3/13/2003

thoughts on James and the Giant Peach

I started Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach last night. Jay-sus! I should’ve known what to expect from Dahl, but after a brief fairy tale description of James Henry Trotter’s idyllic first four years in the first paragraph, the second goes:

"Then, one day, James’s mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.

"Now this, as you can well imagine, was a rather nasty experience for two such gentle parents. But in the long run it was far nastier for James than it was for them. Their troubles were all over in a jiffy. They were dead and gone in thirty-five seconds flat. Poor James, on the other hand, was still very much alive, and all at once he found himself alone and frightened in a vast unfriendly world."

And it goes on from there. I have been turning over the idea of trying to put together a book (this is my latest pipe dream, as Jackie would put it) called The Art of the Bedtime Story, that would look at tales in general and how to tell them. The grotesque and the morbid, how to introduce children to death, and so on, is what especially interests me.

This opening struck me on a ‘parental level’ as particularly rough, but while Dahl is really utterly flippant when it comes to death and brutality, he also puts it in a ridiculous, impossible context. If the parents had been murdered in their bed by a burglar it might cause a child some distress.

The thing is, Dahl wrote some great children’s books, but he also wrote some great war stories. He knew that children were likely to grow up in a world where death and brutality were daily occurrences. They have to be dealt with, why not this way?

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