The rewriting of Roald Dahl is an act of cultural vandalism


Brendan O’Neill

Roald Dahl [Getty]

Brendan O’Neill

19 February 2023

9:57 PM

The vandals have come for Roald Dahl. His books for children are to be cleansed of their ‘offensive’ content. Sensitivity readers – what we used to call censors – have been employed to pore over his works and expurgate any word or passage that might hurt a kid’s feelings. If you weren’t worried about cancel culture before, surely this egregious assault on some of the best-known children’s books of the modern era, this posthumous purging of an author’s output, will change your mind.

Dahl is being well and truly Ministry of Truthed. Puffin essentially tasked the sensitivity readers with morally improving his stories so that no child will ever feel affronted by their fruity, judgemental language. Some of the changes are crazy. Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer ‘fat’ – he’s ‘enormous’. Aunt Sponge in James and the Giant Peach is no longer ‘terrifically fat’ and ‘tremendously flabby’ – she’s just ‘a nasty old brute’ who deserves to be ‘squashed by fruit’. What? Mrs Twit in The Twits isn’t ‘ugly and beastly’ anymore, just ‘beastly’.

On and on it goes, all the fun stuff redacted, all the passages that made millions of us chuckle shoved down the memory hole. The beloved Oompa-Loompas are no longer ‘tiny’, ‘titchy’ and ‘no higher than my knee’ – they’re just ‘small’. And they’re not ‘small men’ anymore, they’re ‘small people’. Gender-neutral Oompa-Loompas – just what the world was crying out for.

Loads of supposedly problematic references to gender have been purged. ‘Boys and girls’ are now ‘children’. The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach are Cloud-People, the Daily Telegraph reported. Fantastic Mr Fox’s three sons are now his three daughters. Why? Dahl wanted him to have sons. What right do blue-pencil-wielding sensitivity readers have to drive the juggernaut of correct thought through Dahl’s imaginary landscape?

What right do blue-pencil-wielding sensitivity readers have to drive the juggernaut of correct thought through Dahl’s imaginary landscape?

Every fashionable political belief of the 2020s is being crowbarred into Dahl’s fictional universe. So Matilda no longer reads Rudyard Kipling – that imperial old brute! – but Jane Austen. One of Dahl’s witches who posed as ‘a cashier in a supermarket’ is now a ‘top scientist’. We wouldn’t want any young witch to feel that the STEM subjects aren’t for her. Words like ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’ have been excised, lest they appear to make light of mental-health problems. Even such everyday words as black and white are out. Characters no longer turn ‘white with fear’ and the Big Friendly Giant no longer wears a ‘black cloak’. Why? In case a black kid feels offended when he reads that fantastic tale? The patrician urge of the sensitivity police to protect ethnic-minority children from certain words is infinitely more insulting to them than Dahl’s tales could ever be.

Let us be frank about what is going on here. This is a cultural purging. These arrogant alterations represent a profoundly censorious attack on one of Britain’s best-loved writers. They can doll it up in the language of ‘sensitivity’ and ‘inclusion’ as much as they like, but to the rest of us it still smacks of a Stalinist correction of wrongspeak.

Puffin’s vandalising of Dahl’s work was carried out in conjunction with an organisation called Inclusive Minds, a collective of sensitivity readers who are ‘passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature’. I find the modern use of that word ‘inclusion’ grimly fascinating. It so often means its opposite. When people say they are devoted to ‘inclusion’ it usually means they’re devoted to excluding problematic people and difficult ideas. And so it is with the haughty overhaul of Dahl’s world of make-believe: under the banner of ‘inclusion’ all sorts of words and characters and jokes are being excluded, bowdlerised, blacked-out. (Sorry, I know you shouldn’t say ‘black’ anymore.)

This is the doublespeak of modern-day censorship. ‘Sensitivity’ is the garb moral censure now wears. The sensitivity police are everywhere. The striking thing in the Dahl case is that they arrived on the scene after publication – decades after publication in this case. Normally they’re there before publication. Numerous publishers of children’s books now employ sensitivity readers to pore over authors’ manuscripts and ensure there’s nothing that might offend the young. Author Anthony Horowitz has bravely said that such moral policing of literature is ‘extremely dangerous’. ‘I believe that writers should not be cowed,’ he said after having his own run-in with the sensitivity cops, which he wrote about for The Spectator.

Poor old Roald has no choice in the matter. He’s been dead since 1990. The posthumous invasion of his fictional world by an army of vain and lofty censors is surely a warning to all authors that the same fate might befall them one day. You might enjoy literary freedom in the here and now, but what if a future generation damns your work as problematic – a fancy word for heretical – and decides to sabotage it with moral corrections? I suggest fiction writers rethink their contracts, and add a clause stipulating that no one, at any point, shall have the right to revise their work.

Rewriting past literature to make it conform to modern-day sensibilities is a species of tyranny. Where will it end? Surely the Bible, with its condemnation of homosexuality and its copious amounts of violence, should be subjected to a sensitivity overhaul. As for Shakespeare – in some quarters his work has already been defaced with trigger warnings drawing attention to its ‘violence, sexual references, misogyny and racism’. And don’t even get them started on Enid Blyton. Anyone who thinks the terrifying trend of posthumous censure will end with Dahl is dreaming.

We are all of us proof of just how ridiculous (as well as brutish) the moral cleansing of Dahl’s work is. How many of us chortled at fat Augustus Gloop getting stuck in that pipe, or winced at the idea of witches posing as cashiers, or smiled deviantly at the vision of a ‘tremendously flabby’ old lady? And we turned out fine. We weren’t wounded, we didn’t become hateful. Leave literature alone. Have some respect for your readers – and more importantly for the artistic freedom and literary rights of such great storytellers as Roald Dahl.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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