British publisher backtracks, “saves” Roald Dahl’s uncut classics (but don’t breathe sighs of relief just yet)

By Michael Grossberg

Good news for lovers of liberty, culture and artistic integrity: Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Roald Dahl’s other children’s classics will continue to be published and reprinted in their original uncensored forms.

That sudden and welcome reversal (see our previous blog post) is thanks to a remarkably wide range of principled and thoughtful responses from across the political spectrum objecting to the plans by the late great Dahl’s cowardly and conformist British publisher to bowdlerize his bestselling children’s classics in doctored reprints.

Now, instead of canceling Dahl’s subversive, pungent and anti-authoritarian books in their original form – certainly, a deplorable violation of artistic integrity and artistic freedom, even if not formally an act of government censorship – the publisher Puffin Books has announced plans to reprint two different sets of his books: the beloved originals and their absurdly reworded and abridged versions re-edited to conform to today’s regnant puritanical impulses.

That’s not as bad as before. After all, what libertarians or other human beings don’t prefer to be given a choice?

Yet the publisher’s new two-separate-editions policy seems craven and still panders to the stuffiest, most cautious, fearful and politically incorrect precincts of today’s Orwellian “down-the-memory-hole” culture.

This doleful and disturbing trend – mostly coming from the authoritarian-progressive left but with similar impulses directed at other artistic works from the reactionary and populist right – was envisioned in bestselling classics by major authors.

Yet were their warnings heeded?

Among those eloquently dramatizing the more disturbingly authoritarian aspects of the world we increasingly live in were George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-FourRay Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 and Ira Levin in This Perfect Day .

Not by coincidence, all are past Prometheus Hall of Fame winners that portray dystopian futures in which “soft tyranny” substitutes for, or reinforces, the institutionalized coercion of outright “hard” dictatorships. Either way, such Orwellian cancellations of diverse cultural expressions always constrains the healthier, pluralistic and more dynamic spontaneous order of culture, innovation and change that marks free or largely free societies.

Just consider some of the absurd yet disturbing deletions and word replacements that will still be published in the “new,” “improved,” “socially conscious” editions of Dahl’s bestsellers still being planned by Puffin and The Roald Dahl Story Company, which manages the copyrights of Dahl’s books and works with publishers.

Ironically, at a time when so many works and individuals are accused (often wrongly) of being racist or sexist, the critics of Dahl’s books were largely unable to find any offensive words in those extreme categories.

According to British columnist Piers Morgan, who poked fun at the absurdities of the new edition while condemning the plan, Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches has 59 chilling changes – chilling but absurd.

Among them: “the word “chambermaid” becomes “cleaner,” “great flock of ladies” is changed to “great group of ladies,” “You must be mad, woman!” is now “You must be out of your mind!” and “the old hag” is altered to “the old crow.” Even “foul bald-headed females” is cut to “foul females” despite the fact the witches are all bald in the book,” Morgan wrote.

Columnist Stephen Kruiser, writing for the conservative-leaning PJ Media, observed that “If the endgame here weren’t so detrimental to the future of freedom, this could be dismissed as so much silliness. Rewriting fiction using the excuse that the context at the time it was written is offensive now dovetails with the woke left’s attempts to rewrite history… Leftists can keep using the delicate sensibilities of the fragile young woke kids as the reason they need to take a big historical eraser to everything.”

However, this time, happily, it wasn’t just libertarians, civil libertarians, classical liberals and some conservatives who cried foul over the cancellation and re-writing of Dahl’s classics, from Matilda and The Witches to The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.

Everyone from author Salman Rushdie and the far-left The Nation to a CNN columnist condemned the publisher, prompting Puffin Books to switch gears and give some respect to Dahl’s artistic integrity – at least, for now.

For instance, on CNN, London writer-editor Holly Thomas wrote an opinion column, titled “Taking ‘fat’ out of Roald Dahl makes no sense.”

“Even from a modern woke perspective, some of the changes border on the absurd – and unintentionally restigmatize such neutral and objective terms as “fat.” (I say this, being obese myself.),” Thomas wrote.

“…I doubt that high schoolers of the future will be forced to study “Of Mice And People,” but the anxiety over the effect outdated references and representations could have on kids neglects the possibility of more positive input from elsewhere. Publishers’ success ought not to be predicated on yassifying classics into relevancy, but instead on nurturing wonderful new writers that can offer readers a rich and varied diet of influences and ideas. Attempting to squeeze old work into new molds is a messy solution that seems doomed to fail,” Thomas wrote.

The latest crop of aspiring Prohibitionists (who I’ve dubbed the “Dahl Denialists”) also received criticism with a soupcon of wit from former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss’ increasingly indispensable, objectively well-reported, wide-ranging, open-minded and truly liberal online website, The Free Press:

“The long-dead British children’s books author… has not escaped our moment, and now his books are getting a modern makeover to remove offensive bits. I forget, were those books racist? Sexist? Not exactly, no, but lots of people might be offended, for example, by the fact that Dahl describes witches as bald,” Nellie Bowles writes in her droll report on “Dignity for Oompa-Loompas” in the Free Press’s TGIF round-up.

“And so now there is a new line in the book right after his description of a witch’s hairless head: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” (I’m dead serious.)”

Columnist Christian Toto, writing for the Hollywood in Toto blog, offered some wise perspective – and a sadly timely warning of things to come.

“Such a fearful approach to historic books, one that treats each volume as though it may be the only one a child will ever consume, undermines the whole point of reading.

“The bigger question remains. Why is anyone surprised?

Sensitivity readers are now an entrenched part of the literary world. Works in other media have been censored or removed entirely, from sitcoms … to films…. At best, challenging art now arrives with “warning labels” to make sure we don’t fall under their deep, dark spell.

“…It may be encouraging that Dahl’s book sales are spiking at the moment, with consumers eager to snatch up his work before the Thought Police has its way with it. That doesn’t change the fact that Puffin Books will produce watered-down versions of Dahl’s work moving forward. And, for many, those stories will be the official Dahl language. … The only thing surprising about the Dahl extreme makeover is that it didn’t happen already. Or that anyone thinks it will stop here.”


* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of the 2022 Prometheus ceremony with Wil McCarthy, and past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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