This Christmas just gone, I found myself performing one of my most pleasant yuletide duties – buying a present for my young goddaughter. Inevitably, in the search for something educational but edifying, I found myself browing the children’s section of Waterstones, and settled upon my purchase: a copy of Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. My thinking was that, even if she’d read most of his books, she probably wouldn’t have read Danny; but it was also, in retrospect, of all of Dahl’s writings my personal favourite. It’s more tightly plotted than most of Dahl’s books, which rely instead on his enthusiasm and spectacular imagination – but more importantly, it’s one of the most moving portrayals in children’s literature of the relationship between father and son.
If you haven’t read it, the salient plot points are as follows. The eponymous Danny is a small boy being brought up alone by his motor mechanic father William, his mother having died when he was a few months old. They live happily (in a gypsy caravan), until Danny wakes up in the night to find his father absent – eventually he returns home and admits to his son that he has been poaching on the land of local landlord, Mr Victor Hazell. A few weeks later, Danny wakes up and finds his dad absent again, but fearing that he is in trouble he drives an old car undergoing repairs down to Hazell’s Wood, where he rescues William from a mantrap in which he has twisted his ankle. While he recovers, Danny comes up with a fantastic scheme, involving the remainders of William’s prescribed painkillers and a few hundred raisins, to poach the entire flock of Hazell’s pheasants to embarass him before his big annual shooting party with his toff friends.
I did wonder when buying the book whether I was really fulfilling my duties of moral guidance in buying my goddaughter a story of mass theft (with trespass, police corruption, joyriding, and misuse of prescription medication to boot). I reassured myself, however, with the fact that the tale of the poacher as folk hero is a staple of English folklore dating back to Medieval times. It was the Norman kings who enclosed vast swathes of England as royal ‘forests’ for their pleasure, often to the detriment of their subjects. This resentment is exemplified by the character of Robin Hood, whose outlawry is focused on robbing from the rich rather than stealing their game but who does, after all, spend most of his time trespassing in a royal forest. We can also see this resistance in the the 1217 Charter of the Forest, a rather more important extension of freedom to the average peasant than its companion document Magna Carta. Later, when royal forest passed into aristocratic hands, the status of the poacher as folk hero continued – think of the folk song The Lincolnshire Poacher, first set down in print in the mid 18th century but almost certainly older. The landowning classes well appreciated that poaching was neither purely driven by necessity nor by a desire for fun, but was also a socially subversive act which challenged their exclusive right to the resources of land and perhaps to the land itself, with all the political connotations that held in a pre-democratic age. Thus Robert Walpole, in response to raids by gangs of poachers known as the Blacks, passed the Black Act, one of the most draconian acts to ever make it onto the statute book. Through the 19th and even 20th century there were fresh attempts to push back against the rights of landowners like Hazell, from the Gladstonian reforms which at least gave tenants the right to shoot ground game like rabbits which were spoiling their crops, to the mass trespass by ramblers across the grouse moor of Kinder Scout.
Danny can fairly be said, then, to be in a great tradition of antipathy towards the landlords of great estates. William resents Victor Hazell because he is personally unpleasant and a crashing snob, which in his mind justifies his activities (although his motivation is clearly from the thrill he gets from the fact that it is illicit). Still, Danny is hardly a Marxist tale of class warfare – they are aided in their heist by those pillars of bourgeois village life, the doctor and the vicar, and even the long arm of the law in the form of Sgt. Samways. With the obvious exception of the Kinder trespass, which was led in part by members of the Communist Youth League, many of the examples of apparent defiance mentioned above are rooted in a conservative rhetoric of custom and tradition. Robin might be a brigand, but he is loyal to the true king, Richard, and even the Blacks were defending what they believed to be their ancient rights (and, if Walpole is to be believed, the cause of the deposed Jacobite line). The young reader, of course, knows nothing about all this social history and cares less, but they have been imbued in a culture from a young age where, under certain circumstances, theft of game from the rich and powerful is a noble cause.
Rather more gripping as a nine-year-old was Danny’s dramatic discovery of his father’s secret nocturnal activities. In the process, we learn with Danny a number of things which children generally don’t learn about their parents until they’re a little older. Firstly, that your parents had a life before you were born; secondly, that they still have secrets that you have no way of guessing; and thirdly, that they do things which are wrong or even illegal. All of this is presented in the best possible light, but I still remember feeling disturbed as well as thrilled by the scene where Danny learns for the first time that his father is a poacher. Later, Danny is called upon to rescue William by driving the little Austin 7, something which captivated me when I first listened to it on audiotape in the back seat of my Dad’s Vauxhall Astra. Dahl certainly understood the excitement of the idea of doing something so clearly forbidden, and the fact that it is such a potent metaphor for freedom (for similar reasons the Simpsons episode where Bart and his fellow grade schoolers go on a disastrous car trip to Knoxville remains one of my favourites). But in the case of Danny, it represents the fact that he and his father have, momentarily, switched roles, with William in trouble and needing his young son to save him from the law, or worse. Unlike most of Dahl’s books, there is no magic or fantasy, although whether the means by which Danny and William finally poach Hazell’s pheasants is really feasible is debatable. More than that, though, it’s realistic in how it presents Danny’s father as both a tremendous man and a startlingly vulnerable human figure.
It’s the relationship between Danny and his dad that really brings the book together. William is certainly masculine, between his poaching and his work in the garage, but in the very first pages he’s described as doing by necessity all the domestic tasks of nappy changing, cooking, and so on that a baby brings (bear in mind that the book was written in 1975). He’s also quirky and bold enough to set the two of them up in a yellow gypsy caravan. Danny has friends at school, but he prefers to spend time with his dad; at the same time, William is a kind and sensitive father, wanting to seek violent revenge when Danny is beaten at school for a petty misdemeanor. Yet he clearly misses Danny’s mother, and now as an adult I can’t help but suspect that he returns to his pre-marital habit of poaching because he is lonely, bored, and maybe a little suffocated by his life as a single parent. He is, in other words, a very plausible character, and it is this which makes the obvious love that Danny has for him so believable, and invests the story with so much warmth.
Roald Dahl’s books, with their stories of giants, humungous peaches, and eccentric chocolate millionaires, are rarely described as realist. A quick survey of his books, however, reveals an assorted cast of very relatable human protagonists. True, he used the trope of the orphan no fewer than three times (James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, The BFG), as useful a literary device for him as it would prove for J.K. Rowling. Of course, some children are orphans, but they are relatively few compared to their representation in children’s literature. Rather more common, though, are the origins of some of his other young heroes and heroines: having parents or guardians who are selfish, boorish, and indifferent (Matilda, James and the Giant Peach); being brought up by an elderly relative, perhaps from a different culture (The Witches); living in poverty in a multi-generational household (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory); having to put up with an abusive family member (George’s Marvellous Medicine); and, in the case of Danny, being brought up by a single father. Dahl rarely dwelled long on the circumstances of his protagonists, although they are often given an opportunity to mete out some pretty rough justice if possible against the causes of their unhappiness. Still, this isn’t to say that the backgrounds of these characters is irrelevant or accidental – thousands, maybe millions, of his readers recognise themselves, or maybe a friend, in each of those characters. Even if they can’t, however, they are familiar enough to provoke sympathy.
Danny, The Champion Of The World goes further, however, in that Dahl lingers on a very special bond between a little boy and his widowed father. Across the whole of children’s literature, there are relatively few portrayals of a father-son relationship where the father isn’t either forbidding, or simply absent for good or ill. It’s probably this that made me like it more than Dahl’s other books: more important than plots of stealing pheasants from the local magnate with tranquiliser-laced raisins, or the excitement of imagining myself driving an Austin 7 down a dark country road.