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Roald Dahl – George’s Marvellous Medicine

Roald Dahl is considered one of the world’s greatest storytellers. In his lifetime he wrote 16 stories for children, and many more for grown-ups.

His writing continues to find new readers far and wide and, having been translated into over 70 languages, his influence can be felt far beyond the so-called English-speaking world.

According to the Roald Dahl Story Company, set up to ‘protect and grow the cultural value’ of his stories, 300 million books have been sold worldwide, with one new book sold ‘every 2.5 seconds’.

His writing continues to inspire other writers, theatre makers, filmmakers, musicians and illustrators. This includes Quentin Blake who during Dahl’s lifetime established himself as the writer’s ‘favourite illustrator’ (Dahl’s words). Through strange and playful depictions of his stories and characters in them, Blake’s work has become synonymous with Dahl’s writing. Their collaboration must count as one of the most successful between author and illustrator in modern literature.Dahl’s influence can also be detected in the theatre world. The RSC’s production of Matilda: the Musical has taken the world by storm since its premiere in 2011, a commercial and critical success for the ages which spawned a film adaptation for Netflix in 2022. The filmmaker Wes Anderson is also drawn to Dahl’s work – his 2009 stop-motion animated film Fantastic Mr Fox was based on the 1970 book of the same name. And in 2023 he co-wrote and directed the short film The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which was based on the eponymous short story (albeit not one ‘for’ children).

In amongst this success across many medias, it’s worth bearing in mind that Roald Dahl was first and foremost a writer, an artist working in a language medium. Though his work is evocative for artists working in other media, particularly visual media, it is with his language that they (and we as readers) might begin.And his use of words is extraordinarily rich, and strange, and indeed deserves close inspection. We might peer at his writing in the same way that you can study the brush strokes in a beautiful painting or listen attentively to the arrangements of your favourite piece of music. In taking a closer look at the words, we might gain a greater appreciation of the stories, in that we might see for ourselves how they are meticulously structured in writing. We may even begin to apprehend why his writing has had such an extraordinary effect on readers across the generations, and indeed what makes him a genius.Amongst his tremendous gifts as a writer are the ways in which he begins a story, through subtle and varied effects. Let’s have a look at an opening passage from the George’s Marvellous Medicine (or La Potion magique de Georges Bouillon, in the French translation)

Grandma“I’m going shopping in the village,” George’s mother said to George on Saturday morning. “So be a good boy and don’t get up to mischief.”This was a silly thing to say to a small boy at any time. It immediately made him wonder what sort of mischief he might get up to.“And don’t forget to give Grandma her medicine at eleven o’clock,” the mother said. Then out she went, closing the back door behind her.Grandma, who was dozing in her chair by the window, opened one wicked little eye and said, “Now you heard what your mother said, George. Don’t forget my medicine.”
“No, Grandma,” George said.
“And just try to behave yourself for once while she’s away.”“Yes, Grandma,” George said.George was bored to tears. He didn’t have a brother or sister. His father was a farmer and the farm they lived on was miles away from anywhere, so there were never any children to play with.That the first chapter is called simply ‘Grandma’ (or perhaps not as simply as it seems) might create a sense of foreboding in our minds, or at least a sense of uncertainty. There is 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.