Matilda is a story about a little girl with telekinesis - but why did Roald Dahl give her special powers?
The origins of Matilda lie in Roald Dahl’s Ideas Books – the series of notebooks that he kept for scribbling ideas for stories, characters and dialogue that he might one day turn into a story. From these notes, we know that he was fascinated by the idea of a child with superpowers, or in Matilda’s case - telekinesis – the ability to move objects using the power of the mind.
Above: extract from one of Roald Dahl's Ideas Books
Of course, Matilda is not the only Roald Dahl character with special powers. Roald wrote The Magic Finger 22 years before Matilda. In this story, the Girl, who is never named by Roald in the story, deals with bullies, such as her teacher or the gun-loving Gregg family, by putting the Magic Finger on them -with startling results. The Girl describes what happens when the Magic Finger’s power awakens: “…a sort of flash comes out of me, a quick flash, like something electric” and this focussing of energy is very similar to that used by Matilda when she uses her extraordinary powers. Perhaps the Girl in the Magic Finger was an early version of Matilda?
Roald loved science and medicine, and was fascinated by how things worked – particularly the human eye. His Ideas Books contain newspaper clippings of photos of eyes, and he researched and wrote detailed notes on how the human eye worked. He used this scientific knowledge to add colour to his stories. His interest led him to write a non-fiction article, ‘The Amazing Eyes of Kuda Bux’ about an Indian man who could apparently see through blindfolds. He later added this story into The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.
Above: some of the newspaper clippings Roald Dahl collected.
In 1985, when Roald was thinking about the plot for his next children’s story, he made a deliberate decision to explore his interest in eyes and supernatural powers. He also decided to make his new character a girl, as he was conscious that most of his other heroes had been boys.
Roald had also decided to make Matilda very clever, as he had always been fascinated by the idea of extremely talented children, such as Mozart. He drafted and redrafted his story until Matilda was not only a great mathematician, but was also, famously, a Reader of Books. Roald depicted her devouring the contents of her local library, to the amazement of the librarian, Mrs Phelps.
On top of these qualities Matilda had her incredible telekinetic power, and with her intelligence, courage and imagination, this made her capable of outwitting the horrible Miss Trunchbull.
Above: a photocopy of a preliminary drawing of Matilda by Quentin Blake. He drew her eyes to emphasise her super power but changed this for the final version. © Quentin Blake 2019.
Roald Dahl was always keen to point out to his child readers that we are all gifted in some way. So while we don’t have magic abilities, we all have our own superpowers of great ideas, imagination and bravery with which to change the world, just like Matilda.
In 2018, Quentin Blake reimagined Matilda as she might have been as an adult, using her powers to change the world as an astrophysicist or as chief librarian of the British Library. You can see an exhibition of Quentin Blake’s drawings of the adult Matilda, alongside displays exploring the origins of the book using material from our archive, here at the Museum until June 2019.