Rediscovering the classics

Danny The Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

English teacher JON LOVE starts a new series looking back on great literature

We are in danger of forgetting the immense wealth of children’s books that have come before us. That we grew up on but are in danger of overlooking. Books that are just so rich and vital that to forget would be criminal.

My mission is to select and celebrate books of yore. Books that may have once been dearly cherished but are now at risk of being pushed aside. So, with that aim in mind I would like to continue in this endeavour with the quietly brilliant >Danny The Champion of the World<, first published by Roald Dahl in 1975.

Dahl is one of those writers whose name and books are instantly recognisable by any primary school child in the country. They have been turned into cartoons, films, plays as well as being available as audiobooks and as e-books for Kindles and other such digital devices.

I would suggest that in any primary school book corner you will find a well-worn box set of some of Dahl’s more popular novels probably sitting alongside equally well-read box-sets of the works of Jaqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo. I would go further and propose that of those Dahl books in the classroom the ones that children would name first would be; The BFG, Matilda, The Witches and Fantastic Mr Fox.

The one that I am going to focus on here though is quite different from Dahl’s other works. A book that celebrates the closeness of family, and the way that family depends on and is there for each other. A book that takes a little look at how it doesn’t matter what a family >looks< like but rather how much love that family has.

The book is about the titular Danny, who lives with his father in an old gipsy caravan behind their family-owned filling-station surrounded by fields and country life. The story spends the first 30 pages or so telling us about Danny’s almost idyllic upbringing in and around his father’s workshop helping to fix automobiles.

We learn how Danny’s father raises him by himself doing all the things ‘a mother normally does’ whilst also fixing cars and serving customers. Dahl spends pages and pages detailing how much Danny loves his father and the various ways in which he is a fantastic dad. We even get a brief, early glimpse of the BFG way before he gets his own book during a bedtime story.

The book is filled with a warm, old time feel of a time long gone. A time of school masters and corporal punishment, wealthy land owners in a time of gas lights and no electricity. A simpler, somewhat purer time. A time of fire-balloons, country doctors and poaching. In terms of ‘feel’ this is akin to Dahl’s other ode to childhood, namely his own as told in Boy.

The story unfolds when, due to a night-time poaching incident, Danny’s father is injured leading Danny to develop his own wild and dangerous scheme to become the champion poacher of the world.

>Danny The Champion of the World< stands out for me as being a bit special for many reasons. For a start it does not contain any of Dahls usual dark sorcery and trickery. No fantastical beasts to be found here or magic concoctions mixed up to change one’s grandparent into a towering monstrosity.

There is none of the slap stick cruelty of the Twits or madcap magic of the Giant Peach. In fact, this is one of the rarer books that includes a loving and dependable parent. Where many of the adults are on the side of the child. This is rare for Dahl.

It is a tale of simply getting one over on the unpleasant land owner and bird shoot organiser. It is about pulling together against a repugnant force. But mostly it’s about how fantastic and marvellous Danny’s father is.

A gentle, lovely story with just a whiff of danger that is suitable for any age. As an added bonus there is of course a film adaptation starring Jeremy Irons acting opposite his real-life son – Samuel – as Danny The Champion of The World.