The recent large-scale alterations of Roald Dahl’s texts in the U.K .is a dangerous precedent that deserves our attention. The ill-advised purpose of this particular form of censorship is the same as that animating other ongoing efforts to restrict, ban, and challenge children’s books in schools and libraries, to protect children from perceived harm. Yet the peculiar dangers inherent in this particular methodology of elision and alteration are important and noteworthy.
In the case of Dahl’s books, hundreds of passages “relating to weight, mental health, gender and race were altered.” According to the Guardian, “The Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, said it worked with Puffin to review the texts because it wanted to ensure that ‘Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.’ ” The language was reviewed in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective working to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible.”
Textual elision is nothing new. The Count of Monte Cristo had so many passages removed over the years, for example, that Robin Buss had to go to great lengths to fully restore the manuscript before retranslating it. Removing passages from popular novels considered indelicate or obstructing pace was indeed a common practice in Victorian England, though altering books recognized as serious literature was still off the table. The case of the second edition of Wuthering Heights, rearranged and muted by Charlotte Brontë who worried that readers might find the original edition sent for publication by her sister Emily to be monstrous, was more of an outlier.
The case of the wholesale alteration of Roald Dahl’s classics, though using familiar elements of censorship for the age-old impulse to protect children from history and reality, crosses many lines that threaten the integrity of the past and the present. The reasoning applied to the censorship of Roald Dahl’s books, which believes that books should be altered to fit a particular sensibility of the moment to shield children from harm, can be universally applied to all children’s books, and by a multiplicity of sensibilities. The effect of having an Artificial Intelligence algorithm operating on all books in digital form, altering them to suit a particular sensibility before reprints, is substantially the same idea as the Dahl process. We could easily see multiple altered versions of the same book suited to competing social and political mores and values.
This leads us to the question of whether the integrity of texts, and of the past, matters. First let us look at the advisability of sparing children exposure to the realities of the past and the present rather than engaging with them to learn and gain understanding and resilience. Ask yourself whether the purpose of therapy is to remake the past into a desirable form or to develop an enlightening working relationship with it. The impulse to shield, remove, protect, and alter is understandable; it is our job, however, to recognize that it is a harmful one.
Importantly it should be recognized that the integrity of the present depends on the integrity of the past. Sidney Alexander once made the point in his Lions and Foxes that when Orpheus was depicted in the Middle Ages he was rendered in medieval clothing and playing a medieval stringed instrument such as a vielle. In the Renaissance, however, Orpheus began to be rendered in authentic Greek clothing and playing a lyre. In the Middle Ages the present and the past were mingled without any integrity. By making the effort to establish the integrity of the past, of striving to see and understand the past in its own terms, Renaissance individuals liberated the present from the fog of the past and came to perceive and depict the world around them with clarity and acuity. Presentism, the projection of the present onto the past, disturbs our vision of both of them. Maintaining the integrity of the past is an absolutely critical exercise.
Books are a constant while their readers age and change over time. This interplay of constants and variables gives the relationship between books and their readers a unique character and importance in an increasingly mutable intellectual landscape. To alter them to suit a present perspective is to undermine the opportunity for understanding and reflection.
We see everywhere in the geopolitical world that the integrity of the present and the past are under siege, elections are unmade, wars twisted beyond recognition, climate change denied. The integrity of texts is an absolutely crucial value to maintain at all costs. We owe it to our children and we owe to ourselves. We owe it to the past, the present, and the future.
(This essay appeared originally in Publisher’s Weekly Shelftalker.)