We take a look at some of the spooky archive secrets behind your favourite Roald Dahl books.
One of Roald Dahl’s strengths as a storyteller was to drop elements of magic, spookiness and danger into his stories, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. As a child he had been told stories about trolls and monsters by his Norwegian mother, and this cultural background of stories full of darkness and light was a perfect basis for his own storytelling.
Of all his books, The Witches is the perhaps the most obvious example of this. The story is partly set in Norway and draws on Roald’s own experience of travelling to Norway as a child. Early in the book, the Grandmother tells the Boy about magical experiences in her own childhood when Norwegian witches turned local children into geese, porpoises or perhaps most eerie of all, into a painted child in a picture.
Above: Thai edition of The Witches.
However, not all of Roald Dahl’s initial ideas made it into his finished books. Here in the archives at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre we have the early manuscript drafts of his books, some of which contain fantastically creepy sections that were cut from later versions of the stories.
From these we learn that in an early version of The Witches there were some alternative chilling spells – to turn children’s teddy bears into real, fierce bears at night, or to turn a child (named Harald, after Roald Dahl’s own father) into a greyhound.
Another witch appears in an early version of James and the Giant Peach: the tiny old man who gives James the magic crystals that transform the peach. In the finished book he is a kindly, benign character, but in the first draft he is malevolent and sinister and described by Roald Dahl as a witch. During a scene which is reminiscent of both his darker stories for adults, such as Man from the South and also of fairytales from the Brothers Grimm, the old man demands payment of James’ legs for the crystals, and pulls out a sharp, shiny blade to cut them off! James flees, dropping the crystals under the peach tree. Luckily this frightening episode was cut from later drafts of the story.
Another witchy character is the unpleasant Grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine. In the book, George wonders whether she could be a witch; it’s never made explicit, but it’s implied that the cantankerous old lady may have magical powers. In an early version, Roald Dahl wrote the following section before crossing it out:
The old hag was beginning to frighten the little boy now…Could she be some sort of a witch, he wondered. The smell of witchery hung around her like a poisonous gas. He wanted to get away.
Above: section of the early George's Marvellous Medicine manuscript
George himself then makes a magical brew, and even finds himself ‘dancing around the steaming pot, chanting strange words that came into his head from nowhere:
“Fiery broth and witch’s brew,
Foamy froth and riches blue…”’
What stands out in all of these stories is that rather than being explained and understandable, the magical elements are left vague and shadowy - which of course adds to the mystery. The enchantment in George’s potion, James’ crystals, the powers used by the Girl in The Magic Finger and even how Matilda’s telekinetic ability works are never made clear – but Roald Dahl’s genius at storytelling means that we readily accept these elements as part of his colourful and fantastical stories.
Head to the Roald Dahl Museum to see wickedly witchy archive items on display until mid December 2016.