Roald Dahl / The Illustrated

The Magic Finger illustrated by William Pène du Bois

Happy Roald Dahl day everyone! Before you stick your face in the chocolate lake in celebration, why not gorge on these pictures from the original edition of The Magic Finger.

The Magic Finger was the first Dahl book I remember reading. As an introduction to his children’s books it’s slightly unrepresentative, and perhaps bears more similarity to his adult work. Unlike the real world fantasies of Danny, Charlie and Matilda that he’s best known for, this one uses a satirical central theme to take pot shots at people who hunt birds for sport.
Dahl had real life neighbours from Buckinghamshire in mind when he conceived the story, and the punishment he metes out to them would have made a great Tale of the Unexpected.
The narrator is an eight year old girl, possessed of a Magic Finger which unleashes terrible punishment on people who anger her. For the gun crazy Gregg family, this means trading places with the birds, who move into their house before turning the guns on them.
It wasn’t a story Dahl himself was particularly fond of. According to Jeremy Treglown’s biography the story was commissioned by the American publisher Macmillan as part of a series of children’s stories by well known authors including Arthur Miller, Sylvia Plath and John Updike. The brief was to write a very short story with words from a vocabulary list they thought suitable for the age range.
The concept was bizarre, and Dahl later admitted grotesque. But he thought it would be easy money and was spurred on by the success of Robert Graves’ marvellous effort, The Big Green Book (reviewed here), with art by Maurice Sendak.
But Dahl’s efforts were turned down by Macmillan – who perhaps hadn’t banked on the author turning in an anti-gun story. Instead it was picked up by Allen and Unwin who recruited William Pène du Bois to provide the illustrations.
Having grown up with the edition illustrated by Joan Aiken’s regular artist Pat Marriott, this version came as something of a surprise. The heroine’s Seventies styled flares are gone, replaced with a Mary Quant style mini-dress and sailor’s hat. In fact it is an altogether more detailed and distinctly Sixties production.
Pene du Bois seems to be working as hard as he can against the original brief, producing a knowingly arty book which plays with perspective (see the duck’s pointing their guns skywards), uses art references and even includes a ‘hold to light’ trick in the scene where the narrator’s teacher gets fingered and transforms into a cat in front of your eyes.
But the real showpiece comes in the sequence where the Gregg’s lose their wings and tumble back down to earth. Dahl writes it beautifully.
‘Then the black that was before their eyes turned to blue, to green, to red and then to gold, and suddenly, there they were, standing in lovely bright sunshine in their own garden, near their own house, and everything was back to normal once again’.

Pat Marriott illustrates this scene as if the family are waking from a bad dream. Quentin Blake conjures a nightmare of scratchy stick figures fighting their way through the murk of thick, cross hatched pencil.

William Pène du Bois on the other hand goes to town, producing the children’s book version of the Stargate scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s superbly trippy, and quite unlike anything else in any other Roald Dahl book. I imagine he hated it. Happy Birthday Roald.

Dahl Without Blake #1 Dirty Beasts

Dahl Without Blake #2 The Witches

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