The oppressions of childhood are endless. Even in the happiest homes, it’s the adults who buy the ice cream, store the ice cream, and fail to share the ice cream. When it’s high summer and the sun still commands the sky, you are told to create night ex nihilo by closing your eyes and sleeping. Always this is against your will. The light which plays beneath your bedroom door is not moonlight, but the endless streaming of your treacherous parents. The TV is verboten, but not for them.
When I was a child, I read in great fits and starts to dull these injustices. Not regularly, but like catching the hiccups. Nothing nothing nothing, then without warning The Once and Future King. When reading was assigned, it no longer felt like resistance, and I avoided it. In school, I almost never finished a single text for class. Grade school, middle-school, high school, whatever comes after high school—blank after blank. My gaps are extensive. As a child, for example, I’m not sure I ever read a single Roald Dahl book.
Thankfully, I’ve amended that fact. The Venn diagram for books that will perfectly tickle an intelligent four-year-old’s brain and books that I also love is not two circles, but one. My daughter and I thrill at Fantastic Mr. Fox. We enjoy his almost starving to death, his almost getting shot, his burglary, his drinking of liquor, and best of all his rhyming:
Home again swiftly I glide,
Back to my beautiful bride.
She'll not feel so rotten
As soon as she's gotten
Some cider inside her inside
That last line can only be loved if read aloud, at which point it can’t be loved enough.
Having been exposed to the famous Dahl books either in school or through movies—James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d take to the (slightly) lesser-known works. It’s been hard, in my opinion, to find books for our household’s current pre-school era; tales which straddle the line between picture books and chapter books, but which don’t fall prey to the worst banalities of too many Easy Readers. The usual suspects have been great: Frog and Toad, Jenny Linsky, too many fairy tales to name, and other assorted literary animals (they’re almost always animals). But Dahl’s briefest tomes are perfect.
The Magic Finger is about a girl who can transmogrify anyone she gets mad at, almost always by accident. Esio Trot is about a bachelor who lies to a widow he loves regarding the size of her tortoise until she loves him back. The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me is about how nice it would be if magic animals were both our friends and also did a little yardwork. Fantastic Mr. Fox I think we’ve covered. Each can be read in two or three shortish sittings—or one, if your child is a marathoner like mine, one who will happily poke Mom or Dad awake to continue her indoctrination into Anglophilia.
Dahl is controversial for many people, but I didn’t expect him to shock me as a defender of animal rights. I haven’t read his essays or a biography about him. I barely know his Wikipedia page. But in The Magic Finger and Fantastic Mr. Fox, he takes anthropomorphizing to a Gary Larson extreme. For the crime of hunting ducks, which annoys the story’s Magic Finger wielder, the Gregg family—children and all—are turned into duck-sized humans. Not just turned into ducks, to be clear, but people the size of a smallish bird.
It gets better.
The ducks they’ve been hunting, still in duck form, become human sized and start to speak and cook and even move into the Gregg family home. The outrage of the Greggs is not to be quenched! They agonize over how they will learn to eat worms and complain about the ducks taking their rooms, their toys, their beds, their… uh, guns. Yes, guns. These ducks intend to give Duck Hunt a new subject-object relationship. The size of primates, and with vengeance for their fallen family on the mind, the giant fowl prepare to shoot the helpless, fluttering humans.
I promise, it’s as funny as it is grim. The whimsy, really, wouldn’t exist without the Kafkaesque body horror. A duck the size of a human is fascinating enough, but the winged humans aren’t fairy-like, they’re mutants.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox makes an argument for letting scoundrels like himself have their plunder. I know someone, actually, who had a chicken coop in Colorado. Foxes were never the problem. It was always the raccoons. And Mr. Fox makes an argument on their behalf, too: “Do you know anyone in the whole world,” he asks his friend, the respectable Mr. Badger, “who wouldn't swipe a few chickens if his children were starving to death?”
The dagger comes a few lines later, though, when Mr. Fox points out the hypocrisy of the farmers he’s bamboozling.
“Look,” said Mr. Fox, “Boggis and Bunce and Bean are out to kill us. You realize that, I hope?”
“I do, Foxy, I do indeed,” said the gentle Badger.
“But we're not going to stoop to their level. We don't want to kill them.”
It’s a laugh-out-loud reversal, in my opinion, but I think Dahl means it, too. At least a little. Everyone is always hammering on about empathy, but Dahl combines that staple of liberal humanism with the universal impulse to teach our children all sorts of feelings by way of anthropomorphizing the natural world. You want creatures to be moral agents, Dahl bellows. Congrats, they’re moral!
I don’t think Dahl settles any political questions or will instill in my daughter a robust vegetarianism, to say nothing of myself. But the disgust he feels toward the sport, even the necessity, of hunting gives the works in question vigor and vim. It makes his anthropomorphizing stranger and more urgent, less meaningless because less abstracted (though not less playful). Mr. Fox is in real danger, and it’s the kind of danger a fox is always courting. The Greggs might overdo their repentance once turned back into normal-sized humans—they give all the ducks they’ve killed a burial and change their name to Egg—but the realities of hunting are taken both literally and ridiculously. The fun of it all is made visceral.
In short, Dahl’s animal tales are a bit like Bean’s cider, which Mr. Fox can’t get enough of. The burn is what keeps you coming back.