• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

We Should Not Censor Roald Dahl

ByFreddy Lowe

Feb 19, 2023
Roald Dahl book covers on a shelf.

Puffin, the renowned publishing house, has announced that the works of Roald Dahl are being rewritten to remove offensive language for future generations. This project is in partnership with Inclusive Minds, “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature.”

Examples of the changes include the alteration of Augustus Gloop’s appearance from “fat” to “enormous” (the word “fat”, incidentally, has been removed from every single Dahl work), Mrs Twit now being “beastly” instead of “ugly and beastly”, and a new gender-neutral reincarnation of Oompa-Loompas.

On the surface, such a rewriting resembles an attempt to be kind and to avoid unduly upsetting a new generation of readers. However, is it a progressive move or a chilling cover-up of the past?

This topic requires plenty of disclaimers, starting with an authorial intervention.  This is only an opinion piece, and my views do not necessarily represent The Student as a whole, but I can say with certainty that this paper unquestionably upholds the rights of minority groups. Issues surrounding race, gender, and uses of offensive language are covered extensively by our writers, and we are supportive of anything that moves our society to a more inclusive, harmonious, and liberal place.

In my opinion, going through the entirety of Roald Dahl’s oeuvre and hiring “sensitivity readers” to delete anything contentious is not how to get there. Erasure of the past does not guarantee the harmony of the future. It may guarantee the exact opposite. It risks erasing our past nuances rather than allowing children to examine them and learn from them.

As an English Literature student, I staunchly resist advocating censorship. It occurs disturbingly frequently. A recent example was Vladimir Putin’s decision to ban all LGBTQ+ books and films in Russia because such books promote liberal “Western” values. This is being covered by one of our Literature writers, who (quite rightly) exposes it for the chilling tyranny it is.

Censoring Dahl is, of course, not on par with LGBTQ+ oppression.  Nevertheless, if our offended feelings can justify rewriting Roald Dahl’s works, we cannot ethically stop others from banning books on topics that offend them.

Regardless, does this censorship even achieve its progressive goal?  For example, beloved actress Miriam Margolyes suggested in a 2020 This Morning interview that the word “fat” shouldn’t be offensive.  “We should be kind, but we should be allowed to use the word ‘fat’,” she said, disagreeing with broadcasters being forbidden from using the word.

Such a statement from one of this era’s most iconic actresses – and one who has been applauded for her documentaries on obesity – puts the censorship of Dahl into perspective. The publishers’ removal of “fat” is a good-faith attempt to be less derogatory, but it begs the question of what to replace it with. The term “enormous” (the now-employed adjective for Augustus Gloop) could be just as insensitive, if not worse.

David Baddiel tweeted a similar argument. He highlighted that they removed Mr and Mrs Twits’ double chins while retaining their wonky noses, crooked mouths, and stick-out teeth. “What about wonky nose or crooked teeth shaming?” he asked. “It has no logical consistency…Once you start on this path, you can end up with blank pages.”

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of Pen America, concurred, tweeting that “the problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle.” I agree. Who decides what is offensive enough to be changed, and where does it end without finishing with “blank pages”?

Possibly no author knows more about censorship than Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed fifteen times due to his novel The Satanic Verses being deemed offensive. Rushdie tweeted, “Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

(Ironically, Rushdie knows too well that Dahl was no angel.  Roald Dahl opined that the 1989 fatwa against The Satanic Verses had been “brought upon himself” [by Rushdie] and labelled him a “dangerous opportunist”. Rushdie still resists censorship despite Dahl’s flaws, and I agree.)

This censorship could also come across as patronising. Miss Trunchbull, for instance, is now no longer a “most formidable female” but a “most formidable woman”. Why, one may ask, does this change need to be made?  It implies that our generation cannot cope with any references to femaleness. The Witches also has an entirely new passage beneath the descriptions of the witches’ wigs: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” When I first read the book in primary school, I knew that real-life bald women weren’t ‘witches’. Is this new passage truly necessary? Or is it an (albeit well-intentioned) attempt to over-sanitise the text?

Another example is changing the (mostly male) Oompa-Loompas to gender-neutral status. They are now “little people” rather than “little men”. Although this could seem admirable, most young readers are aware that ‘men’ used to be the collective generalisation, and that these days, that has changed. That does not mean that a decades-old classic text needs altering. The alteration feels wholly unneeded and based on the assumption that we will be offended at the slightest historical nuance.

In conclusion, though I do not doubt Puffin’s good intentions, I fervently disagree with these rewritings. Let us keep our old copies of Roald Dahl without interfering with the language, allowing them to serve as a reminder of the past without judgement and without affecting our appreciation for the stories. Let us trust young readers to appreciate that now-questioned terms were once benign. Let us not try to make books ‘safer’, as nobody can dictate where that ends. Above all, let us take a stand against unjustified literary censorship. 

We must remember the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “I cannot keep count of all the books that have offended me, infuriated me, disgusted me…but I would never argue that they not be published.”

Image Roald Dahl posters” by Christchurch City Libraries is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival