia, the battle-hardened, spotty ten-year-old who initiates the lower form into the Trunchbull resistance, to chocolate-smeared Bruce Bogtrotter, whose defiant cake-eating unites the children at a show trial meant to humiliate him.

Like many of Dahl’s children, their desperate circumstances give them unheard of resources. The squelching of Matilda’s intellect makes her angry and telekinetic. The hero of The Witches, turned into a mouse, uses his tiny size to secretly poison every witch in England. And Trunchbull’s students, united by tyranny, achieve a remarkable intra-class solidarity against their oppressor.  “You’re darn right it’s like a war,” says Hortensia, “and the casualties are terrific. WE are the crusaders, that gallant army fighting for our lives with hardly any weapons at all and the Trunchbull is the Prince of Darkness, the Foul Serpent, the Fiery Dragon with all the weapons at her command.  It’s a tough life. We all try to support each other.”

For those readers too old to empathize with Dahl’s main characters, it’s turned into a different kind of fantasy: the fantasy that we did not entirely screw up.

It is Matilda’s love of Miss Honey that inspires her to rid their world of Trunchbull for good. Miss Honey functions as the damsel in distress, the grown-up who, in an upending of the social order, needs to be protected by a group of young people. This is meant to be an empowerment fantasy for children. But for those readers now far too old to empathize with Dahl’s main characters, it’s turned into a different kind of fantasy: the fantasy that we did not entirely screw up, that we gave young people the wisdom and the tools they needed to step forward, speak up, strike back. Dahl shows us children who prevail against incredible odds, who win stacked fights against cruelty and indifference—the child heroes we need, if not the ones we deserve. 

But this is a fantasy, born out of fear. When Greta Thunburg addressed the U.N. Climate action summit, she told them, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” In his books for children, Dahl lets his protagonists win and punishes his villains, but he is always crystal clear about one thing: children become heroes because grown-ups have failed them. Inaction is failure. Cowardice is failure. Being Miss Honey and waiting around for Matilda to save you is failure. If that is the best the best of us can do, we really need to grow up.

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