The celebrations of Roald Dahl Day show that his wonderful and highly moral books are as fresh as ever. What does child’s-eye morality mean for adults?
Yesterday, I took my son to school dressed as Willy Wonka, a few streets away from where Roald Dahl, himself, went to school in Llandaff. The playground was full of children dressed as witches, giraffes and Oompa-Loompas to mark Roald Dahl Day, 100 years after the author’s birth. Down the road, the sweetshop where Dahl bought Sherbet Suckers has become a Chinese takeaway, but the appeal of Dahl’s books clearly lives on.
Having read my son many Roald Dahl bedtime stories, I’m struck by their moral conviction. The children who are his heroes see that grown ups often proclaim a fake morality to get what they want, while the children themselves respond to a more natural moral order. People usually get what they deserve, like James’ nasty aunts who are squished by the Giant Peach. And sometimes Dahl explores the idea that people who are conventionally immoral, like Danny’s poacher father, may also be good and no less deserving.
As children grow older they learn that in life, as opposed to books, bad things often happen to good people. So does it follow that we live in a moral vacuum? The Buddhist answer starts with the observation that life is full of pain and injustice – we call it dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness. But the teaching of karma says that a pattern of actions and consequences flows from our characters and shapes our lives. If we’re greedy, then greed will colour our experience, we’ll act accordingly and certain consequences will follow. Conversely, if we’re kind and aware, we’ll act in ways that benefit ourselves and others.
You could see Willy Wonka’s factory as an image for this sort of character-based morality. It doesn’t just make chocolate; it’s where dreams come true and you get what you want. So visiting the factory a moral test. The test isn’t about rules and no one sits in judgement, but the children are allowed to follow their desires to destruction. Greedy Augustus Gloop drowns in chocolate, and gum obsessed Violet Beauregarde blows up like a blueberry. Only the open-hearted Charlie Bucket passes the test and inherits the endless riches and strangeness of the imagination.
This may not be a a philosophical argument, but perhaps we can take it, as children do, as a poetic truth. Children respond to these stories with a feeling for what’s right and fair and what qualities should be admired. That inbuilt moral sense won’t answer all our adult questions, but perhaps it’s a start.