Salman Rushdie, Roald Dahl and Freedom of Speech

On 12th August, 2022, a man stabbed the Booker Prize winning novelist Salman Rushdie as he was about to give a public lecture in some leafy small town in upstate New York. He fell to the stage in front of a stunned audience before being rushed to hospital where he received life-saving treatment for some very serious injuries. The moment had been a long time coming. Indeed, Rushdie had been living under the threat of assassination since The Satanic Verses, his fourth novel, was published to great critical acclaim back in 1989. Despite the dazzling reviews, the content of the novel was considered grossly offensive to many Shia Muslims and Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination. A price of $6 million was placed on his head and, for many years, Rushdie was forced to move between safe houses with a security detail providing day-to-day protection. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the ‘Satanic Verses’ was found murdered at a university north of Tokyo.

I have to confess that I have not read the novel but it is clear that Rushdie’s words caused a very real sense of hurt to many devout people throughout the world. As a child, and I was only eleven years old when the Fatwa was issued, I wondered how it was that anyone would want to kill another human being on account of words contained within a work of fiction. The desire to offend is, of itself, unattractive whereas the impulse to cause physical harm (up to and including murder) is unforgivable. In any case, works of fiction should provide a safe context within which we can meaningfully explore those emotions that make us intrinsically human such as love, faith, loss, envy, kindness, misery and elation. Great works of fiction compel us to reflect upon our own lives. They challenge our way of thinking and help shape our moral or ethical landscape. What we reject as banal or cruel plays as vital a role as that which we wilfully embrace.

The author Roald Dahl was not always a very pleasant person. His shameless antisemitism was an unforgivably repellant aspect of his personality. He could be capricious and cruel but there is no doubting that he was a genius storyteller. A wartime fighter ace, his books have sold more than 300 million copies. Works such as James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG, George’s Marvellous Medicine and Danny, the Champion are classics that continue to entertain children. His books have delighted generations of young readers because he always tells his stories from the point of view of a child.

The villains in his works are almost exclusively adults. As the critic Amanda Craig said, ‘He was unequivocal that it is the good, young and kind who triumph over the old, greedy and the wicked’. Anna Leskiewicz writes that, ‘It’s often suggested that Dahl’s lasting appeal is a result of his exceptional talent for wriggling his way into children’s fantasies and fears, and laying them out on the page with anarchic delight. Adult villains are drawn in terrifying detail, before they are exposed as liars and hypocrites and brought tumbling down with retributive justice, either by a sudden magic or the superior acuity of the children they mistreat’.

Even in the 1970s, Dahl’s use of lazy stereotypes was called into question. It is possible to detect elements of sizeism, latent racism and misogyny in his works. Perhaps sensing that one day his works would become unpalatable, Dahl informed his close friend, the artist Francis Bacon that, ‘I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, I will send along the enormous crocodile to gobble them up.

Of course, Roald Dahl was joking but this week, it was announced that his books were being republished in order to remove offensive language. With reference to Augustus Gloop, the word ‘fat’ would be replaced with ‘enormous’ and a host of other triggering words would be expurgated from his novels. His family, perhaps anxious to protect his £370 million estate, offered their tentative approval to these new censored versions of his classic texts. A media storm ensued and Queen Camilla got involved. Salman Rushdie himself spoke out in condemnation of the publisher’s stated intention. In the end, common sense reigned and Puffin UK has agreed to publish both the censored and the original versions of the texts.

We should trust young people to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. When I was about eight years old, I was delighted by George and his Marvellous Medicine and yet the plot is horrific. To punish his bullying grandmother, George makes a magic medicine out of deodorant, shampoo, floor polish, horseradish sauce, anti-freeze, brown paint and engine oil. In the end, the wicked old lady vanishes completely and the young George is seen to triumph over his abusive grandmother. The book did publish a warning that stated, ‘Warning to Readers: Do not try to make George’s Marvellous Medicine yourselves at home. It could be dangerous’. On one level, this is a worryingly dark story that sends a shiver down the spine. However, it thrills and delights children who intuitively understand that its premise is as ridiculous as most other fairy tales. In real life, George’s actions would be repulsive but in the make-believe world of Dahl, we can suspend our disbelief and enter a world full of diabolical monsters, avenging children, magic elevators and giant peaches. His stories are so obviously fantastical that we are never in serious danger of mistaking them for anything other than entertainment.

Of course, society has moved on and there is plenty within Dahl’s fiction worthy of criticism. However discussion, challenge and criticism are much more effective educational tools than the blunt force of censorship and repression. Protecting children from Dahl’s imaginary worlds whilst doing so little to protect them from the very present dangers of social media and online gaming is reflective of a society that prefers to take offence at that which is fictional and theoretical rather than that which is real and pervasive.

An awareness of the unkindness contained within Dahl’s novels should be the starting point of meaningful discussion. Censoring that which might cause offence or that which is demonstrably cruel diminishes the educational value that children’s fiction provides. In literary terms, that which is subversive, anarchic, funny and wicked can often be irresistibly entertaining. Young people understand fictional contexts and develop their own moral frameworks in response to that which they view, read and discuss. Finally, one does not need to like Roald Dahl or sympathise with his views in order to enjoy his fiction. I have often thought that a really kind and gentle person would not have thought up Mrs Trunchbull or Boggis, the chicken farmer in Fantastic Mr Fox? However, many of our childhoods were enriched by the presence of such utterly detestable horrors.

Farmer Boggis

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School