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  • Roald Dahl and Danger in Children’s Literature
  • Barbara Basbanes Richter (bio)

Sometimes, in children’s literature, there is no happily ever after. Far from it. Employed correctly, danger is evocative and powerful, and oftentimes resides alongside magic. These twined elements assist in portraying life’s truths and provide a lens for understanding social structures and human relationships. The recent rediscovery of a chapter from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory illustrates danger’s potency. The chapter was scrubbed in 1963 because of excessively graphic content, yet the book was full of dark and violent imagery, and for it had been the target of scathing criticism. This was by no means the first or last time a maelstrom surrounded a children’s book for its violence. Dangerous and subversive material had been enmeshed in children’s literature at least two centuries before the appearance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Tales of magic and danger have evolved to meet society’s demands for happy endings and to explain cultural norms. Controversy over appropriate reading material for children goes back to at least the 1800s in western Europe, when the Grimm brothers published their first edition of folk tales. The brothers took the criticism seriously and from 1812 to 1857 published seven different editions of stories.

Consider three tales from western Europe gathered by the Grimms and now fixed in the pantheon of children’s literature: “Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” and “Hansel and Gretel.” Evil stepmothers cast out the beautiful Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, while Rapunzel fashions a ladder to join her true love. In the first edition published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812, however, evil biological mothers wish their innocent children were dead, and Rapunzel is cast from her tower because she is impregnated by the plucky prince. The cleaner, less subversive versions familiar to most readers derive from the 1857 edition. They are the result of the brothers’ tireless efforts to refine and edit German Kinder-und Hausmärchen (folk tales), while simultaneously [End Page 325] working to preserve stories that were part of an oral folk tradition. Whether hailing from the earliest or the last editions, these stories still belong to a world inhabited by fairies and talking animals, where innocents are tested and, if successful, are rewarded for their bravery and honesty. Danger lurks around every corner, waiting for the hero’s misstep.

Until recently the complete first edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales was unavailable to English readers. Princeton University Press has now published such a volume, translated by Jack Zipes, who has dedicated his career to examining fairy tales and their role in society. The book also includes the Grimms’ original introduction, where they explain their desire for these stories to elucidate Germans about their shared literary history. Zipes’s translations into colloquial American English breathe new life into these stories and offer modern readers an opportunity to examine these ancient stories in detail.

There are folk tales in the 1812 edition that did not make it to subsequent publications. Some were too gruesome for young readers, such as the disturbing “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering.” In the more grisly version of the story (indeed there are two variants) a butcher slaughters a pig while two sons watch. The sons are inspired to create a game based on the event, and the child playing the butcher slices his brother’s throat, killing him. Meanwhile the boys’ mother, who is bathing another son inside the house, glances out her window and sees the carnage below. Enraged, she descends into the yard, takes the knife out of the dead boy’s throat and plunges it into the heart of her other murderous son. Upon returning inside, she finds her third child, unattended in the bathtub, drowned. Overcome with grief, the mother hangs herself. The butcher returns home, sees the bloodbath, and ultimately dies of despondency. This story was met with intense criticism in 1812—it was too horrifying for readers of all ages—and did not appear in subsequent editions.

“How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” would likely never be published today. Yet is it much different from Roald Dahl...


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pp. 325-334
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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