Billy and the Minpins combines elements of folktales and Roald Dahl's love of nature.
When Roald Dahl starting writing what would be his final story, Billy and the Minpins, he used ideas that had been in the back of his mind for most of his writing career and combined them with elements of traditional folktales and his love of the natural world to create his own version of a fairytale.
Many of his books use the idea of difference in size: tiny Sophie is contrasted with the BFG; Mike Teavee is shrunk and then re-stretched in Wonka’s TV Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; George’s marvellous medicine makes Grandma first grow enormous and then shrink away to nothing. Roald Dahl continued to explore this theme of size in his ideas for Billy and the Minpins.
He’d already used the idea of tiny creatures in his first book, The Gremlins, written in 1942. The Gremlins originally lived in trees, wearing suction boots to help them stick to the branches. They were mischievous but essential benevolent. By contrast, his early notes for the Minpins, another race of tiny people, were far more unsettling. In a page shown here, a child meets “tiny humans” who are initially friendly but shrink him so that he becomes one of them forever.
Above: Roald Dahl manuscript
The concept of the woods containing both magic and danger are also common themes in his ideas for the story and give us more clues to the original book that he had in mind. In these pages, children went to the woods – here called The Devil’s Wood – to explore or to pick flowers. Each child came back changed in some way or else was never seen again. One boy who went to look for birds’ nests was afterwards only seen at night, flying around the chimney pots of the village. Twin sisters who went to look for bluebells came back after two weeks unable to speak of what happened to them and with their black hair turned white as snow.
These early ideas have a fairy-tale quality to them which reminds us of more traditional tales from the Brothers Grimm – Hansel and Gretel who left a trail of breadcrumbs as they wandered into the forest and the tale of Little Red Riding Hood who went into the woods to visit her grandmother (another story told by Roald Dahl in his own unique fashion). Roald would have almost certainly have been aware of these stories from his own childhood, and we also know that his mother, Sofie Dahl, told her children Norwegian folktales, full of monsters that lived in the natural world, in rivers and forests.
Above: Book of Norwegian fairytales owned by Roald Dahl's mother, Sofie Magdalene Dahl.
As the story took shape, Roald modified these themes, making the suction boot-wearing Minpins more benevolent and kindly, but introducing what must be one of his scariest monsters – the meat-eating, smoke-snorting, fire-breathing Gruncher.
He also used both his own experience of flying and his love of nature to add elements of adventure and mystery to the story. Billy, soaring on the back of Swan at the close of the book, sees creatures in the clouds (perhaps the mysterious Cloudmen from James and the Giant Peach?) and watches a multitude of swans gathering together in a vast blue lake, not knowing why they were there but ultimately deciding that it was best that they remain a mystery.
Little Billy’s feeling of wonder at these sights is a fitting end to the story, especially with Roald Dahl’s last instruction to us to “watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you” to find the magic hidden all around us in the natural world.