Roald Dahl thought it was essential to make children laugh and squirm when reading The Twits.
The Twits are arguably two of the most repulsive characters ever to have been invented in children’s literature – mean-spirited, selfish and spiteful, with looks to match, but nevertheless we love to read about their antics and then cheer their eventual downfall.
Part of their appeal to readers of all ages are the fantastically horrid tricks that the Twits play on each other. We love them for their inventive, slapstick humour and enjoyably disgusterous scenes.
This story is a great example of how much Roald Dahl enjoyed writing for children, and sharing his own sense of humour with his readers. He made his characters deliberately foul and repulsive, but always with a strong element of comedy, which he thought was an essential ingredient of any children’s book. In the Twits, Roald allowed the humour to play a central role, and he clearly loved thinking up the tricks that Mr and Mrs Twit play on each other. It’s also interesting to note that these ideas can be traced to elements of Roald’s life or his other stories, showing that he re-used ideas and themes throughout his writing career.
His original idea for Mrs Twit putting her glass eye in Mr Twit’s glass can be found in one of his early Ideas Books – notebooks that he used to jot down words and phrases for using in his stories. This one just says ‘Beer stealing – the old boy dropped his glass eye into the tankard’, and was probably originally intended to be used in one of Roald’s short stories for adults.
In retaliation for the eyeball in his glass, Mr Twit puts a frog into Mrs Twit’s bed, insisting that it was a Giant Skillywiggler. This is reminiscent of both the newt episode in Matilda (another aquatic reptile) but also strongly hints at Roald’s love of practical jokes. We know from his letters to his mother from school that he played various pranks on his friends and family, and the Twits continues this theme of trickery – with the tit-for-tat pranks escalating as the story develops.
Above: extracts from the archive at the Roald Dahl Museum. Top - Roald Dahl's Story Ideas Book, bottom - early draft of The Twits.
Worm spaghetti, the repulsive dinner served by Mrs Twit to her unsuspecting husband, rather ironically can be traced to Roald’s own love of food. He enjoyed cooking, and would experiment with bizarre food combinations to delight his children. While he never served them spaghetti with worms in, he would enjoy creating strange combinations – like peanut butter, bacon, mustard and cress on toast, telling his children that he had been given the recipe by a prince.
For the last of the tricks, Roald describes in intricate detail how Mr Twit convinces Mrs Twit she is shrinking by increasing the height of her chair and the length of her walking stick by tiny amounts each night. Roald himself had a strong practical streak for problem solving and brought this creative flair for cunning inventions and ‘clever tricks’ to other stories, such as The Enormous Crocodile and Danny the Champion of the World.
Roald Dahl always said that he had a very childish sense of humour, which he used to create the type of stories that appealed directly to children. His stories are silly, funny and sometimes disgusting – but always with a strong sense of right and wrong, with the hero coming out on top, and the villain meeting a sticky end – just like the Twits.