There’s always a mix of joy and frustration in revisiting old classics or old favorites for this column, but the proportions of the two tend to vary from topic to topic. This week I sat down with an old Roald Dahl book I haven’t cracked since probably grade school, and found that, while it’s overall sweet and somewhat empowering, it had several elements that left me rolling my eyes. This book is, of course, The BFG.
I distinctly remember loving this book as a kid, after a young and supportive-of-my-voracious-reading-habits teacher read it to our class in fourth grade. But when I picked it up to reread it, I had a hard time remembering any of the elements of the story outside of the titular Big Friendly Giant. So before we go any further, let’s recap a bit. The BFG follows Sophie, a young orphan who spots a giant and mysterious figure out the window of her orphanage’s bedroom one night. This figure turns out to be the BFG, who kidnaps her and takes her back to Giant Country so she can’t tell anyone else about him. There, she learns that among the crew of giants who live there, the BFG is the only gentle and kind one; while he goes off on nighttime excursions to deliver the dreams he catches as a hobby to sleeping children, the other giants prefer to spend their nights eating people. Despite his name, the Big Friendly Giant is the runt of the giant litter, and has no means to stand up to the other giants to stop their cannibalistic urges.
As Sophie learns more about the bigger giants, she’s horrified by their rampant murdering (ah, the lighthearted themes of a Roald Dahl book) and insists the BFG come up with a way to stop them. Using the many dreams that the BFG has collected over the years, they mix up a whopper of a highly specific nightmare about the giants and deliver it to the Queen of England. When she wakes up from the nightmare, Sophie is there to tell her that the creatures in the nightmare are real and that the Queen can stop them. With the help of the British army, they trap the giants while they’re sleeping and carry them off to a giant hole, where they are safely trapped forevermore. All ends happily ever after, with the BFG and Sophie living together with the Queen.
This is neither here nor there in terms of themes, but the thing that struck me the most on my reread is that it’s kind of fascinating that, although this book was written in 1982 and I’m rereading it in 2017, the Queen of England is still the same lady?? That’s kind of surreal to me, but also, don’t tell me Queen Elizabeth II wouldn’t be up to some giant-thwarting even today. (For what it’s worth, the Queen in the story is never named, but I feel like it’s a safe bet to say it’s Elizabeth.)
Whether she’s meant to represent Elizabeth or not, though, the Queen in The BFG is obviously a powerful female figure, and watching her talk over the blustery military folk who tell her their giant-snatching plan is a terrible and silly idea is a delight. And actually, it’s worth noting that, save for the BFG himself, this is a story mostly about strong female characters. I wonder, looking back, if this was part of why I read and reread my battered old paperback multiple times in elementary school. The BFG is more of a passive actor in the story, sad about the bigger giants’ cruelty, but never working to do anything about it himself. Meanwhile, Sophie is portrayed as a small but savvy kid who’s full of bright ideas, from coming up with a more comfortable way for the BFG to carry her around to the nuclear option of the Queen’s nightmare. The Queen respects her pluck, which was a big deal to me as a kid – especially as a sharp kid who could identify with the feeling of typically being ignored or talked down to by adults. Sophie isn’t perfect, though; her flaw is a need to constantly correct the BFG’s pidgin English, which he learned painstakingly over many years from a book he swiped from a British schoolkid’s bedroom. (As the BFG calls her out on this, she works to stop herself and hold back on her corrections; that said, the story ends on the conceit that the narrator has been the BFG all along, and that being able to settle in England and live free of fear has helped him “better” his language to a point where he doesn’t sound remotely like his old self.)
On the flip side, however, I did mention that there were some parts that I was annoyed with upon revisiting the story. The major one of these has to do with the dreams the BFG collects. While Sophie can barely see the wispy outlines of these visions (the BFG catches them in a net and stores them in jars) the BFG can tell exactly what each dream will bring to the kid who receives it. Upon catching and storing them, he labels them so he can reference them later, and after reading a few of the labels, Sophie asks if there’s a difference between dreams for boys and dreams for girls. This would be a great place to challenge the gender binary and say that he matches the type of dream to the person’s interests rather than their gender – after all, why should a being who isn’t human himself subscribe to the same ideas about gender as humankind? But rather than doing so, he instead tells Sophie that there are specific dreams for girls and for boys, and proceeds to show her how the dreams for boys simply don’t make sense to girls, and vice versa. There’s also a sense of Western-coded respectability politics that suffuses the story. The BFG just looks like a giant white grandpa, complete with flood pants, a white T-shirt, and a vest, while the other, bigger, more hateful giants are less genteel; they have cruel faces with huge, exaggerated features, lots of dark hair all over their bodies, and only wear dirty loincloths. The BFG ultimately learns how to talk “proper”, whereas the others remain ignorant. 1982 may be 35 years ago now, but that still feels too recent to be dealing in these kind of vaguely ethnically coded villains.
So while it was definitely a fun trip to the past to reread this old classic, and it does have some strong through-lines of female empowerment, I don’t know that I’d recommend it to a little Saika if she were thinking about picking it up today. The ratio of joy to frustration in this one was just a little too high for that.
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I FRICKING LOVE THE BFG. I never really thought about the negatives you brought up as a kid, but you are definitely right about those not being the best messages. Great review, the throwback Thursday is such s great theme