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The Roald Dahl Debate: Unwarranted Censorship or Rolling with the Times?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bristol chapter.

Puffin books have recently come under fire from various public figures for edits made to some of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books. From Rishi Sunak, the Queen’s consort to Ricky Gervais, celebrities and political figures alike have voiced their damning criticisms of the publishers decision. 

“Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship”

Salman Rushdie

So, what are these edits that have stirred such controversy? And why were these edits made? 

The alterations to Roald Dahl’s texts include changes to passages that relate to “weight, mental health, gender and race”. At a glance, some alterations that have been subject of concern are those to books such as: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and James and the Giant Peach. Dahl’s infamous characterisation of gluttony – Augustus Gloop – will now be described as ‘enormous’ as opposed to ‘enormously fat’. In a similar vein, Witches posing as ‘normal women’ are now to be referred to as ‘top scientists’ or as ‘running a business’ rather than a ‘cashier in a supermarket’ or as  ‘typing letters for businessmen’. Concerning race and gender descriptions, changes have been made to James and the Giant Peach, with ‘Cloud-men’ now being referred to as ‘Cloud-People’ and the worm in the story being described as having ‘lovely smooth skin’ and not ‘lovely pink skin’. 

The Roald Dahl Story Company – which controls the rights to Dahl’s books – worked alongside Inclusive Minds to generate and approve these edits. Inclusive Minds is a collective that works to make “children’s literature more inclusive and accessible”. Their role in such processes, as per an interview with TIME, is not to rewrite texts, but to provide “valuable insight from people with relevant lived experience that (publishers and writers) can take into consideration”.  The story company have since come out to say that the changes were put in place to ensure “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today”. It is worth noting that as a result of criticisms faced, Puffin books have now made the decision to republish 17 of Dahl’s unedited titles later this year. They will be republished under the title of ‘Roald Dahl’s Classic Collection’. 

Unwarranted Censorship or rolling with the times? 

The main concerns amidst critiques of the edits largely centre around charges of unwarranted censorship. In his typically facetious tone, Gervais tweeted – along side an image of him looking befuddled – “This is me pondering whether they’ll change any of the words I’ve used in my work after I’m dead, to spare those who are fragile and easily offended. Words, like fat and ugly…greedy pathetic, little stupid f*cking *c*nt. Stuff like that”. In a slightly less abrasive tone, Salman Rushdie also commented on concerns around censorship, stating, “Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship”. Similarly, Laura Hackett admits that she hopes her children will one day enjoy Dahl’s unedited texts in their “full, nasty, colourful glory”. 

So the question arises – is this absurd censorship? Are we robbing children of the pleasures of Dahl’s nasty and colourful texts and replacing such with a ‘botched surgery’? Dahl’s books may make reference to gender roles and labels from the 60’s-80’s, but what’s the problem with that? Surely, we shouldn’t edit his works just because certain elements are relevant to a certain historical context…right? 

Well, if we were discussing adult fiction I would say yes! An adult can (usually) easily decipher elements of a text that are outdated and/or should be understood in their socio-historic context. A teenager studying texts such as ‘Too Kill a Mockingbird’ can readily, with the aid of a teacher, understand the positioning of the language used as being historically relevant. Conversely, a young child (usually) cannot understand fictional stories in their historical context and typically do not engage with fiction in this way. Thus, to claim that the edits were made due to people being ‘fragile’ or ‘easily offended’ misses the point entirely. A young reader of The Witches is unlikely to be ‘offended’ by a witch posing as a ‘normal woman’ being described as ‘writing letters for a businessman’. It’s more likely that a young reader will view this description as reflective of a ‘normal woman’s’ appropriate role in the workplace. An adult reader of a text being ‘easily offended’ is an entirely different matter. 

It’s not particularly controversial to claim that the way children are influenced by interaction with literature and the arts substantially differs from adults engaging with such. Since the Ancient Greeks we have been concerned with ensuring the literature children are exposed to are in keeping with the desirable cultural values of the day. While for Plato this may have been instilling the value of courage amongst the youth, are the edits to Dahl not rolling with the times in a similar vein – serving to encourage the development of our more modern value of inclusivity? If we want our children to be reading The Witches for decades to come, is it not time that its descriptions of women are altered to propagate values of gender equality rather than suggesting to children there are limits on women’s positions in the work place? If we are concerned about what our children are learning from literature, it seems we should either update older texts for young readers or encourage engagement with modern novels. 

 Are the edits truly in-keeping with modern cultural values? 

For arguments sake, let’s say we agree with the decision taken by Puffin. It may then follow that we agree edits should be made to children’s texts insofar as these edits promote the propagation of our modern cultural values. From the edits proposed, we might infer that Puffin is  aiming  to promote values of inclusivity, gender equality and anti-prejudicial judgements. The question then arises – are the edits to Dahl’s texts actually in-keeping with modern cultural values we want to encourage amongst the youth? 

Well…it seems like some of the edits are but, some are not. I surveyed 23 university students on what they thought about this, asking the question – ‘Do you think the changes made are in-keeping with modern cultural values?’ While 73.9% agreed that they do, some interesting comments on the opposing side popped up. In particular, edits surrounding references to weight do not seem reflective of our modern views concerning the term ‘fat’. The word ‘fat’ is now largely being re-claimed as to promote the separation of the adjective with negative connotations. I.e. asserting that being ‘fat’ is not intrinsically related to or synonymous with being ‘unattractive’ or ‘unhealthy’. Does the removal of the adjective (as the edits so do) prevent children judging a certain body-type as the ideal or non-ideal state?  I don’t think so. Deeming ‘fat’ as a ‘bad-word’ seems the very opposite of what a progressive view on body image aims at. 

So, it seems there are some evident limits on the particular edits themselves. But, to my mind – the idea of editing children’s novels in this way is not wildly outrageous. When we take into account the way children engage with literature and the fact that the concern of what children are exposed to is not a new concept by any mean – this censorship doesn’t seem as scary. The literary world isn’t suddenly going to slide down a slippery slope of censorship, maybe we’re just transitioning into a phase where what we want our children to learn from literature is changing. This has happened for centuries and its just progression! I see very little wrong with the aim of allowing for a beloved author such as Dahl to be kept alive and promote inclusivity. Were this a debate surrounding the censorship of texts adults commonly engage with – that’s a whole other story! And…if parents wish for their children read the classic texts, this is always an option for them to do so!

3rd Year Philosophy student at University of Bristol.