Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab



Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Magic In Children's Books - Roald Dahl

The inspiration for this post came from this post on Laura Jane Cassidy's blog.




Growing up, I adored Roald Dahl's magical mischief, although I always struggled to spell his name right. =/ I'm embarrassed for admitting it, but there it is. In this post, I'm only going to be referring to the books that engage directly with fantasy or magic, even though a great deal contain an element of the Fantastic; talking animals, inanimate objects doing weird jazz, you know what I mean. Don'tcha just love it? =] Roald Dahl truly is one of a kind.

Matilda

My favorite Dahl book has to be Matilda.
How could it not be? An adorable little girl with a vile family develops magic powers via her own intelligence and gets her comeuppance on said vile family. Awesomeness. It's one of those stories that makes you feel guilty for wanting vengeance, but that doesn't make it any less awesome when it comes. In your FACE, Trunchbull.
Roald Dahl books don't go too much into the specifics of magic, which helps to keep it lighthearted. The film adaptation starring Mara Wilson is one of my favourite kids movies for that reason. I think it's important to keep the Wonder (capitalisation required) in fantasy. When High Fantasy becomes too high and Epic Fantasy too epic, it starts to parody the whole genre. And that's just a tragedy.


The Magic Finger

This story is loooads of fun. (I love how the protagonist in this story was just called - 'Girl'. Makes me laugh every time. Girrrle.) So 'Girl' has a magic finger that does things of it's own accord when she's cross. The mayhem that comes about from her magic finger is sooo funny, women growing whiskers and and the Gregg family becoming birds and all that.

Never mind how she ended up with a magic finger, or the probability of causing serious harm... ! Still, though, for me this book prompts thought into the rules and boundaries of magic, even though what makes The Magic Finger so fun is that it's more about the What and maybe the Why than it is about the How. I doubly like this, because one of my writerly drawbacks is that my stories often overcomplicate things.




Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

- is one of those wonderlands I loved to explore as a kid, sorry, but much cooler than Alice's, which is a particular favourite of my Mum. (I'll get round to making a post on Alice In Wonderland at some point.) CATCF is so silly and playful, it's a perfect reminder that fantasy is awesome because it stretches your imagination. Reading this book when I was younger, it was kind mind-blowing to think about all the ways that Roald Dahl manipulated the very very simple concept of chocolate! And everybody loves chocolate... (okay, most people =] ...many people...? =/ ) Other confectionary was messed about with too - think of the Hair Toffee. And in The Giraffe, The Pelly And Me, there's a ref to Willy Wonka's Rainbow Drops, which allows you to spit in seven different colours after you've been sucking on them. I had a pretty wild imagination as a kid (it gave me years of insomnia), so I could only be inspired and awed by one of the champs like Roald Dahl. It's not really surprising that I'd grow up to love the same element of the Fantastic that lit up my days as a kid.
... y'know, I never did read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Oh well, onto my To Be Read pile it goes. (Must be about 50 books long by now.)

James and the Giant Peach
'There's more power and magic in those things in there than all the rest of the world put together,' the old man said softly.
'But - but - what are they?' James murmured, finding his voice at last. 'Where do they come from?'
'Ah-ha,' the old man whispered. 'You'd never guess that!'
-- James And the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl. (pg. 18 in 2001 Penguin Edition)
Heard that one before? Yup. And I LOVE it. The simple, unsuspecting object that turns out to be what the fate of the world rests on, or something. You know. The Ring. The Triforce. Some Magic sword or orb. It fascinates me to think of the properties that could exist in this All Powerful object we thought we knew - does that make it alien, or is Earth evolving? Anyway, I'm going off track...
Anywhoo. The above quote reminds me of Jack And The Beanstalk, although in James And The Giant Peach, the 'seeds' that the peach comes from are described as little stones or crystals, about the size of a grain of rice. What I like about this book, to be honest, is mainly the characteristics of the insects. It's super entertaining to me.

George's Marvellous Medicine

I don't love this one as much as the others, maybe because I'm not as familiar with it, but as a fun read, it's still hilarious (that mean old Grandma!1) and as a Fantasy study, it's utterly intriguing. No, Srsly. 'George's Marvellous Medicine' is, in essence, a potion. And if you read all of the ingredients he puts in it, just the idea is hilarious, insane, wondrous and we know in real life it would just be lethal, no qualms no questions. It would be bloody poison!
Yet, when he's finished, there's sparks coming of it and the fumes are described as 'rich blue smoke', which sounds pretty magical to me. I love the image of that in my mind, like a real potion!
Not to mention what it does to his Grandma, but... well you get my drift, you get my drift.




The BFG

Here we goooo!
I remember this story pretty vividly, especially the animated film adaption. It's probably one of the first stories I read with my own two (seven-year old...? Nine?) hands about giants, and for all I know it could be the reason why I still don't particularly like them as a fantasy being in a story. Another fantasy being I'm not much fond of is fairies - but hey, hey... that's another issue, son.
What I love most in this story is one, the character development, and two, the fantasy elements that make up the story; BFG and the nasty giants, the land where the giants live, the happy bubbly non-alco fizzy drink Frobscottle, the dream catching in glass jars, and BFG's wonderfully bizarre mixed-up language.
Two things in particular - I love the whole process of Dream Catching, and how a very good dream is a Golden Phizzwizard and and nightmare is a Trogglehumper. Nice ideaaa.
The second thing is how all of the giants are terrified of Jack The Giant-Slayer, of the Jack and The Beanstalk story. That was such an excellent bit of irony to throw in there and makes me think about folklores within fantasy cultures. I think they're quite an important part of world-building.
'Is it ever occurring to you that a human bean who is fifty is spending about twenty years sleeping fast? [...] So what I is trying to explain to you is that a human bean who says he is fifty is not fifty, he is is only thirty.'-- The BFG, Roald Dahl (Penguin Edition)
Interesting quote. Last year, my Japanese tutor (as in, she was teaching me Japanese) also made a point about how we spend a third of our day sleeping, and thus, a third of our life sleeping. I never really though about that. I'd better work even harder on writing my book.

The Witches

Within the realm of Roald Dahl books, one thing that scared me more than the nasty giants is the witches of this story. This book used to genuinely disturb me and the 1990 film adaption scared the crap outta me. Yet, I love it to pieces, because it's so clever and curiously intriguing.
There's actually too much to go into in this book, but one thing I can mention from off the top of my head, was the tell-tale signs of how to spot a witch. I love this because I think it makes a story more believable when any class of superpowered humans or supernatural beings should have their own set of characteristics besides their magical powers. And if for some reason, they are humanoid and identical to humans in every way except for one, that should be explained too.




*

Noticed a trend? These children are all trying to get away from awful adults and ghastly grown-ups. (See what I did there.) I guess one exception is CharlieATCF, but there was still vile adults in the story even if they're not related to Charlie. That interesting. I can think of many fantasy titles wherein the fantasy element comes in as a result of the character trying to escape something. Even my own work, Seven Empires Fall (CT), it could be said that Karalan's story begins when she goes on the run from the NP. It sets the hole wheel in motion.

I still cling possessively to my 16-book box set, which includes:
Boy: Tales of Childhood
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny, the Champion of the World
Esio Trot
Fantastic Mr Fox
George's Marvellous Medicine
Going Solo
James and the Giant Peach
Matilda
The BFG
The Enormous Crocodile
The Magic Finger
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
The Twits
The Witches

- and I expect that if I had to sell most of my 150+ books, this set would be one of the last to go.



Ashana Lian .

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