In the anniversary month of Roald Dahl’s hundredth birthday, we take a look at Gary Raymond‘s review of Fantastic Mr Fox for our Greatest Welsh Novel series.
A childhood must be hardly worth having if it is one protected from the dark. The universal success of the children’s books of Llandaff author Roald Dahl has a lot to do with his Mephistophelean delight in the darkness. His cantankerous refusal to pull back to either save the small reader their nightmares or the larger reader their blushes is what makes his work so irresistible, so necessary. His masterpieces, from The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, to his lesser (but just as puckishly wonderful) works, such as The Twits and George’s Marvellous Medicine, are stories that revel in the gloopy, sticky nastiness of faery tale villainy and phantasmagorical threat, and they are, quite rightly, an integral part of the formative literary landscape of most people of my generation.
Dahl’s work now, on close inspection, sits rather awkwardly with contemporary children’s books with their conventional family issues, flatulence and sassy protagonists. Dahl’s work is from a more adult place, a place where death is the colour of the peril, where the villains truly are the stuff of nightmares, where cruelty is often a motive in itself, and protagonists are usually bright-eyed (and sometimes bushy-tailed). Dahl’s worlds are ones often where the dangers of a supernatural undercurrent pierce the mundanity of the world we know, and it is a place that interweaves with the fabric of the world that adults know. His books are not easily classified as ‘Fantasy’, although they are certainly fantastical, and sometimes surreal, hallucinogenic, and dappled with the mood altering stuffs of the adult experience. Sometimes his books are so bleak, his villains so dark, you wonder if Dahl was not writing out of a hatred of children rather than an affection for them.
Despite all this, Fantastic Mr Fox is a bit of an anomaly in Dahl’s oeuvre, in that there is no telekinetic schoolgirl, no giant airborne fruit, no humungous bumpkin dispensing dreams through kids’ windows – just a wily fox and his three-pronged nemesis. It could be argued that Fantastic Mr Fox is less a novel and more an Aesopian fable, and this would be true, but it contains the stuff of novels, the themes and characters, and has the potential to linger just as long. Structurally it has little interest in the precepts of ‘the novel’, and is set out in very clear patterns of three; something often powerfully adhered to in faery tales. The story hangs wonderfully on the mocking nursery rhyme the local kids have invented for the three farmers, the despicable villains,
Boggis, Bunce and Bean
One Short, one fat, one lean,
These horrible crooks,
So different in looks,
Were nonetheless equally mean.
So here we begin to understand the basis for the attraction of the story – kids eyeing up the grotesque old mean person who lives in the community – in this case the three farmers. Mr Fox, the complicated protagonist, is all set to outwit them, to run circles around them as the children who made up the rhyme whoop and holler in approval. That this is not quite how it works out is just one of the reasons why Fantastic Mr Fox stands out as a dark and rather odd romantic fable, with real moments of sadness and elation. That it is so short, and prosaically aimed at young children, and yet manages to draw characters of real insinuated depth, is testament to Dahl’s craft and intellectualism. That, taken as a rural tale, Fantastic Mr Fox contains many of the themes, analogously, that smatters much of great Welsh literature (and more than a few are on the Greatest Welsh Novel list), makes it a serious contender for this main prize.
Mr Fox’s ongoing battle with the ugly farmers – who are made almost demonic in their depiction – is an interesting take on the literature that looks at humankind’s relationship to the landscape. There are flashes of Richard Adams’ Watership Down, but also of writers like Chatwin and the more nervous poetry of Edward Thomas, who forever shook at the thought of the iron blade of modernism cutting through his beloved countryside. Boggis, Bunce and Bean are not old fashioned farmers, leaning on fence posts and tilling the soil – they are industrial employers, who, when hunting down Mr Fox, circle his hilltop home with the combined forces of their 108 employees, armed to the teeth with a Fox-obliterating arsenal. Mr Fox, you see, has been feeding his family with the farmers’ wares, most likely a fraction of one percent of what they have in their gulag-like store rooms. He pinches a chicken from one, a goose from another, and a bottle of cider from Bean, the meanest and most terrifying of the lot. When the farmers have finally had enough, their retribution is so overblown – that dark psychotic comedy that Dahl was so good at – that you wonder for the mental health of the three.
A sort of madness had taken hold of the three men. The tall skinny Bean and dwarfish pot-bellied Bunce were driving their machines like maniacs, racing the motors and making their shovels dig at terrific speed. The fat Boggis was hopping about like a dervish and shouting, ‘Faster! Faster!’
Boggis Bunce and Bean, unable to find Mr Fox with shovels, bring in the heavy mechanical diggers and dig into the hill where Mr Fox and his family live until it looks like a ‘volcanic crater’. But Mr Fox, perhaps surprisingly, is a flawed hero. Not only is it his arrogance that has endangered his family in the first place, but when the shovels come, he panics. It is one of his cubs who slaps the panic out of him and tells him he needs to man-up and quickly devise a plan. This he does, and they dig down, further and further away from their pursuers, but at the same time further and further away from food.
There are many interesting allegories you can draw out from the conflict between Mr Fox and the farmers. There is some fun to be had reading the farmers as Lords of the Manor and Mr Fox as the Robin Hood character living up in the woods. In Wes Anderson’s marvellous animated film version of the book, Boggis, Bunce and Bean are dressed in gentlemanly tweed rather than the rags Quentin Blake illustrates them in in the book; they are given a sinister air of human respectability. Anderson takes the Robin Hood idea further, with Mr Fox becoming leader of a band of animals who are all seeking to outsmart their oppressors up on the surface.
In the book, however, the Foxes are alone for much of the adventure (apart from Badger who joins, and acts as a moral barometer to Mr Fox’s devil-may-care philosophy). Dahl is a lot more stark in his depiction of their predicament than Wes Anderson is. In their deep subterranean hideaway the Fox family begins to starve, and the reader is not entirely sure that Mrs Fox is going to make it. Dahl has no issues with putting this awful scenario right up front. One chapter is even titled ‘The Foxes Begin to Starve’. The language of the book is quite uncompromising throughout.
‘How will they kill us, mummy?’ said one of the small foxes. His round black eyes were huge with fright. ‘Will there be dogs?’
At one point, early on, Bunce declares of Mr Fox, ‘I’d like to rip out his guts!’ The action is as earthy as the digging.
In many ways I imagine that Dahl’s phenomenal sales figures meant that he was able to write pretty much whatever he wanted – no editor was going to mess with such a formula as this. But he never strayed from what children like in a good story – adventure. Here his hero is extremely charismatic, and although flawed, wins out in the end. His villains are truly awful. His partnership with Quentin Blake is positively harmonious throughout the pages, Mr Fox appearing nimble, dandyish in actual fact, in his waistcoat and cravat – like a furry Stewart Granger. The mechanical diggers are pushed back by Blake to an ominous and demonic silhouette as they carve up the hillside, the scenery literally filling with inky blackness.
Fantastic Mr Fox is a fable that is just as Welsh as any of our nation’s lauded rural novels – stories of the heartland, of the people of the earth, of the working man doing what he must to provide for his family. Dahl, with just a few careful sentences, sidesteps one-dimensional characterisation, and brings the horror of man’s dominant relationship with the countryside to the fore. It is very easy to forget that this is a children’s story. That he can be as wincingly dark as he is here and get away with it, means that generations more children will be allowed to experience a classic tale of countryside conflict.
This piece is also a part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Roald Dahl | A Retrospective.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.