Cruelty in Children's Books. A Comparison between "Revolting Rhymes" and "The Witches" by Roald Dahl

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

9 Pages, Grade: 1.0


1. Introduction

Roald Dahl is one of the most prolific, best-selling authors of children's books. Although now a highly popular author, Dahl is also known for being frequently challenged as well as once banned. In the beginning of his career, he had trouble finding a publisher daring to take the risk of releasing children's books from an author who “was seen as a writer of macabre short stories for adults“ (Castella). According to the American Library Association, he appears in the list of “100 most frequently challenged books: 1990-1999” and in the list of “Most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century” (ALA). The reasons for this criticism and subsequent banning of his books are mostly for the usage of magic and witchcraft. Many parents and teachers also fear the presentation of cruelty and violence in his books, which will be the focus of this work.

Therefore, the aim of this term paper is to analyse the presented cruelty-used in the most general sense of the word-in two ofDahl's works: Revolting Rhymes and The Witches. I claim that cruelty is presented in different ways and that these differences originate from the different genres in use, poetry and prose. After shortly summarising general information on the state of research in the topic of cruelty and violence in children's books, I will narrow my focus on Dahl's books. In the following main chapter I will analyse the two books by offering a close reading of the cruel passages in particular.

In the title as well as in the following chapters, the term cruelty is being used. As I already pointed out, this will be done in the general sense of the word, meaning that it includes all related terms, such as brutality, violence, murder and torture. For clarity, cruelty can be performed physically and verbally. Moreover, as will become clear in this work, it can be done by human beings as well as animals and magic figures. All of this is implied by the term.

2. The Fascination with Horror - Cruelty in Children's Books

Cruelty has a long tradition in children's books, starting with fairy tales; a medium once used to entertain adults and later becoming commonplace in the nursery. In her work, Abate illustrates this particular history of fairy tales, specialising in the Brothers Grimms' stories. In the second edition of the Brothers Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen changes can be found, making the stories supposedly suitable for th e younger audience. Abate points out that “interestingly, while the Grimm Brothers deemed sex, bawdy language, and crass behaviour inappropriate for young readers and therefore eliminated passages containing such elements, they did not have a similar view about acts of violence” (41). As Tatar states, the reason for this could be the fact that children, as most adults, are generally fascinated rather than frightened by cruelty and violence.

Adding to Abate's remarks about fairy tales, Tatar points out that they come from folk tales. The aim of folk tales was to undo the real-life effects of being the underdog by being brutal and violent towards people who in real life are violent and brutal towards the subjects (Tatar 71). Tatar discriminates between two forms of cruelty (or using her term, of violence): “burlesque violence, which depends for its effects on distortion and exaggeration, and retaliatory violence, which turns on the notion of physical punishment” (72). Children react to both forms equally, which is up against the “tale's staging of surreal excess rather than [...] physical violence” (Tatar 72).

McCracken conducted research observing children's reactions when reading or listening to the cruel and violent parts in fairy tales and other stories. All the researchers could see were happy faces and no visible fear or fright. In order to understand the children better, the researchers asked the children about the violence in the stories. All of the children were aware of the stories being “make-believe” and they pointed out that the stories and fairy tales did not scare them (McCracken 423). Supporting this observation is Windling's statement that the term fairy tale nowadays is synonymous with the terms lie or untruth (qtd. in Abate 44).

To sum up the findings, the Grimm Brothers intentionally left the violent and cruel parts in their fairy tales, implying that they are suitable for children. Because of the obvious exaggeration of cruelty in many children's books, children are aware of the intended humour and react accordingly.

3. Cruelty in Roald Dahl's Books

Many of Dahl's books are somehow related to cruelty. Culley compares Dahl's works with traditional folklore and finds many shared characteristics: exaggeration in characters, black/white or rather good/evil dualisms, violence, and recurring patterns in the story (62). Dahl's characters are vividly described, embodying the worst character traits one can imagine in adults. Thus, Dahl makes it easy for his readers to despise his adult characters. Culley criticises that “by using vivid descriptions of villains and melding their physical characteristics with their personalities, Dahl forges an association of one with the other” (61). In the following sub-sections, two of his works will be analysed with respect to the cruel passages only.

3.1. 'I'llhave her rottengutsfor dinner!' (Revolting Rhymes)

Cinderella starts off with rather harmless cruelty that might even be read over on the first sight. Cinderella, being extremely mistreated by her stepmother, sits in the cellar, “Where rats who wanted things to eat / Began to nibble at her feet” (Dahl, Revolting Rhymes 5). When the Prince decides to behead the sister, the presented cruelty extremely increases: “'Off with her head!' the Prince roared back. / They chopped it off with one big whack” (11). The Prince's reaction is obviously exaggerated and children are likely to understand this exaggeration. The command is an intertextual reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, in which the Queen of Hearts uses this dictum to deal with any kind of problem. The comic effect of the cruel situation arises from this subtle reference and intertextuality as well as from the fact, that it is written in rhyme.

Verbal cruelty lays the foundation for the second fairy tale, which is Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack's mother calls him “'You crazy boy!'”, “'You chump!'”, “'You lunatic!'” (15) and thus she insults her own son. This verbal cruelty used against a child is developed into physical cruelty or punishment as the following abstract shows:

Then summoning up all her power, She beat the boy for half an hour, Using (and nothing could be meaner) The handle of a vacuum-cleaner (15)

This scene is likely to cause amusement, as it highlights the modernity of the fairy tales in Revolting Rhymes. Vacuum-cleaners were not invented during the time the original tale was written. On the other hand, children who have already had experience with physical violence by means of the handle of a vacuum-cleaner are likely to not find this amusing or funny at all. The climax of cruelty is reached by the giant eating Jack's mother:

From somewhere high above the ground There came a frightful crunching sound. He heard the Giant mutter twice, 'By gosh, that tasted nice.[...]' (19)

When rereading the quoted passages so far, it can be noticed that Dahl's language is rather easily moulded. For instance, there are no metaphors or similes. The comic effect comes from the rhythmic composition of the iambus, which is mostly used throughout the book, but not too strictly. The four-footed iambus is the rule, which is sometimes displaced by a three­footed iambus, as can be seen in the last verse of the example above, or by a trochee. However, by the word “crunching” Dahl uses onomatopoeia, like in his other children's books, to vividly convey the killing of the mother.

In the original version of Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs the cruelty is especially extreme, as the stepmother not only wants to kill Snow-White once, but four times. The initial attempt by the huntsman is kept in Revolting Rhymes. The stepmother's fantasies are presented as verbal cruelty:

She yelled, 'I'm going to scrag that child! 'I'll cook her flaming goose! I'll skin'er! 'I'll have her rotten guts for dinner!' (22-23)

The stepmother's command “'Thereafter slit her ribs apart / 'And bring me back her bleeding heart!'” (23) indicates that she wants proof from the huntsman that Snow-White is indeed dead. Only later does the reader learn that her plan is to eat the girl's heart, meaning to perform cannibalism.

The Queen cried out, 'Bravissimo! 'I trust you killed her nice and slow.' Then (this is the disgusting part) The Queen sat down and ate the heart! (I only hope she cooked it well. Boiled heart can be as tough as hell.) (24)

Although the Queen's plans are truly horrifying, the text does not convey this. As the narrator directly addresses the reader in the parentheses, the tension is relieved and the scene becomes funny.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears is probably the least cruel story of the book. In the beginning, the narrator describes Goldilocks very negatively and informs the reader that he/she has different plans for Goldilocks than in the original story: “Myself, I think I'd rather send / Young Goldie to a sticky end” (34). The story then loses the degree of cruelty and climaxes in the proposed killing of Goldilocks in the very end:

'Then go upstairs,' the Big Bear said, 'Your porridge is upon the bed. 'But as it's inside mademoiselle, 'You'll have to eat her up as well.' (34)

Animals wanting to eat human beings is the theme of the last two fairy tales as well: Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. As they are connected in this story book, I will discuss both of them together. The former story tightly sticks to the original one with respect to cruelty as well as the storyline:

Poor Grandmamma was terrified, 'He's going to eat me up,' she cried. And she was absolutely right. He ate her in one big bite.” (36)

Even the questions Little Red Riding Hood poses are the same, with exception to the last one, of course. She takes revenge, too, but in a very different manner:

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. She whips a pistol from her knickers. She aims it at the creature's head And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead. (40)

As another wolf assaults the three little pigs of the latter story, Little Red Riding Hood is being called upon for help. She then again shoots the wolf dead: “Once more, she hits the vita spot, / And kills him with a single shot” (47). With reference to Little Red Riding Hood's former statement, “'My lovely furry WOLFSKIN COAT.'” (40, capitals in the original), the reader learns that the girl not only killed a second wolf, but the pig as well: “She has a PIGSKIN TRAVELLING CASE” (47, capitals in the original). Although the murder is not mentioned directly, the child reader is likely to understand the reference and thus knows that Little Red Riding Hood is a multiple murderer. The reference to a former story of the same story book could be called intra-intertextuality and has a very comic effect on the reader.

3.2. 'By evening, the boy had turned to stone.' (The Witches)

The way in which the story is told to the reader makes it very believable to children that the kind of witches featured in The Witches really do exist. At first, the reader gets to know the witches from the stories the Grandmother tells her grandson. The child reader is to remember “[...] that she has magic in her fingers and devilry dancing in her blood” (Dahl, The Witches 3) and that “[t]hese magic powers are very frightening” (3). The methods the witches use differ from the cruel methods other people use: “A witch, you must understand, does not knock children on the head or stick knives into them or shoot at them with a pistol” (3). This is the main reason why cruelty in this book is somewhat different from the cruelty presented so far. In the beginning of the book, the Grandmother reports on five children who she knows to be taken away or transformed into something by a witch. One example for this is a girl called Solveg, who had come into contact with a witch and who then had vanished. The Grandmother reports that “The next morning little Solveg was not in her bed. The parents searched everywhere but they couldn't find her. Then all of a sudden her father shouted, 'There she is! That's Solveg feeding the ducks.!' He was pointing at the oil-painting, and sure enough Solveg was in it” (12). Another boy had been transformed into a porpoise by a witch.


Excerpt out of 9 pages


Cruelty in Children's Books. A Comparison between "Revolting Rhymes" and "The Witches" by Roald Dahl
University of Osnabrück  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
The Life, Language and Literature of Roald Dahl
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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cruelty, children, books, comparison, revolting, rhymes, witches, roald, dahl
Quote paper
Lea Ahrens (Author), 2014, Cruelty in Children's Books. A Comparison between "Revolting Rhymes" and "The Witches" by Roald Dahl, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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