Last week, the supermarket chain Aldi removed copies of “Revolting Rhymes”, Roald Dahl’s take on traditional fairy tales, from its Australian stores following complaints from a few customers about the language used in the book. One outraged customer commented on Aldi’s Facebook page that the book had “an unacceptable word in it for kids!!! Not ok!”
The unacceptable word was “slut”, found in Dahl’s pulpy re-telling of "Cinderella". The prince falls in love with Cindy at the palace ball, and after she slips away at midnight he desperately tries to find her. His search soon turns into a rampage: he beheads the scheming Ugly Sisters, turns on Cindy and, blinded by his fury, cries, “Who’s this dirty slut? Off with her nut! Off with her nut!”
Dahl would have seen the Aldi ban as a particularly stupid sort of priggishness, the kind he spent his writing career goading. From the fart-prone BFG to the cigar-smoking grandmother in "The Witches" who warns of the dangers of bathing, Dahl’s most memorable characters continue to offend buttoned-up middle-class sensibilities. (He once described “My Uncle Oswald”, one of his stories for adults, simply as a book about “fucking”.) Dahl’s Cinderella story, though, is more uplifting than the current furore would make you think. Turned off by the prince’s chauvinist frenzy, Cindy longs for a “decent man”, meets a “simple jam-maker” and together “they were happy ever after”. It turns out Cindy is more empowered than slutty (though the two aren’t mutually exclusive).
True to its name, though, “Revolting Rhymes” contains plenty more material to put off sensitive readers. But that is what makes Dahl such fun to read. In his version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the eponymous heroine kills the wolf by "whipping a pistol from her knickers” and going “bang bang bang”. (Talk about female empowerment.) In “Snow White”, she and her seven dwarves steal the evil queen’s magic mirror and use it to learn which horses to bet on at the races. The moral of the tale? “Each was soon a millionaire / Which shows that gambling’s not a sin / Provided that you always win.” And Dahl makes his feelings about moralising parents crystal-clear when he liberates Jack, of beanstalk fame, by killing off his miserly mum.
And what of the rest of Dahl’s oeuvre? There is yet more to raise the hackles of any solicitous parent, not least the degree to which his stories frighten children. Giants and witches eat them; the Twits hunt them; parents, aunties and teachers rage at them. But when characters like Matilda or James can no longer rely on the adults in their lives, they learn to turn bad situations into good by drawing on their latent smarts, intuition and kindness.
Ultimately, it is up to parents to decide what they want to expose their youngsters to. They shouldn’t have to contend with supermarket chains moonlighting as moral arbiters. Dahl, though, a self-described “geriatric child”, wrote these books for children, not adults. And the very things that cause some grown-ups to purse their lips—Dahl’s earthy humour, his penchant for petty vices—make most kids cackle with glee and carry on reading. Long may they do so.