Buzzwangling Beasts and How to Write Them

Posted by
Ruth Williams, Archive Assistant at the Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
2:00pm, 13th February
Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts

Find out about Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts, and the poem that didn't make it - The Shark.

Our new display in Boy gallery is all about Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and how these mischievous rhymes about animals were created. Inspired by Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales which he had read and loved as a child, Roald put together an assortment of verses.

Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts large colour paperback book

The Shark

The one poem amongst these that didn’t make the final cut was a piece titled, The Shark. Among Roald Dahl's notes on Dirty Beasts in the Museum archive is a finished version of the poem in manuscript and typescript form, complete with notes to the illustrator between verses.

The "dangerous Mister Shark" has teeth that are sharp and very long and "so exceptionally strong". This ghastly beast only thinks of his next feast and "waits down within the waters dark […] hoping he will meet something delicious he can eat". Just as Crocky-Wock in The Crocodile likes to "crunch six juicy children for his lunch", with Mister Shark we are told that, "For breakfast dinner lunch and tea his favourite food is … you and me’". The Lion also ends in a similar way with the creature speaking the lines, ‘“the meat I am about to chew is neither steak nor chops. IT’S YOU.”’

Getting the cut

These similarities to some of the other poems appear to be the reason that it wasn’t used in the final version. Bob Gottlieb, Roald’s editor, advised him to leave it out of the book. In letters he sent to him he explained that he felt, "the collection is over-weighted in this direction and comes to seem almost vindictively savage". His own view was that, "The Lion and The Scorpion are absolute musts […] that Crocodile is more conventional […] and that Shark is too much of a good thing." After a little persuasion, in reply Roald agreed that The Shark was, "too much like the others" and on his sheet of alterations he has made a note to, "Take this one out completely".

Extract of Roald Dahl's manuscript

Above: an extract of Roald Dahl's manuscript featuring The Shark.

Red Riding Hood

Letters between Roald Dahl and his editors also reveal that amongst the early collections of poems for Dirty Beasts was a version of Red Riding Hood. Bob Gottlieb originally described the content of the book as, "something of a mix – that is, real Dirty Beast poems, fantasies (like Toad and Snail) and re-told fairy-stories or classics".

As the book took shape however Roald’s editors noted that Red Riding Hood seemed a little out of place amongst the other rhymes. Gottlieb suggested that the mix of verses should be more varied. He thought that Red Riding Hood, though very different to the others was a "total triumph" and it didn’t make sense only to have one of its kind in the book. He told Roald, "I think you should aim for at least two more re-told classic stories to mix in with the rest." Tom Maschler, another of his editors, went a step further and encouraged him to come up with another series based on famous children’s characters such as Cinderella and Snow White.

Roald was reluctant at first. Though he thought the suggestion a good one, he was convinced that he could not create enough verses for a whole book. Maschler wrote to him saying that he was "convinced that you CAN come up with some more and that they will make a magnificent book." He eventually agreed to try more in this vein and the result ended up as Roald’s enduringly popular take on classic fairy-tales, Revolting Rhymes.

Dirty Beasts on Display

You can see original archive material including more unused poems in our Dirty Beasts display at The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre from Saturday 10 February.