C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl

August 17, 2022 — 6 Comments

Do C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Roald Dahl (1916-1990) have anything in common, besides authoring books enjoyed by children?

Looking back, I must have been deprived of opportunities to read common children’s books. I recall my mom having many of Dr. Seuss’ classics, but don’t remember more advanced works such as those of Beatrix Potter or E.B. White.

I suppose that is why Roald Dahl’s name means little to me. By the time I was aware of his popular works, I was too old to appreciate them. Added to that was my intense dislike for the cinematic presentation of his Chocolate Factory, which has permanently (and probably unfairly) soured my impression of the poor man.

In Matilda, published in 1988, Dahl offers a rather curious homage to the Inklings. The young protagonist offers to her teacher the following observations.

“I like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Matilda said. “I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

If you are intrigued by this brief interchange, you would probably enjoy reading “Disagreeing with Matilda on Lewis and Tolkien.”

Curiously, a number of people have offered their evaluations of Lewis and Dahl, vis-à-vis one another. Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C.S. Lewis invited diverse contributions to the debate eight years ago on LibraryThing.

A Christian blogger offers a faith-based appraisal on an entertaining website called “Like but better.” It’s entitled “How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better).”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A BBC Culture article is quite critical of Dahl, despite his popularity. The introduction to “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” aptly describes the essay.

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, writes Hephzibah Anderson.

An article by a Jewish journalist refers to both of the authors discussed here. It describes his bitter introduction to the major flaws of an author whose work he enjoyed as a child. “Why I Hope My Kids Never Read Roald Dahl” is, for me, most valuable for the way in which the journalist regards the faith which underlies the tales of Narnia.

As a nerdy Jewish kid in Indiana and Tennessee in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had far better relationships with books than I did with other kids. If I liked a book, I read it again, and again and again.

And so it was with Roald Dahls “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl’s protagonists Charlie and later James (of the “Giant Peach”) both provided early models for how to find a better way through a hostile world where I always felt like an outsider.

Given that personal history, the announcement that Netflix has acquired Dahl’s entire catalog and plans a robust lineup of multimedia adaptations ought to feel like good news. . . .

Seeing his work still celebrated fills me with sadness, leaving me caught between attachment to something that mattered to me as a boy and commitment to the principles that, I hope, make me the man I am today.

Because I know that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me.

There are cases where it’s complicated to ascribe modern values to figures from the past and as a reader, my feelings, my emotions, are just not going to be consistent. I don’t share C.S. Lewis’ religious views . . . J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is, I’m sad to say, bound up in long histories of racism.But my childhood copies of their books still occupy my shelves, some missing covers and pages, and I bought new copies for my kids and tried – with mixed success – to share my love of those stories with them. It’s hardly new for readers of one generation to struggle with the views of authors from another.But Dahl is different. He passed away in 1990, only 31 years ago. And we know he was an anti-Semite because he said so.

While I would challenge Perry’s modest critiques of the Inklings, I am delighted he is able to look beyond his adult disappointment with their imperfections to commend them to his own children. As for Dahl . . . this article reinforces my lack of regret in being unfamiliar with his work.

Enough, now, of their differences. I promised readers a surprising similarity between the two British authors.

And What Is Their Unusual Commonality?

In 1951, C.S. Lewis was approached by Prime Minister Churchill’s office to accept an honor occasionally bestowed upon renowned literary figures. He was invited to become a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Lewis declined, because he felt the political implications might overshadow the nonpartisan spirit of his writings. He was, however, honored to have been offered the honour.

This decision brings us to the peculiar similarity between the two writers. It turns out that Roald Dahl also passed up the invitation to join this chivalric order.

And the two were not alone. In 2012 a list of deceased individuals who had declined related honors between 1951 and 1999 was published.

Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley . . . joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children’s author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic F.R. Leavis, Booker [Prize] winner Stanley Middleton and the authors J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

An aspiring literary historian might do well to research whether and why successful writers might be more inclined to dismiss such an honor than other British citizens. I wonder if that inclination would carry over to other nationalities or cultures.

Ultimately, I assume most writers care less about receiving honors, than having their work read. And, perchance, having their literary efforts improve the lives of one or two others along the way. [This statement inspired vigorous debate when I shared this draft with members of my critique group.]

That desire – to enrich lives – is what motivates me. I believe it is also what inspired C.S. Lewis. And I know we are not alone.

6 responses to C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl

  1. 

    CS Lewis’ Narnia series remains firmly embedded in my childhood memories as all time great stories. It was only a few years ago I discovered their Christian message!
    Dahl I never liked, even as a kid. I found them upsetting and puerile. Why would stories about horrendous, selfish adults abusing a child or children in their care, forcing the child to take extreme measures be funny?
    It taught kids nothing about love, nor equipped them to handle bad situations should they be stuck in them.
    I’d never heard Dahl being anti-Semitic, but neither did I give him any attention so why would I know?!
    When my mother used to decry the lack of good children’s literature, she would cite Lewis as the example to follow and Dahl as the dregs of what seeps through when nothing else is available for publishers.
    It’s entirely possible my views were shaded by this!
    Perhaps the most important take away though, my parents read them to me, all 7 Narnia books, James and the giant peach, Charlie and the chocolate factory.
    No amount of high quality children’s literature will help if parents and perhaps grandparents don’t read it to the little ones!
    Thank you for posting this, it’s been a fabulous read over my breakfast tea!

    • 

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights with us, Carolanne.

      You are so utterly right about the importance of parents (and, yes, grandparents too, as I can personally attest) reading to children.

      Few things pay greater dividends in their future lives than instilling in those precious little ones a love of reading.

  2. 

    “That desire – to enrich lives – is what motivates me. I believe it is also what inspired C.S. Lewis. And I know we are not alone.” Exactly. Which is why I love Jack not only as a writer, but as a human being and vicarious mentor.

  3. 

    I have to disagree with Matilda about C. S. Lewis and humor. There’s plenty of humor–sometimes quite subtle–throughout his writings. The scene in “The Magician’s Nephew” where Aslan informs the animals that “an evil” had entered Narnia, so that the animals think the human is “a neevil,” sounds like it could almost as easily have been written by Monty Python.
    Elsewhere, he had a knack of using some dry wit to get his message across.

    • 

      You’re absolutely right. Matilda must be one of those (fictional) kids whose understanding of humor is restricted to slapstick.

      If she were a boy, I would have said, “body humor,” but now I suspect I’ve labeled myself as misogynistic, since I regard boys as inherently more disgusting than girls…

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