The Roald Dahl ‘Problem’: “A Clash Of The Culture War”

Stack of Roald Dahl books
Maria Sadek

Last week, Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl Story Company announced that they would be producing modern versions of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books, which would contain alterations to the language in order to bring his stories up-to-date with modern vernacular and remove potentially offensive language. Maria Sadek looks at the case both for and against the alteration.

To no one’s surprise, this announcement went viral and sparked strong debates in the so-called ‘culture war‘ between traditional conservatives and progressive liberals, with many well-known authors, commentators, and political figures joining the debate to discuss whether these edits are examples of problematic censorship or of moves towards improving the inclusivity of classical literature.

She will still read the original stories in all “their full, nasty, colourful glory” to her children

Many public figures have spoken out about why they believe editing Dahl’s stories is problematic, a side which appears to be the most vocal in this debate. These people include Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose spokesperson argued works of fiction should be “preserved and not airbrushed.” Even Camilla, the Queen Consort, appears to have weighed in on the debate, speaking at Clarence House on the anniversary of her online book club she urged authors to “remain true… unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of [their] expression.”

Not only do the edits to Dahl’s work appear to be evoking fear about freedom of speech being undermined, but more specifically, there is also a worry that these changes will cause the ‘spirit’ of Dahl’s books to be lost. Laura Hackett, deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times, appears incredibly steadfast in her opinion that she will still read the original stories in all “their full, nasty, colourful glory” to her children, fearing the heart of Dahl’s stories would be lost through the minor edits.

Many argue that the changes are disingenuous

A problem that many people have also pointed out with these edits are that there does not appear to be a definite method that the editors used to decide what needed to be changed, with some uses of insensitive language or implications remaining in the novels. For example, the description of Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been changed from him being “enormously fat” to “enormous”, yet the implication remains that his character is flawed due to his size.

Another example is that in The Twits, Mrs Twit might now be described as simply “beastly” and not “ugly and beastly,” yet she is still characterised as being a ‘bad’ woman through her crooked nose, balding head, and wonky teeth. This lack of comprehensive editing has left many to argue that the changes are disingenuous and simply a response by Puffin Books to growing social pressure.

Alternatively, poet Debjami Chatterjee has led the charge of those in support of the edits, arguing that it is a “very good thing that the publishers are reviewing his work.” Many have also pointed out that editors rework literature all the time and that this is simply part of the natural process undergone by the publishing industry.

It is hard to imagine a solution to the problem that does not anger either side

A third viewpoint has emerged, however, spearheaded by journalists such as Joanna Nadin of the Daily Maverick, that Dahl’s work should be left in the past and allowed to fade out, opening the door for children to discover their own magic in books more representative of the time they are growing up in. In a similar vein, award-winning author Philip Pullman suggested that if Dahl’s books are being found offensive, they “should be allowed to fade away,” rather than continuously changed and edited.

Given that Dahl was a known antisemite, which his family only acknowledged and apologised for in 2020 (30 years after his death), this argument has a lot of credence and support amongst other online figures.

In a clash of the ‘culture war’, fuelled by feelings of nostalgia, proposed edits to Roald Dahl’s children’s books has garnered strong debate online over the past couple of weeks. The bigger questions, however, are not whether Dahl’s books should be edited, but whether any books should be allowed to be changed by publishing houses, and whether Dahl should continue to be published at all. Although some solutions have been proposed that seemingly occupy a middle-ground, such as the inclusion of content notes that explain Dahl’s antisemitism at the beginning of his books, it is hard to imagine a solution to the problem that does not anger either side.

Despite Puffin since coming out with a statement that they will not go ahead with the edits, it is likely these debates will only continue to occur as more books are brought under scrutiny and we should expect such disputes to only continue raging.

Maria Sadek

Featured image courtesy of Nick Fewings on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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