And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.
Magic was very important to Roald Dahl. While adults usually avoided the subject, he knew that children had a profound sense of the supernatural. Roald’s last children’s book, The Minpins, is filled with magic. And so is first, James and the Giant Peach.
In Roald’s eyes, magic is transformative. It provides a way out of a difficult situation - an escape from a dull or harsh reality into a stranger, more exciting world. The old man’s magic beans set the ancient peach-tree growing and enable James’s escape from the cruelties of his life with Aunts Sponge and Spiker. Soon he will be flying across the Atlantic Ocean, “in a magical world of silence, swooping and gliding over the dark world below, where all the earthly people were fast asleep in their beds.”
Roald’s profound sense of wonder at the grandeur and mystery of the world was honed by his experiences as a fighter pilot in World War II, where he often found himself on his own, high above the earth, travelling through extraordinary landscapes. To him these too were magical. “Clouds like mountains towered over their heads on all sides, mysterious, menacing, overwhelming. . . ,” he writes in James and the Giant Peach. “The peach was a soft, stealthy traveller, making no noise at all as it floated along. And several times during that long silent night ride high up over the middle of the ocean in moonlight, James and his friends saw things that no‑one had seen before.”
Magic can be a dark force, as it is in The Witches, but most of the time, it is a power for good. It is a way for the downtrodden young heroine of Roald’s early book The Magic Finger to assert herself. She uses powers to thwart an overbearing teacher and entertain her classmates, but also as a way of achieving justice. “I can’t stand hunting,” she bluntly tells the reader, “I just can’t stand it. It doesn’t seem right to me that men and boys should kill animals just for the fun they get out of it.” Her magic powers will teach those hunters a lesson they will not forget. Twenty years later, Roald’s most famous heroine, Matilda, would work her own similar brand of magic.
In real life, Roald was fascinated by events that could not be explained. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is based on a piece of investigative journalism he wrote about the Pakistani mystic, Kuda Bux, who appeared to be able to see without using his eyes. Bux could read the fine print of a magazine while blindfolded, or thread a needle while imprisoned in a wine barrel. Roald could not work out how he did this. This was a mystery. True magic.
In real life, ingenious trickery could also a huge source of fun. One night, while his own children were asleep, Roald went into the garden and wrote their names on the lawn in weed killer. The grass turned brown where he had watered it and when the children awoke and saw their names, they were certain the fairies had been at work. That is the sort of stratagem Mr. Hoppy uses in Esio Trot when he tells Mrs. Silver he has a special spell to make tortoises grow bigger. Of course it is not magic at all - just words in reverse. “Esio Trot, Esio Trot, Teg reggib reggib! Emoc no, esio trot, worg pu, ffup pu, toohs pu! Gnirps pu, wolb pu, llews pu!” But it convinces Mrs. Silver.
Magic, in its many forms, is essential to Roald’s storytelling. But as those closing lines from The Minpins remind us, it is also about using your eyes. Look closely at a leaf and it is amazing what tiny wonders you can find there. Roald agreed with one of his favourite poets, William Blake, that true magic often begins in minute observation.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."