something a bit strange about this one word ‘Grandma’ as a heading, as the first word of this story. Perhaps this story will be about a sweet, kind Grandma, who dozes in her chair by the window. Or is there something a bit more ominous about this Grandma? An elderly member of the family, yes, to be treated with respect and dignity of course but also, in a sense, a problem…and in the world of fairy tales, in which Dahl was steeped during his childhood, the figure of the grandmother is never not weird, always a bit strange, if not downright sinister.
And what of the first words of the story? They are not the words of a narrator, but a character speaking. It is George’s ‘mother’ informing him (and presumably ‘Grandma’ who is present in the room) that she is going shopping in the village, and that he should be a ‘good boy’. These opening lines also makes us wonder about the structure of this family. There is ‘Grandma’, a mother, and George. ‘Grandma’ is of course George’s grandmother, but what is ‘Grandma’ to George’s mother? Is she mother or mother-in-law to George’s mother? It is not stated in the writing, and this creates a sense of intrigue about this family, about the subtle web of relations between individuals within this family, individuals who share a roof over their heads.
The genius of the writing is to create what is quite a complicated situation without explicitly stating it: that George is to be left alone with Grandma. If we think about it for a moment, this might be quite a frightening situation for a child to be faced with. The child might expect the adults to look after them, but what happens when the child must look after the adults? This is the situation George is faced with as his mother goes out the door. He must give Grandma her ‘medicine’ at 11 o’clock. But what is this ‘medicine’ for? What is ‘in’ this medicine? These are questions to which the story does not provide answers, and which as readers we might continue to wonder about.
Furthermore, this sense of being ‘home alone’ (in the presence of a potentially unpleasant relative) is heightened by the fact that George doesn’t have ‘a brother or a sister’ (interesting that he is not referred to as an ‘only child’). He is said to be ‘bored to tears’. All this might put into context the bad behaviour that his mother and Grandma invoke in this opening passage. George’s ‘mischief’ could be a reaction against being bored or, more profoundly, having no one ‘to play with’.
What is so pleasurable, thrilling, and moving about reading this beginning of George’s Marvellous Medicine is the ways that Dahl subtly invokes, and keeps in ‘play’, those states of feeling that are considered quite ordinary in childhood and uses them as the building blocks of an extraordinary story. The mother going out the door; the sense of being left alone in the presence of a relative who is a bit strange; being ‘bored to tears’; the potential for ‘mischief’ – these things accrue into a rich atmosphere out of which the story emerges. A story in which even the word ‘medicine’ is to be turned on its head.