Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl

Revolting Rhymes book cover
Rating 8.5/10
Witty, whimsical, wonderful and repulsive.

Two of Roald Dahl’s most enduring qualities, and part of what makes him one of the most loved children's authors of all time, are his profound love of the rhythm and flow of language, and his realization that young children do not in fact need everything sugar-coated, that seeing the villainous, cruel or greedy receive appropriate and bizarre punishments is just as satisfying to kids as to adults.

These two particular aspects of Dahl's writing are brought into sharp contrast in his Revolting Rhymes, six distinctly twisted retellings of traditional fairy tales, all told in verse.

The best explanation of what the Revolting Rhymes are actually occurs in the first few lines of Cinderella:

"I guess you think you know this story, you don't, the real ones' much more gory. The phony one, the one you know, was cooked up years and years ago, and made to sound all soft and sappy, just to keep the children happy."

Dahl not only makes such bland characters as Cinderella quite amusing by their fits of pique, but also manages to find a way to make all the tales come off happily but in a twisted and distinctly weird fashion. Cinderella, for example, goes along well until one of the ugly sisters snatches up the glass slipper, flushes it down the loo and replaces it with her own shoe, leading to the prince to start having to behead the ugly sisters rather than marry them, and shocking Cinderella into asking the fairy to find her a decent but less bloodthirsty husband. Not only is there the trademark surreal and dark Dahl humour, the same that had fat Augustus Gloop sucked up a pipe, here in abundance, but after so many sickly sweet, fluffy, indeed "soft and sappy" Disney style retellings of fairy tales, something so charmingly gruesome - though actually never realistically violent, can be as much fun to adults as to children.

My personal favourite has to be The Three bears, which details, first from the point of view of a house proud Mrs Bear just how vile a character Goldilocks is, burglarizing, then vandalizing the bears’ house. It even includes a review of the prosecution case (still in rhyme), detailing Goldilocks various offenses and finally concludes by suggesting an alternative ending in which Daddy Bear recommends that if Baby Bear still wants his porridge, he needs to eat Goldilocks as well.

The rhyming is beautiful, and unlike some of Dahl's other books, (including the companion volume Dirty Beasts), there is likely little possibility very young children could get scared by the various suggestions of wolves and bears eating people, which was my own single problem as a child with some of Dahl's books, although it didn't stop me enjoying them and did in fact teach me that fearful things were always possible to overcome.

Revolting Rhymes is also obviously aimed at children who know the traditional fairy tales and likely wouldn't have as much impact upon children who haven't been introduced to Snow White or The Three Little Pigs, though since such stories are as pervasive as they are in popular Western culture this should not be an issue for most children.

My one only problem (and the reason I knocked a point off my rating), was Snow White is the one story in the collection that seems a little off the mark. The start is absolutely perfect, telling the leading events to Snow White's attempted murder by the Queen's Huntsman, and in a wonderful Roald Dahl restatement of a passage included in the Brothers' Grimm original but often forgotten by more sanitized versions, includes the Queen eating the heart which she believes to be Snow White’s with the line:

"and now here's 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"

The problem however is instead of meeting the traditional dwarves, Snow White runs into 7 ex-racing jockeys who lose all their money betting on horses, she then goes back to the palace, pinches the Queen's magic mirror, and uses it to make them all rich by picking winners. This horse racing theme always confused me slightly as a child, particularly since Dahl uses terms like "bookie" and "steeplechase" which I needed explained to me. It also feels  somewhat out of left field, especially compared to the way that all the other Revolting Rhymes stick at least to the parameters and characters of the original story, . Dahl also (unusually), doesn't include any bad end for the wicked Queen either. That being said the final line "which shows that gambling's not a sin provided that you always win" still manages to make me laugh.

I also am disappointed that Dahl only wrote six revolting rhymes, making the book one of the shortest in the entire Dahl collection. We can only speculate on what Dahl might have made of Hansel and Gretel, The Three Billy Goats Gruff or Aladdin.

All in all therefore Revolting Rhymes is a book all children (and adults) should  appreciate, and one which perhaps no other author could've gotten away with so completely, or so effortlessly. If you love Dahl's rhyming and surreal humour, or if you’re sick of the fluffiness and general predictability of the usual brand of Fairy tales, Dahl’s' Revolting Rhymes is absolutely a must read.

This Revolting Rhymes book review was written by

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