Roald Dahl’s stories lodge themselves in our imaginations because of their incredible hooks; unique inventions like golden tickets, the giant peach and that marvellous medicine. But the reason they’ve stayed, living rent free in our heads for so many years is Dahl’s ability to create an array of endlessly fascinating characters. From sadistic teachers to psychopathic factory owners, big friendly giants to miniature mice children, there are countless memorable characters to choose from – and everyone has their favourite.
Over the course of the first lockdown of 2020 I kept myself sane by running a series of World Cups on Twitter covering children’s books, kid’s TV and finally the characters of Roald Dahl. Things got really interesting in the latter stages of the contest when the more obscure players left the competition leaving the heavyweights to battle it out along with some surprise outsiders. Collected here are the final 16, along with four of my personal favourite runners up. Did your favourite make the grade?
Matilda Wormwood (Matilda)
One of the hot favourites in this competition, and I suspect in any poll of classic characters of children’s literature, Matilda Wormwood combines the qualities of the plucky underdog, an introvert’s love of reading with a magical and often naughty sense of justice.
George Kranky (George’s Marvellous Medicine)
Many of Dahl’s heroes, boys like Charlie Bucket or James Henry Trotter come from a place of tragedy and never quite transcend their maudlin backstories. George on the other hand is a reckless child, barely distinguishable from the ‘bad children’ of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He embarks on a frankly disturbing quest to cure his grandmother of her foul temper by mixing a variety of household poisons yet he never loses the reader’s sympathy.
Danny (Danny the Champion of the World)
The hero of a book beloved even by non-Dahl fans, Danny’s appeal lies in the relationship with his poacher father William. This rural fantasy is told, unusually for the author, in the first person and as a result we get closer to Danny than almost any other Dahl character. The chapter where he sets off in a Baby Austin to rescue William in the middle of the night is a particularly thrilling high point.
Me, the monkey (The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me)
I have a suspicion that The Giraffe the Pelly and Me was written primarlily as a vehicle for illustrator Quentin Blake’s delightful monkeys. Not that Dahl is any linguistic slouch, describing the ‘Me’ of the title as being ‘so skinny he seemed to be made only out of furry bits of wire.’ And like the near identical Muggle-Wump of the Twits fame, he steals every scene he appears in.
Sophie (The BFG)
Dahl’s other great female heroine, Sophie (named after his granddaughter) takes the reader into one of the author’s most fantastical, and often scary settings, the land of the giants. She is also an orphan who transcends her sad origins and even wins the heart of the Queen of England.
The Roly Poly Bird (The Twits, The Enormous Crocodile, Dirty Beasts)
Dahl’s fascination with Africa, so disastrously deployed in early editions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with its race of pygmy slaves the Oompa Loompas, found a safer outlet in the Enormous Crocodile. Among the flamboyant jungle animals featured the Roly Poly Bird who stands up to his dreadful antagonist but loses his beautiful plumage in the process. Dahl was obviously smitten as he returned to battle The Twits and appears in the peculiar Dirty Beasts‘ poem The Toad and the Snail.
Grandmother (The Witches)
While good parents are somewhat thin on the ground in Dahl’s corpus, excellent grandparents appear with pleasing regularity. The unnamed Grandmother in the Witches is easily the best of them, imparting untarnished wisdom to her grandson through a cloud of cigar smoke and ultimately offering lifelong companionship following his transformation into a mouse.
Grandpa Joe (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
The real star of the Charlie books isn’t its slightly dreary hero, or the dreadful golden ticket winning children, it isn’t even the quixotic factory owner who torments them all. No, at the centre of events is Grandpa Joe, bed bound for decades but suddenly seizing life with life affirming brio.
Goldilocks (Revolting Rhymes)
Another Dahl staple, the spoiled rotten child who gets their just desserts, Goldilocks doesn’t innocently stumble upon the house of the three bears, she invades and then totally desecrates it.
Goldie, she begins to swear. She bellows, ‘What a lousy chair!’ And used one disgusting word That luckily you’ve never heard. (I dare not write it, even hint it, Nobody would ever print it)
The Enormous Crocodile
From the Child Snatcher to the Grand High Witch, Dahl has a knack for creating memorable baddies who terrify and entertain in equal measure. The Enormous Crocodile manages this trick for a pre-school readership. He has few redeeming qualities, unless you count his perfectly white teeth and creative attempts at camouflage, yet he’s remained a firm fixture on the lunchboxes of the world’s children.
The BFG (Danny the Champion of the World and The BFG)
The Big Friendly Giant made his first appearance in Danny the Champion of the World as a character from a bedtime story. Here he is a folkloric figure, part Green Man, part highwayman. Never one to waste a good idea, Dahl revisited the BFG a decade later and provided him with a memorable and influential new take on the English language as well as some corking fart jokes.
Miss Trunchbull (Matilda)
Often criticised for his misogynistic depictions of older women (see also Mrs Twit, below), Dahl apparently decided to double down when he dreamed up the baddie for his last full length children’s book, Matilda. The monstrous, mannish Miss Trunchbull is the reverse of delightful, feminine Miss Honey. She revels in her sadistic treatment of the children, yet any child who picks up this book will revel in her awfulness.
Boggis, Bunce and Bean (James and the Giant Peach)
‘One fat, one tall, one lean.’ Such is Roald Dahl’s skill in creating characters with broad brush strokes, that this little ditty is practically all you need to know about the three farmers who torment Fantastic Mr Fox. To add a little more depth he creates them in the image of their produce. Boggis, who eats three of his chickens daily. Bunce exists on a diet of doughnuts filled with mashed up goose liver. Bean doesn’t bother to eat, he just drinks cider and is the worst of them all.
Mr Fox (Fantastic Mr Fox)
Mr Fox is a suave matinee idol, part of Dahl’s campaign to reframe elements of country life in a more positive light (see also Danny the Champion of the World and the Magic Finger). The sexual politics may be somewhat askew, but Wes Anderson’s glorious stop motion animation fixed that with the perfectly cast George Clooney matched by Meryl Streep’s equally fantastic Mrs Fox.
Miss Spider (James and the Giant Peach)
The sole representative from Dahl’s first children’s book, James and the Giant Peach is not the hero, nor its excellent baddies Aunts Sponge and Spiker, but the more maternal figure of Miss Spider. I suspect the reason for her popularity is the magical scene in which she ‘makes the beds‘, literally out of soft and silky gossamer thread. Illustrator Lane Smith deserves a mention here for reimagining her as a beret wearing sophisticate in the excellent animated movie.
The Grand High Witch (The Witches)
Another delicious baddy, this one genuinely terrifying. The grotesque unveiling of the Grand High Witch as she strips off her wig, mask and pointy shoes is a moment perfectly calculated to give children a real trogglehumper of a nightmare.
Roald Dahl (Boy)
Roald Dahl himself can be found in many of his characters, from the lanky BFG to tricky magician Willy Wonka. He also immortalised himself in his memoir Boy, devoting a good portion of his childhood reminiscences the Great Mouse Plot of 1924. The culmination of a vendetta against a vile sweetshop owner, our young hero slips a dead rodent inside a jar of sweets and watches with glee as she plunges her unclean hands inside.
Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
Willy Wonka, perhaps Roald Dahl’s most famous creation didn’t even make it past the first round of this contest. He’s a fascinating character – charismatic, funny, sly and possibly a little psychopathic. An interesting case study then, but not necessarily terribly likeable.
Mr and Mrs Twit (The Twits)
This loathsome pair were defeated in the polls, as in the book by Muggle-Wump the monkey and the Roly Poly bird. Mr Twit is famously the embodiment of everything Dahl hates about men with beards while Mrs Twit appears to represent all he hates about women – In one memorable sequence we see a normal looking young woman become disfigured by her ‘ugly thoughts’.
The Girl with the Magic Finger (The Magic Finger)
Like Matilda, the heroine of the Magic Finger discovers she has magical powers and uses them to punish her enemies. Here the message is far more pointed – hunting is bad. Unsubtle it may be, but the girl’s sense of poetic justice is quite awesome, particularly when she turns her finger on her loathsome gun toting neighbours, transforming them into birds who come under threat by a family of trigger happy former ducks.