It’s easy to become inured to the madness of the culture war. Stories of Peter Pan being slapped with trigger warnings or God going gender-neutral are 10 a penny these days. They can sometimes wash over you. Not because they are unimportant – far from it. But because they are so ubiquitous. Every institution from the Wellcome Collection to Splash Mountain has fallen to some flavour of woke regressivism. Language is warped to flatter a few narcissists. Old art works and new are censored at the behest of hysterics. Such cases don’t surprise us anymore, no matter how deranged and illiberal.
But once in a while the authoritarians who make up our cultural elites outdo themselves – and remind us how much is at stake in this thing we call the culture war. The rewriting of the late Roald Dahl’s books is one such story. When the Telegraph revealed yesterday that Puffin, Dahl’s publisher, has made ‘hundreds of changes’ to his beloved children’s books, in line with suggestions from so-called sensitivity readers, the response was one of horror and disbelief. An author beloved by generations of children for his magical, spiky and sometimes sinister work has had his literary edges sanded off. All new copies will feature the newly cleansed text. Dahl’s words and stories will be changed forever, no longer truly his own, all because some weirdo with a red pen thinks they know better. The philistinism, the cultural vandalism, is stunning.
And what is it that so upset them? What is it that made these sensitivity readers conclude that Dahl’s books must be changed, so they ‘can continue to be enjoyed by all today’, in the words of Puffin? The word ‘fat’, for one. That’s gone from every book – sparing the blushes of characters like Augustus Gloop, the fat lad from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Oompa-Loompas are now no longer ‘titchy’ or ‘tiny’. Just ‘small’. They’ve also gone gender-neutral for good measure, with ‘small men’ swapped for ‘small people’. Perhaps most outrageously of all, whole lines have been rewritten and brand new lines added, seemingly to pre-empt any prejudice that might otherwise curdle in the minds of young readers. In The Witches, a line describing a witch posing as a ‘cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman’ now casts her as an aspirational girlboss, ‘working as a top scientist or running a business’.