One of the finest children’s authors of all time, Roald Dahl gave the world chocolate factories, dream catchers, talking spiders and scary witches. With each of these, he also gave us a story to fall in love with, an unlikely hero to root for and a dream to chase. Nowhere is his magic more lasting than in Matilda.
The novel, first published in October 1988, turned 30 this month. The occasion was celebrated with special collectors’ editions of the book, featuring cover art that reimagined what the child genius would be up to at the age of 30. Among the eight covers created by Dahl’s long-time collaborator and illustrator of a majority of his books, Quentin Blake, we get to see 30-year-old Matilda as an astrophysicist, a world traveler, the chief executive of the British Library, a poet laureate, and a special FX artist.
The 30th anniversary celebrations didn’t just stop at the covers, however. A public poll asked respondents who they believe Matilda would be most likely to stand up to today in place of the villainous school principal, Mrs Trunchbull. The result was a statue of a resilient Matilda standing in a face-off with Donald Trump, placed opposite the library at Great Missenden, the English village where Dahl lived for 36 years.
The statue symbolises the enduring significance of Matilda, who remains one of the most inspiring female protagonists of children’s fiction – a young bookworm who chooses curiosity and sensitivity over ignorance and blind compliance every time, and saves the day.
An inspiring protagonist
Matilda Wormwood lives in a tiny English village with her family. Ignored by her parents, she finds friends and confidantes in the books she reads at the local library every afternoon. No one notices as she walks alone to the library, while her mother is out playing bingo and her father is selling faulty patched-up cars for a profit.
At home, she is unheard, unseen, misunderstood and discouraged from reading. Things don’t change for the better when she finally starts school, where the joy of learning is replaced by the fear of dictatorial authority. She is undermined, bullied and called a liar. She finds some allies – her best friend Lavender and the lovely teacher Miss Honey – but they too are defeated when confronted with the undeniably horrible Miss Trunchbull (easily one of Roald Dahl’s scariest villains).
Matilda is told that little girls should be seen and not heard, that looks are more important than books and that “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it”. She however, does something about it. She fights a system that is engineered to keep her down with superglue, hair dye, talking parrots and telekinetic power. She is livid. Life is unfair but Matilda is having none of it. She becomes an unlikely hero, using imagination against brute force. And this is what makes Matilda such a timeless yet essential story.
The power of rage and reason
How often are little girls or even grown women allowed to channel their rage and displeasure in popular culture or literature? All the genius that is packed into her young brain and all the rage she feels against the machine is channelled into upsetting the dominant narrative and those who uphold it. If this isn’t a story you want to tell your little girls, what is?
Matilda uses reason, her voice, the power of friendship and her courage to fight those who try to pull her down. Like in many of Roald Dahl’s books, the antagonists in Matilda are grown ups who misunderstand and bully the bright young heroes, believing they know better only because they have age and the society by their side.
Matilda is the antithesis of two of the most odious characters in the book. The first, Miss Trunchbull, hates all things “girly”, dislikes children, believes in brute force, and does not harbour one pleasant feeling in her towering body. A figure of authority, Trunchbull not only misuses her position at work, but also abuses those around her at home. The other one is Matilda’s mother. Mrs Wormwood believes she has done well in life by choosing looks over books and marrying a successful businessman who owns a big house. She ignores her daughter entirely, except to discourage her love of reading and asking her to ditch books for the television.
Yet Matilda, seemingly unscathed by the negativity that surrounds her, makes friends easily and values honesty and intelligence over insensitivity. She fights for her rights and of those of her friends. She does not cower down in the face of stark abuse and injustice, but stands tall. As she would today.
If ever a guidebook was needed on how to raise a daughter, Matilda could very well be it, featuring a sensitive, curious and empowered little girl who shows more promise than an entire village that is committed to dulling her sparkle. But they don’t succeed and Matilda goes on reading and making the world – both fictional and real – a more inspiring place to live in. What I learned from Dahl’s novel after first reading it 20 years ago was that you’re never too small to stand up to bullies, there is magic inside all of us if we focus really, really hard, and that books are the most beautiful kind of love.