With a BBC adaptation of Revolting Rhymes coming to UK TV screens this Christmas we take a closer look at the inspiration behind the book.
Revolting Rhymes is Roald Dahl’s reimagining of traditional fairy tales as a series of rhyming poems with a twist. He began by reading a book of fairy tales and then, as this manuscript page shows, he copied down the main plot points of stories he thought he could adapt into a funny alternative version.
The reworking of the tales was heavily influenced by Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, a series of morality tales about naughty children and their deserved comeuppances. In an interview at the Singapore Puffin Book Fair in 1989, Roald Dahl talked about Belloc’s influence:
I always have been a lover of Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tales. I knew every one of those Belloc tales by heart by the time I was 8,9,10… I wanted to do something a bit funny like that [and] I remembered those tales.
Cautionary Tales no doubt also appealed to Roald Dahl’s love of horror. In Revolting Rhymes, he twisted the endings of familiar fairy tales, leading to a gruesome end for his characters, such as when Jack’s greedy mother is eaten by the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Revolting Rhymes is not unique amongst Roald Dahl’s work in using fairy and folk tales for inspiring his poetry. In James and the Giant Peach the centipede starts a song with the line, “Once upon a time When Pigs were swine…” This line also began The Story of the Three Little Pigs in early written English fairy tales, like the Mother Goose rhyme collections. Roald Dahl was also inspired by traditional songs such as the Scottish folk song ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’, which is used in The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me as the basis for ‘The Duchess’ Song’.
Revolting Rhymes has a simple metre, again borrowed from Belloc, because it was "a very easy one for children to say". Encouraging children to read aloud was perhaps inspired by Roald Dahl’s love of romantic poetry, particularly Dylan Thomas. In interviews Roald Dahl talked about Thomas’ exceptional voice, and chose his reading of the poem ‘Fern Hill’ as a favourite piece of music when he appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs. He also included an extract of Thomas’ poem ‘In Country Sleep’ in Matilda. In this early draft of the scene, the sight of Miss Honey’s cottage down a narrow country lane invokes in Matilda a sense of being in a Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, many of which were adapted for Revolting Rhymes.
Poetry and rhyme is an integral part of Roald Dahl’s children’s books appearing in some form or another in almost all his stories: from the Oompa-Loompa’s moralistic tales of naughty children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to the joyful songs throughout James and the Giant Peach. Revolting Rhymes showcases the author's ability to write fun and accessible poetry with a dark comedic style.
See some original archive items and Revolting Rhymes manuscripts on display at the Museum.