Every now and then a new world is created. It takes seed in the mind of a genius and sometimes the portals of that world are opened to those that wish to enter. Landscapes are etched and people are given form. Causes are brought to life and strange happenings are immortalised. That is the power of the written word.
Whilst youngsters today are all looking for an author to turn to, to verbalise all their hopes and dreams, we miss out on the masterpieces of creation that we once used to be under the thrall of. Certain children’s writers are just that: children’s writers. But then there are geniuses like Roald Dahl who truly wrote for everyone.
He started out with fiction and semi- autobiographical works for adults, centred on his days as a pilot in the RAF and then gradually went on to being an author for children. Many of his works have been adapted for films; the most popular being Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and Matilda. These are but the tip of Roald Dahl’s literary iceberg. Nothing is over-thought or over-written. The language is succinct and the tale is fraught with simple ideas that echo with a rare brilliance
The beginning of his career as a children’s writer came with James and the Giant Peach in 1961. The story takes form as a young James Henry Trotter is left orphaned and is sent to live with his Aunts Spiker and Sponge. Aunt Spiker is as thin as a twig while Aunt Sponge is round and flabby. Both sisters are terribly mean and make James’ life miserable. The sisters bar him from playing and forbid the poor little boy from having any friends. They live in a cottage on the top of a tall hill close to the coast in England. The house is surrounded by a neglected garden that has a peach tree, a peach tree that refuses to bear fruit.
Then one day a strange old man hands a sobbing James a bag of magic. He tells the James to consume the contents of the bag and thus ensure the absence of misery from his the rest of life. James wants to consume it for he has been through a lot but in his childish enthusiasm, he drops the bag and watches abjectly as the magic stuff burrows into the ground at the roots of the old peach tree.
Everything changes overnight. The peach tree sprouts a peach which swells uncontrollably within moments. The evil sister-aunts decide to cash in on this opportunity and make the peach an exhibit. But on the very first night of their fun, James, who is sent out to clean the garden after the visitors have left, finds a door in the peach and meets the most amazing creatures ever! They are rather enormous versions of garden insects. He meets the Old Grasshopper who is a kindly, green musician; the Earthworm who is affable, pink and entirely blind; the Centipede who is quite the rude rogue is witty and completely obsessed with his boots; Miss Spider and Ladybird, the very gentle and amiable female members of the company. They, after the first night of getting acquainted, have the most peculiar adventure in their Giant Peach. The peach rolls down the hill and into the ocean.
It bobs along serenely in the water for a while before it is attacked by sharks. To protect themselves from the attack of the marine monsters, James uses some quick thinking. Miss Spider and Silkworm provide miles of thread and James harnesses hordes of seagulls to haul them out of the choppy, shark infested waters. They soar through the skies where they meet the Cloud-Men that make the hail and the snow and the rain that the earth will soon partake from. The Centipede offends the otherwise oblivious Cloud-Men and they viciously attack the travellers.
After a long and arduous journey made treacherous by the angry Cloud-Men, the unlikely friends see the glinting of the sun on high rooftops, rooftops too high for it to be anywhere in England. It was New York City. The Peach had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a single night on the wings of an army of seagulls. A plane flying over the bustling city manages to cut all the strings at once and the Peach plummets towards the earth. But as luck would have it, the falling fruit is neatly skewered by the spire of the Empire State Building. There are police and fire personnel swarming, ready to face the suspicious visitors
But soon after, the party is welcomed warmly by the city and a grand ticker-tape parade is taken out. The peach is devoured by New York’s children and the characters all find places for themselves in the folds of the community. James himself lives in the stone of the Peach installed in Central Park and makes a whole bunch of new friends. The story of the travellers from England becomes a legend and James writes a book about it.
People think that to write a children’s book is, well, a child’s play. They are wrong. Children are the hardest readers to please. It does not take extraordinary guile or a fantastic imagination to capture the imaginations of adults. They are even satisfied with the trite and painfully ordinary.
But then again, to take the ordinary and make it a legend worth recounting is exactly what Roald Dahl has done with James and the Giant Peach. The parallels between this astonishing tale and the life of the author are startling. Moments in the book are direct translations of his experiences. James is treated like dirt at home. Roald Dahl suffered from an unappreciative audience in his homeland. His books were always better received abroad. The magic stuff that effectively made the Peach was the dream job that was offered to the author in Washington. In the middle of the Atlantic, the Giant Peach is surrounded by dangerous sharks that Dahl drew from the German U-Boats. Then there is the fact that both the boy and the creator wrote famous books about their travels.
So even if he is a “children’s author”, there’s a lot that he can say. He might overtly have intended his books for children but Roald Dahl had always factored into the equation the adults that might be reading the books out for children going to bed. He managed to blend the supernatural with the very real, grounded characters of real life. This is truly a chef d’oeuvre. Given that we have no one to turn to for entertainment, now and again, we need to retrace our steps back to the fantasies of our childhood. And it’s true: if we look a wee bit deeper, we see that there is a lot for us even when we’re not looking for it.