Two Fables by Roald Dahl: B

Two_fables_coverFrom the front flap:
Roald Dahl is recognized as a master in two quite different fields: the short story and the novel for children. In these two new fables, Dahl has once again written startlingly original stories that, while owing something to the clarity and verve of his writing for children, are firmly intended for adults. In “The Princess and the Poacher,” the beastially ugly Hengist is granted a dark wish, but cannot bring himself to fulfill it. In “Princess Mammalia,” Mammalia is driven to attempt murder when her beauty dazzles every man in the kingdom except the one who has what she truly wants.

Deftly told, these pared-down tales explore the intertwinings of love and power, beauty and desire.

Two Fables contains two odd short stories that share some common themes and some bizarre, Rorschach-y illustrations by Graham Dean.

In “The Princess and the Poacher,” Hengist, an unfortunately ugly young man, is quite naturally interested in maidens fair but, as Dahl aptly puts it, “no maidens, fair or otherwise, were interested in Hengist.” In an attempt to distract himself from the ladies he can’t have, he takes to solitary walks in the woods and discovers a talent for stealth that ultimately leads to a life of crime as a poacher. One day, seeking a challenge, he ventures into the king’s woods and ends up saving the princess from being gored by a boar.

In gratitude, the king makes a proclamation that Hengist is free to ravish any female in the land. But now that all women are powerless to resist him, Hengist suddenly finds that he doesn’t want any of them. Alone of all the males in the court, he treats the princess courteously and, in the end, wins her love, which was the king’s plan all along. I don’t really get why the king wanted his daughter to marry a poor, uneducated commoner like Hengist, since Dahl never spells it out, but perhaps it’s a political maneuver to avoid having a scheming son-in-law in his household. This seems likely, given the outcome of the second tale.

In “Princess Mammalia,” the titular princess awakes on the morning of her seventeenth birthday to discover she has become a dazzling beauty. She promptly begins exercising her power over men, growing contemptuous of their obedience. Like Hengist, once members of the opposite sex become powerless to resist her, Mammalia loses interest. Tiring of humiliating her admirers, she soon sets her sights on usurping her father’s throne, but the king, like his peer in the first story, is a clever fellow and devises a way to test his daughter’s loyalty. This story’s a little more concise than the first, with a more definite ending, so I liked it a bit better for that.

In the end, this is an extremely quick read that, as the flap promises, delivers an intriguing hybrid of Dahl’s fairy tale style and more adult subject matter. I’d never read anything by Dahl intended for a grown-up audience before, and it was an interesting experience. Like any fable ought, these stories also deliver a clear (though sexually tinged) moral: irresistibility (whether mandated by law or achieved through beauty) is seldom as enjoyable as daydreams might suggest.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl: C

charlieelevatorFrom the back cover:
Now that he’s won the chocolate factory, what’s next for Charlie? Last seen flying through the sky in a giant elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket’s back for another adventure. When the giant elevator picks up speed, Charlie, Willy Wonka, and the gang are sent hurtling through space and time. Visiting the world’s first space hotel, battling the dreaded Vermicious Knids, and saving the world are only a few stops along this remarkable, intergalactic joyride.

This reminds me a lot of what happened when I read The Neverending Story. Its film version (the original, thank you!) debuted around the same time I discovered Willy Wonka, actually, and I loved it just as much. I read the book about ten years ago, but the portion that was filmed ended about halfway through. The rest, as far as I remember, was a psychedelic story about a lion and wishes and multi-colored sand. It wasn’t bad, but neither was it the story I loved.

Similarly, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator continues where the first book left off and yet fails to achieve the magic of its predecessor. Mr. Wonka and Charlie’s family are taking the elevator back to the factory Charlie has just won, but Charlie’s three bedridden grandparents—who will fulfill the role of trouble-causing brats throughout the book—prevent Wonka from pressing a certain button at the right time and the elevator ends up entering orbit. So, essentially, you’ve got an eccentric guy in funny clothes piloting a box through space with some regular humans in tow for companionship. Sounds familiar…

Misadventures in space ensue, primarily caused by Wonka being somewhat of an ass and the grandparents being morons. I felt bad for Charlie on several occasions, because it seemed he wasn’t having very much fun. Eventually they get back to the factory, and the grandparents are at it again; the final quarter of the book is spent on de-aging them with the benefit of one pill and then re-aging them with a sort of magic oil. It’s pointless and not at all enjoyable. Add to this some potty humor and an unfunny incompetent president and you come up with a book that I will probably never read again.

If you love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and want to preserve your warm and fuzzy memories of same, do yourself a favor and avoid the sequel.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl: A-

charliechocolateFrom the back cover:
Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory is opening at last! But only five lucky children will be allowed inside. And the winners are: Augustus Gloop, an enormously fat boy whose hobby is eating; Veruca Salt, a spoiled-rotten brat whose parents are wrapped around her little finger; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum-chewer with the fastest jaws around; Mike Teavee, a toy pistol-toting gangster-in-training who is obsessed with television; and Charlie Bucket, Our Hero, a boy who is honest and kind, brave and true, and good and ready for the wildest time of his life!

I’m not sure why we spent what seemed to be the entire last week of fourth grade sprawled on the carpet of the media center wearing out one of those new-fangled videotapes of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by watching it over and over again, but sprawl and watch we did. I don’t remember anyone complaining when, after the movie ended, it was immediately begun again, but perhaps my recollection is clouded by how much I loved (and still do) the film. Until now, however, I had never actually read the original book though I’ve owned it for several years.

As most people probably know, this is the story of humble and poor Charlie Bucket who loves chocolate very much but must be content with nightly meals of watery cabbage soup. As luck would have it, a huge and world-famous chocolate factory is on his way to school and every day he pauses to sniff the air near Wonka’s Factory, though his family is so poor they can only afford to give him one bar of chocolate each year on his birthday.

When Wonka announces his Golden Ticket contest—in which five Golden Tickets are hidden in Wonka chocolates, each entitling one child to a tour of the facilities and a life-time supply of candy—Charlie tries not to get his hopes up, but is nonetheless disappointed when his birthday bar fails to contain the golden prize. A second bar paid for from his Grandpa Joe’s secret fund yields the same results, and Charlie has almost given up hope when a lucky dollar found on the sidewalk buys him a bar containing the fifth and final Golden Ticket. The next day, Charlie and Grandpa Joe join four other children and their parents in a tour of the fantastic factory. Each of the other children has a flaw—eating too much, being spoiled, chewing gum constantly, and watching too much television—and is disqualified along the way by some means connected to it. In the end, only Charlie remains and it’s a happy ending for the well-deserving child.

Although the basic flow of the plot is the same and indeed, some lines of dialogue are used verbatim in the film (“Violet, you’re turning violet, Violet!”) there are some differences. No one in the book sings except for the Oompa Loompas (who are not orange and are sometimes female), and their songs are not nearly as catchy in print form. Charlie and Grandpa Joe do not commit the grievous sin of sampling fizzy lifting drinks, although the beverages and the method to combat their lifting powers are discussed, and Veruca’s exit is facilitated by nut-evaluating squirrels rather than an egg meter. I seem to recall that Tim Burton’s film version (which is pretty awful) keeps the squirrels, so perhaps special effects in 1971 were simply not up to the task of bringing them to life on the screen. Most importantly, there’s neither Mr. Slugworth nor any testing of Charlie to see whether he will protect Wonka’s secrets. When I was a kid I didn’t like that part because Wonka was mean to Charlie, but now that it’s gone, I find I miss it. In the book, Charlie is an observer who wins mostly by process of elimination, but in the film he’s required to prove his goodness and is a more interesting character.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is thoroughly charming and is undoubtedly a classic of children’s fiction. The fact remains, however, that I still like the movie more. Gene Wilder brings so much to the role of Willy Wonka, retaining his eccentricities but also endowing him with both warmth and menace, that even the original pales by comparison. Add to this the film’s more fleshed-out portrayal of Charlie and my choice is clear.

Matilda by Roald Dahl: A

matildaFrom the back cover:
Matilda is a genius. Before she was three years old she was reading the newspaper. By the age of four, Matilda was reading classics by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. By the time Matilda becomes a student at Crunchem Hall, she’s bored stiff. When Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, tries to get her moved up a few grades she runs up against the Headmistress, Miss Trunchbull—two hundred pounds of mean, nasty, kid-hating bully.

Can even a genius like Matilda survive the rampages of Miss Trunchbull—or should she come up with a crafty plan to rid the school of the bully once and for all?

Matilda Wormwood is a genius, though her idiotic parents are completely incapable of recognizing this fact. Just when she’s about to start school, her father badmouths her to the cruel headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who thereafter persists in having a negative opinion of Matilda, even after the girl’s teacher, Miss Honey, describes what a phenomenal child she is. When Matilda discovers that she possesses the ability to help the desperately poor Miss Honey and get back at Miss Trunchbull simultaneously, she leaps at the chance.

I really do think Dahl is remarkable among writers of children’s fiction for being able to craft stories that are equally appealing to children and adults. For example, although Matilda is moved to seek revenge against some odious adults in her life, grown-ups in general are not portrayed as villains, since her closest confidante is Miss Honey. And though the humor is clearly geared for children, it’s never stupid or crude and Matilda is generally polite and thoughtful. Probably a lot of this has to do with Dahl’s being British; I’ve seen plenty of obnoxious American tales about smug children humiliating adults and Matilda is nothing like them.

That said, how I wish I had discovered Matilda when I was ten! Like the lead character, I was the bookish daughter of TV-inclined parents, though at least mine were generally encouraging. I also had a dreadful experience in fourth grade of being presumed guilty by a teacher of something I didn’t do simply because I was away in Gifted class at the time and, unlike all of my other classmates, had not been given the opportunity to deny the accusations. Reading about Matilda and the similar plight in which she finds herself probably would’ve buoyed my spirits enormously at the time and made me feel less powerless.

I’ve now read and enjoyed two books by Dahl, which has spurred me to consider embarking on a more comprehensive effort. Stay tuned!

The Witches by Roald Dahl: A

witchesFrom the back cover:
Grandmamma loves to tell about witches. Real witches are the most dangerous of all living creatures on earth. There’s nothing they hate so much as children, and they work all kinds of terrifying spells to get rid of them. Her grandson listens closely to Grandmamma’s stories—but nothing can prepare him for the day he comes face-to-face with The Grand High Witch herself!

Though I’ve counted Willy Wonky and the Chocolate Factory among my favorite movies for 25 years now (side note: holy crap, I am so old), I’d never actually read any of Roald Dahl’s books before The Witches, though I own several. Rest assured that I shall now be rectifying this deplorable failing forthwith.

The Witches is the story of an unnamed boy who loves to listen to his grandmamma’s tales about witches. She tells him all about how to spot a witch (even when she’s masquerading as an ordinary woman) as well as their burning desire to exterminate children, and so the boy is well able to realize his predicament when a holiday in Bournemouth coincides with the annual meeting of all the witches in England. Trapped in a ballroom with the witches as they discuss a cunning plan to turn all the children in Britain into mice, he is eventually found out and turned into a mouse himself.

Does the story end there? No, it does not. He and his grandmamma (Dahl does love these grandparent/grandkid pairings, doesn’t he?) execute a cunning plan of their own, save the children, and end up with a new quest to keep them busy for the rest of their admittedly limited life spans.

What a perfect children’s book! It’s certainly imaginative, and comes with many amusing illustrations by Quentin Blake. It avoids familiar pitfalls, like a tedious interim wherein the mouse-boy must struggle to make himself understood by humans; Dahl dispenses with this entirely by allowing the mouse to speak normally. It doesn’t shirk from darkness—the boy remains a mouse and, as such, his life expectancy is dramatically reduced. And lastly, it’s just plain riveting, for an adult as well as a kid.

Sometimes children’s fiction just doesn’t click with me, even if I like the concept, but that wasn’t a problem whatsoever with The Witches. No wonder Dahl is so beloved; turns out he’s earned every bit of it.