Roald Dahl’s Protocols

November 17, 2020 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

In 1983, thanks to an interview in the New Statesman, it was revealed to the world that the beloved children’s author Roald Dahl was a vicious anti-Semite; it was in the same year that he published his novel The Witches, recently adapted as a film with an all-star cast. The book’s premise is that a secret cabal of people—facially indistinguishable from everyone else except for their funny accents and large noses—exercises malign control in every country on earth, while enriching themselves and inflicting suffering on unsuspecting children. While Dara Horn absolves the film of the book’s thinly veiled anti-Semitism, she nonetheless concludes that it cannot escape the original’s perversity:

The key to Dahl’s success as a children’s author lay in how he pitted children against adults, making children into a beloved underdog class whose moral victory lay in vanquishing their powerful exploiters. His heroes are blameless boys and girls tortured by diabolically abusive adults, whom they destroy in outrageous revenge sequences of the sort even the most fortunate child occasionally fantasizes about.

In short, Dahl is like a modern Charles Dickens, except instead of social justice and spiritual redemption, Dahl’s books offer only revenge. Kids, like all emotionally and morally stunted people, eat this stuff up. Dahl tapped into something primal and hideous in the human psyche: the desire of disenfranchised people to feel righteous precisely by demonizing others. As a kid, I bought this too. The sheer sadism of it went right over my head until I shared these books with my children and saw how I’d been punked. And The Witches was the worst.

[M]ost tellingly, what really distinguishes witches in this film is that they are rich. . . . This class warfare idea is utterly absent from Dahl’s book, but it perhaps unintentionally provides a trendy update to his rather old-school racial anti-Semitism: the idea that a secret society of fantastically wealthy “global elites”—often, but not inevitably, Jews—prey on the poor. This means that bigotry against them, rather than being retrograde, is, in fact, a fresh and righteous way of “punching up.”

As Hollywood knows well, everyone loves a good conspiracy theory—and that’s the problem. . . . It is so easy, after all, to believe in a conspiracy, so self-indulgent, so appealing—and, as I now finally understood, so much fun.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books: