Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C. S. Lewis

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Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C. S. Lewis

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Edited: Oct 11, 2013, 3:51pm

Who's the better children's author, Roald Dahl or C. S. Lewis?

This started on another thread

I'm moving it here, since it was totally off-topic and, well, I want to see if we can draw others in.

The topic so far:

@abbotthomas: "C S Lewis really does NOT deserve to be at No.5"

cpg: "You're wrong."

@abbotthomas: "Well, of course I'm wrong because that's what the stats say, but I am still of the opinion that his Narnia Chronicles (which presumably get him to No.5) are a lesser body of work than, say, Roald Dahl's books. In that, I am not 'wrong', merely have a different opinion from yours.

ETA I am a fan of A Grief Observed, but his Perelandra books are not up to much in my view."

cpg: "I've no desire to defend the Narnia books, but the rules are what the rules are. If you don't think the list should be based on popularity, then don't focus on his most popular works. Did Dahl write anything better than Till We Have Faces or A Grief Observed or The Great Divorce? I don't think so. And Cambridge University Press is reissuing a truckload of Lewis's scholarly works next month in its Canto Classics series."

timspalding: "… Still, you're wrong :)"

@abbotthomas: "Do you mean that you think the Narnia books are better than Dahl's stuff? Really?"

timspalding: "Yeah, we've been on a Dahl kick recently with my 7 year-old—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Twits, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and (my favorite) Danny the Champion of the World. My wife loves him more than I do, although I'm very fond of the last two (Fox and Danny). While my son has enjoyed them, he's also protested at the general level of inhumanity in some of them, and I worry it's coarsened him. Dahl takes a lot of joy in bad things happening to bad people. That's a staple of children's literature, but he takes it to an extreme.

Put another way, Dahl is fun, but he's also a hater, and I think that shows. A kid reading The Twits learns that it's funny when bad people suffer repeatedly and then die. In that and others, my son kept looking for the good in people--for example in Matilda's parents. It wasn't there. He creates bad characters in order to have them torture the good until such time as the wheel turns and they can be tortured. That's not a vision of the world I want my kid to have.

Ultimately, I find Lewis better on many levels. Lewis wasn't a hater. Some bad characters suffer, but there are also a lot of redemptions--Edmund and Eustace, for example, act like jerks and come to realize it. I don't think it's restricted to Christians by any means, but that's apiece with Lewis' essentially Christian worldview. "

timspalding: "Or as a "better cover" put it: "It's okay if giant fruit kills your aunts as long as they were bitches." "

@kerristars: "But Edmond and Eustace don't act like jerks. This is a discussion for elsewhere, I'm sure, but with Eustace, at least, the only thing he's done wrong is be brought up by vegetarian parents that taught him to use their first names to address them, to sleep with the window open, and to prefer non-fiction books to fiction. He does treat the Pevensies poorly at times, but it's not really a jerk thing to want to be included in secrets when your cousins are staying at your house, and then to be annoyed when all they do is talk about their imaginary country, and don't include you. And then he gets sucked off to this strange, foreign place without any warning and everyone expects him to just go along with it, even though he's not really given any sympathy or kindness for being a nine-year-old boy who is seasick and homesick and doesn't know anything. He's treated as "bad" because he doesn't believe in a talking, magical lion, despite having never been given any reason to do so, other than Lucy and Edmund's imaginarion games (and why shouldn't he believe that it's all imaginary?).

I've always felt badly that Eustace was given short shrift, the poor kid. I loved Dawn Treader because I liked the adventurous Odyssey stuff, but I hated it because everyone was so unfair to Eustace."

@barkingmatt: "Okay, get your point - fair enough. And admittedly: I haven't read all of either author. But, the way I see it: Lewis gets boring (Magician's Nephew, Last Battle - come on...) while Dahl doesn't.

To each his/her own though."

timspalding: "Kudos for sticking up for him. Dahl would have tortured and killed him. But Eustace certainly does behave poorly to many in the story, as well as selfishly and cruelly. (He misbehaves in a way children misbehave—they're not deeply bad, they're just trying it on; if they don't learn about it, they'll eventually settle into it.) Does he have some cause? Sure. That's how we behave badly--it's rarely when everything is going swimmingly. Lewis understands what makes people treat others poorly in a way Dahl does not; and he understands what makes us reverse course and NOT treat others' badly."

Oct 11, 2013, 3:38pm

I don't think either can be done justice to if you only consider them as 'children's authors'.

Oct 11, 2013, 4:12pm

I don't really have a need to say Dahl is better than Lewis - I've enjoyed many of his books, but others upset me or I found frustrating. I think that ones of the things about Dahl is that he presents an unfair world that the child protagonist, the underdog, eventually overcomes. Bad people are punished and good people are rewarded, and you know exactly which is which. It makes for a very satisfying read in a world where that is not the case at all, but it also is fraught with problems in its very nature of painting the villains as two-dimensional caricatures. (Plus other problematic elements. I seem to remember strains of racism?)

Lewis, though, is a religious writer first and foremost, and that comes out in the Narnia series, which is terribly didactic and not very good story because of trying to push the religious agenda.

If you take the time to actually read it closely, instead of scanning the pages and trusting the (unreliable) narrator (which is the way I read it the first few times), you see that Edmund and Eustace and Jill are treated just abominably and we're told that it's because they don't love Aslan yet, so they deserve it. I got bored with the books sometime around "The Silver Chair" when I was a kid, and I've never been able to finish the series. I absolutely hated how Eustace and Jill were bullied by Aslan and punished for not being 100% trusting, when they'd never been given any reason to, and were actually being pretty smart, logical kids. Edmund is treated as a lost case and nobody even seems to really care about him, because of course he's the Bad One, until he's redeemed.

Oct 12, 2013, 12:34pm

^ I agree 100% with keristars. I was going to post my opinion but she phrased it a lot better than I would have!

Oct 12, 2013, 4:23pm

I agree that Lewis is preachy, although I still love the series--especially the early ones. They're good fantasy, but they lack a sense of fun. Everything is all solemn fulfill your destiny stuff. They could almost be intoned. There's none of the zany exuberance that characterizes Dahl's work.

And while Dahl does engage in caricatures in his stories--Charlies and the Chocolate Factory is one long series of caricatures getting what's coming to them--he's on tried and true ground. Every single fairy tale that ever existed is built on that scaffold. Frankly, if I had to pick between the awful aunts getting squashed by the giant peach, and the little girls forced to watch Aslan be sacrificed, with a knife, on an altar...well I'm going with Dahl on that one.

In the end both writers have the "be true to yourself" messages that we all want our kids to imbibe--but Lewis gets his point across in moralizing quest stories, while Dahl manages to do so using a giant magic candy factory.

Oct 12, 2013, 5:01pm

I read the Narnia books and Charlie atcf at the same period growing up, and loved them both.

Most of Dahl's other children's books I know from reading them to/with my children. Some of his stuff is too gruesome for me, but some is quite fun. The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me I remember as being great fun. We also read The Enormous Crocodile over and over, but while I know the boys read others of his, there were several we did not like.

Oct 13, 2013, 10:08am

It all depends on whether you prefer the writer who simply pinched Kästner's idea of the magic wardrobe to the writer who picked up and developed Kästner's subversive notion that adults are often wrong and generally don't have children's best interests at heart...

Edited: Oct 13, 2013, 4:34pm

Morals-wise, I certainly wouldn't want my children internalizing the message of The Silver Chair. That you should feel guilty because you missed a message that someone was willfully unclear in communicating? That there's got to be a better world because we don't like this one??

Of course, I've got Charlie and the Chocolate Factor marked with 2 stars and tagged "white man's burden". In the movies the Oompa Loompas could have been anything, but in the book they're simply slave labor imported from some jungle.

Oct 13, 2013, 10:34pm

>5 southernbooklady: "the little girls forced"

"'Please, may we come with you--wherever you're going?' asked Susan."

"to watch Aslan be sacrificed, with a knife"

"The children did not see the actual moment of the killing."

Oct 14, 2013, 8:47am

>9 cpg: well that makes it all better.

In general I think adults are much more squeamish than children about what's in children's books. Children tend to focus on what's important to them and ignore the stuff that isn't. But when it comes to the "message" to be found in the story, Narnia is just as flawed as Dahl. Dahl has the racism of the Oompa-Loompahs, Lewis has the anti-Muslim implications of the Turkomen. In Dahl, the evil aunts get crushed, in Lewis all the "bad guys" are nasty ugly monsters -- hideous witches and slavering werewolves.

Somehow, I think kids will survive the prejudices inherent in each of them, especially if they have parents who stay involved with their child's reading.

It's only when we become adults that we start subjecting books to our internal checklists of what is and isn't appropriate--as if any good narrative could be usefully dissected that way.

Oct 14, 2013, 9:58am

>10 southernbooklady: "in Lewis all the 'bad guys' are nasty ugly monsters"

"They sounded much grander when Queen Jadis said them; perhaps because Uncle Andrew was not seven feet tall and dazzlingly beautiful."

Oct 14, 2013, 10:32am

>11 cpg:

You know, that was my least favorite of the series, although I still remember vividly how the children walked down the line of statues in the palace on the world with the dying sun, and how each statue's face became colder and more cruel in the blood-red light. I also vividly remember the queen remembering with relish how at the end of a war that had ruined her world, she spoke the word that destroyed every living thing in it. There's a reason Lewis is considered preachy.

I really liked the Narnia books--but especially Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe (which was really the first in the series, no matter what the author said) and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I think those were the best-written, most psychologically astute, and despite the good/evil theme, the most subtle.

Oct 14, 2013, 10:52am

"I read the Narnia books and Charlie atcf at the same period growing up, and loved them both.
I read them several years apart. Dahl mostly much younger than Lewis.

Dahl is funny. Lewis isn't. I enjoyed Dahl a lot more. But Lewis probably started me towards reading Fantasy, wheras Dahl didn't really take my reading anywhere new.

"It's only when we become adults that we start subjecting books to our internal checklists of what is and isn't appropriate--as if any good narrative could be usefully dissected that way."


I don't even see them as comparable stories. Apples and oranges. Sure they're both popular fruit, easily eaten by children and have vitamins hence 'good' for you as part of a balanced diet. But one "better" than the other?

Read both.

Oct 14, 2013, 1:03pm

As a child, I liked Lewis better than Dahl -- still do, in fact.

Oct 14, 2013, 6:43pm

I read neither as a child (I don't know how Narnia didn't come my way but I'm too old for Dahl) but both to my own children some time ago now. The difference that really sticks with me is that Dahl was funny but I recall no humour in Lewis. Dahl's savagery might be seen as a problem but I think that, provided that the young characters are portrayed as being somehow in charge of events, it is not going to lead to any desire to imitate the bad behaviour. In my experience children are generally pretty good at separating fantasy from reality. Dahl leaves the young reader with the idea that children can influence their own destinies.

Oct 15, 2013, 11:31am

I wouldn't choose either Narnia Lewis (confining ouevre to the kid lit for purposes of the present discussion) or Dahl for moral edification. Dahl is more entertaining, though, and less morally offensive. (For the argument to offensiveness, I concur with keristars at #3, and throw in ... The Problem of Susan.)

For a bunch of kids having magical adventures a la Narnia, I much prefer Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, and for a fantasy world that children can appreciate with wholesome metaphysics and morals, I'll take Ursula Leguin's Earthsea over all of the above.

Oct 15, 2013, 12:16pm

>16 paradoxosalpha: I'll second the Dark is Rising series....lovely stuff. And I loved Earthsea, especially The Tombs of Atuan, which I found really really frightening.

Edited: Oct 15, 2013, 3:01pm

I would not chose a book for myself or my children 'for moral edification'. I think a (fiction) book needs to stand on other ground. And when the main purpose is moral edification it ends up soulless. Both children and adults are capable of learning moral lessons from good fiction, but not if that is the main purpose of the book. Both adults and children are capable of saying, ' I like this book, but I don't like how ____treated _____. ' I remember my 10year old son coming home from his first day at a new school complaining about how his classmates treated a boy who was different. We won't learn from books where everyone is good.

If I had to pick a favourite children's series, I guess it would be A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. But I certainly would not want to limit anyone's reading to one or two series.

Oct 16, 2013, 6:30am

If you compare books, rather than authors, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tops the list with me as I found it more memorable. I agree with the'apples and oranges' idea, though and feel there is room for both in any child's literary education. Dahl wrote a number of entertaining stories while the rest of the Narnia tales became rather tedious.

Oct 18, 2013, 12:27pm

I always preferred the Narnia books as a child -- and still do, though with a different perspective. As an older reader, I've found Narnia ages better than even some of Lewis's non-fiction.

I liked Dahl fairly well initially but as I got older (young teen, perhaps) I could pinpoint the lack of moral compass in his works, including a mindset that rules are oppressive and should properly be ignored. That's a fine counterweight for people (including and sometimes especially children) whose lives are heavily regulated, but in the end it's important to come to a balance, to understand why different rules exist, the consequences for breaking them for good or ill, and be able to judge which rules are reasonable and which are not, and what approach is appropriate depending -- in short, to arrive at a more mature understanding. Dahl didn't seem to be interested in finding that balance, from what I remember.

In Narnia, the characters work through emotions and decisions and prejudices and, with effort, usually arrive at a better moral place. Some commenters seem to dislike the unfair burdens and expectations and demands that Aslan places on the characters - well, welcome to the realm of Judeo-Christian faith (heck, welcome to life in general) - it's often not an easy road, and frequently unfair from a human perspective.

Oct 18, 2013, 1:36pm

20> ...a mindset that rules are oppressive and should properly be ignored.

I am reminded of a story of Dahl, due to attend an awards ceremony at the Café Royal, raising his umbrella in the air and striding off with his companions across Regent's Street in front of the traffic, looking neither right nor left.

Oct 18, 2013, 2:17pm

#20: welcome to the realm of Judeo-Christian faith

I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be so sanguine about a series of books that someone dismissed the parts that made you uncomfortable with "welcome to Islam" or "welcome to Hinduism".

frequently unfair from a human perspective.

It's a human word, so you can just say unfair.

it's often not an easy road, and frequently unfair from a human perspective.

In So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane, it's made clear that young wizards are always sent on missions, and they often don't come back. But at no point does any good character act in any way but with the greatest assistance to our protagonists. Because in my world, that's what good does.

Oct 18, 2013, 2:24pm

> 20 As an older reader, I've found Narnia ages better than even some of Lewis's non-fiction.

That's not saying much, from where I sit!

Oct 19, 2013, 4:27am

I agree with the positive things people are saying about Dahl. I adored his books as a child. I never once got the idea that rules should all be broken or that bad people get thrashed etc. As has been pointed out, children are perfectly capable of understanding the difference between reality and a fantasy story. Giant peaches? Magical chocolate factories? Witches? Telekinesis? Sorry, even at 8-12yrs old I was very well aware that none of this stuff was remotely real and what I was reading was a land of pure imagination. So what if "bad gets mauled" and "good always wins," it's a book, this is what happens in most genre books for adults, too. Why shouldn't kids also get the fantasy where good people get good things happening to them? It sure as heck isn't always going to happen in real life, isn't that why we read fantasy books in the first place? For the fantasy? Give kids the credit they're due. They're not stupid. They get it. And if some things in some books are too disturbing to them, they'll say so/put it aside.

Mar 5, 2014, 1:32pm

A belated contribution to this debate.

In the splendid BBC TV series Outnumbered - about the trials of bringing up assertive children - the 11 year old daughter is being interviewed by her new secondary school headmistress after sending a 23 page critique of the school to the governors. The head asks her if she read Roald Dahl - "Yes", she says, "when I was younger". The head, correctly, guesses that Matilda was her favourite and then says: "I'd ban Roald Dahl. He's probably ruined more children's lives than polio. Ruined them with the ludicrous belief that all adults are stupid and can routinely be outwitted by small children and the occasional fox." She then gives the child a copy of Lord of the Flies telling her that that's what happens when children are in charge - "Corpses everywhere!"

Mar 5, 2014, 8:50pm

#25: She then gives the child a copy of Lord of the Flies telling her that that's what happens when children are in charge - "Corpses everywhere!"

It may not be as direct an allegory as Animal Farm, but one point of Lord of the Flies is that that's what happens when adults are in charge, too.

Edited: Mar 6, 2014, 1:46am

>25 abbottthomas: ... ruined more children's lives than polio.

It must have been a fairly old headmistress, and it's an odd image to choose: not many children today would know of a child whose life had been ruined by polio, and the effect of hyperbole would be lost completely. Outnumbered was written by Andy Hamilton, who must have grown up in the first post-vaccine generation in the fifties. I'm only a few years younger, but it would never occur to me to use that image: all the polio survivors I ever came across were at least twenty years older than me. Interesting what a difference a few years makes.

Mar 6, 2014, 3:26am

>27 thorold:
As someone who grew up in the 1940s (I remember queuing up for the Salk vaccine when I was 14 or so) I didn't stop to think that the comparison might not have been readily recognised. Thinking about what he might have used instead, maybe Hamilton was trying to avoid upsetting some viewers by referring to a disease still causing death and disability - I don't think, say, AIDS or meningitis would have gone down well.

Mar 6, 2014, 4:56am

I can think of a lot of cases today where there are 'corpses everywhere', and I was of the opinion that adults were to blame for them.

Mar 6, 2014, 5:04am

>28 abbottthomas:
You're probably right: things that ruin children's lives tend to be either controversial or distressing, so it was probably wise to pick one that is a safe distance away, but makes sense to most older viewers. I tried to think of alternatives that were not distressing diseases, but there's nothing that really works: King Herod, the iPod, MTV, Margaret Thatcher, the Jesuits, hamburgers...

Mar 6, 2014, 5:29am

>30 thorold:
....nothing that really works...
Nice list, though ;-)