British novelist Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990), UK, 10th December 1971. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images)

December 7, 2020   6 mins

That Roald Dahl hated people won’t surprise readers of The Twits.  I’m not sure he liked children either. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he turns one child purple, shrinks another, has yet another thrown down a rubbish chute and yet another sucked up a pipe. Dahl wrote malicious novels — his females are grotesques too— and his malice was more convincing than his kindness, which seems barely felt. He’s a snob too: he likes Charlie Bucket for his humility. He can root for a family that sleeps four to a bed and remains grateful.

An old story has resurfaced: that Dahl particularly hated Jews. The Official Roald Dahl website buried an apology on its pages last week, probably because Netflix is in the process of adapting Dahl’s most famous books, and this PR problem must be addressed.

“The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements,” it said. Why do they say “hurt” and not “fear”, as if Jew hatred were merely a lapse in manners? “Those prejudiced remarks,” it goes on (“remarks” is a pale euphemism) “are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.”

What this man they knew — and yet didn’t know — said was this, to Mike Coren of The New Statesman: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason. I mean, if you and I were in a line moving towards what we knew were gas chambers, I’d rather have a go at taking one of the guards with me; but they [the Jews] were always submissive.”

He’s wrong. Jews have a long history of not being submissive from Mount Sinai to Masada to Warsaw; but it is interesting that submission is, for Dahl, a raging man, a characteristic he appreciates only in the Charlie Buckets of this world.

What made Dahl? Like many Jew haters his life was pitted with tragedy: anger can absolve you from pain. He was bullied at the minor public school he attended because his Norwegian parents thought he should be an English child. “In the changing room,” he wrote, “they held me down while one of them filled a bath brimful of icy-cold water, and into this they dropped me, clothes and all, and held me in there for several agonising minutes. “Push his head under water!” cried W. W. Wilson. “That’ll teach him to keep his mouth shut!”

He was an immigrant then, an outsider — like the Jews. Perhaps he felt like a solitary outsider — unlike the Jews.

So, his family didn’t know him, and Dahl’s pondering on, first, how the Holocaust was a response to “the Jewish character” and, second, how much better he would have faced the death camps than Jews, who are shamed even by the manner in which they approach their murder, has nothing to do with “the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories”. The children’s books are devoid of Jew hatred, though the Feminist and the Socialist and the genuine anti-racist — the Oompa-Loompas were originally “African pygmies” — have complaints. When the NAACP complained about the Oompa-Loompas originating in “the very deepest and darkest part of the jungle where no white man had ever been before,” Dahl turned them orange while complaining that the opposition was “real Nazi stuff”. The reliably sympathetic biographer Donald Sturrock calls their African descent, “a fanciful detail”.

Dahl loved money – perhaps he was again projecting in his hatred? – too well to write anti-Jewish children’s fiction. But his second adult novel, Fifty Thousand Frogskins, (never published) contains, “sly, knowing” Jews. The leading character in the short story Madame Rosette (1946) is, “a filthy old Syrian Jewess”.

In a letter to Dirk Bogarde, Dahl called a producer, “the wrong sort of Jew. His face is matted with dirty, black hair. He is disgustingly overweight and flaccid though only forty-something, garrulous, egocentric, arrogant, complacent, ruthless, dishonourable, lascivious, slippery.” He told the Independent in 1990: “It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do”.

The more sceptical biographer Jeremy Treglown wrote this about Dahl’s first novel Sometime Never (1948): “plentiful revelations about Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust did not discourage him from satirizing ‘a little pawnbroker in Hounsditch called Meatbein who, when the wailing started, would rush downstairs to the large safe in which he kept his money, open it and wriggle inside on to the lowest shelf where he lay like a hibernating hedgehog until the all-clear had gone’.” But no one reads Sometime Never. The Netflix deal is secure.

I don’t care about Roald Dahl. He’s not a great artist and I suspect he knew it. He turned to children’s fiction after his career in adult fiction failed. (He suggested Kingsley Amis write for children, and when Amis said he had “no feeling for that kind of thing” Dahl replied, “Never mind, the little bastards’d swallow it”.) That he is smaller than his fiction is normal, though it’s depressing to find a man who wrote about friendly giants and magical peaches being quite so conventional in his spite.

What I do mind, though, is that as I write this piece, my seven-year-old son comes in and asks if he can read to me from Danny the Champion of the World. It’s not even the first time this week that I have had to think about how a writer my son admires hated Jews. My husband was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill to him a few days ago. It contains a poem called The Song of the Fifth River: “There came dark Israel / For whom no river remained” until God provided “The Secret River of Gold!” “Why is Israel dark?” our son asked. My husband replied, numbly, “Because it had no river”.

In the chapter The Treasure and the Law, Kadmiel the Jew describes how the Jews control the world with their wealth, and cause mass death: “All over the world the heathen fought each other…..these meanly dressed ones [the Jews] decide between themselves how, and when, and for how long king should draw sword against king, and people rise up against people. There can be no war without gold, and we Jews know how the earth’s gold moves with the seasons”. Then Kadmiel says he poisoned the well.

I don’t know what to say to my son. I don’t want to write him A Child’s Guide to Anti-Jewish Children’s Fiction or tell him, seriously, there is no positive image of the Jew in European culture until Gottfried Lessing’s 1749 play The Jews, which closed in Berlin because no one could believe in a heroic Jew. I already tear pages detailing the Holocaust from children’s encyclopaedias and children’s history books, trying to keep a secret the world seems anxious to tell him. His bookshelf should be a place of ecstasy and security, without traps set by dead misanthropes. But Dahl didn’t really like children. Perhaps I will tell him that: and that his stories are good because he didn’t like children. He likes sucking them up tubes and turning them into mice and all this is plausible when he writes it.

Perhaps I will also show him this letter from JRR Tolkien, a far superior writer, and man, to Dahl. It is a response to a 1938 letter from Rütten & Loening, a German publishing house keen to publish The Hobbit — if Tolkien could confirm his Arian descent.

“If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin,” Tolkien wrote, “I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride”.

That’s subtler, and kinder, than anything Dahl could write; although Tolkien too revised The Lord of the Rings after pondering whether his portrayal of dwarves was anti-Jewish. It is without end, like fiction itself.

So perhaps I will tell him the truth: that you can write wonderfully about fruit, and childhood agony, and still be not the World’s No. 1 Storyteller — as the website says — but an absolute fool.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.