Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvelous Medicine is dedicated, rather cruelly, to doctors. I say “rather cruelly,” because much of the book is a fierce indictment of modern medicines, which, in Dahl’s viewpoint, either do not work and are thus completely unnecessary, are filled with toxins and other strange things and are thus not the sorts of things you should be taking, or, on the rare occasions when they do work, prove almost impossible to reproduce. It’s not exactly the sort of book you might expect from an author known for working closely with doctors to care for his own family members, but Dahl had also lost a child to illness, and by the late 1970s, he was experiencing his own medical issues. So it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to deal with these through an often fiercely bitter book.
The book begins simply enough, with a confrontation between a kid called George and his Grandma, who may or may not be a witch. She is definitely deeply unpleasant, bitter, and emotionally abusive. A furious George decides to take his revenge: he will replace her usual morning medication (a spoonful of an unidentified substance that she is quite obsessed about, even though it doesn’t seem to be doing any good) with a medication of his own invention. Since he’s a kid, this medication is about as gross as you might expect, containing bits of everything liquid or powdery George can find in or near the house, including shampoo, curry powder, antifreeze, motor oil, veterinary medicines, brown paint, and other stuff, all boiled together. Yuck. (Also, kids, please do not try to boil anything that might contain motor oil on the stove even if it turns out later that it doesn’t. This will not go well and your parents are going to be very very very angry and you are not going to get any ice cream for a very very long time. You should really trust me on this.) And because George may or may not have inherited magical powers from her, the medicine works far better than might be expected, possibly because George does recite a poem and stir the stuff with a nice long wooden spoon, two things which might mitigate the expected chemical effects. Maybe.
Astonishingly enough, since the antifreeze in question is probably ethylene glycol, which is generally unkind to human kidneys (among other issues), the medicine has a marvelous effect on George’s grandmother, first setting her on fire (see, this is why boiling motor oil on a stove is generally not a great idea) and then making her grow right through the ceiling and even the roof of the house. (I’m not sure what caused this. Maybe the curry powder.) Even more amazingly, this, and a now overly large hen don’t particularly upset George’s usually easily upset father, who is instead delighted that his son has apparently created a formula that can, by creating very large animals indeed, solve the world’s food supply problems.
(Alas, although this sounds like a great plan, in reality I’m not entirely sure it would actually work—the larger the animal, the more it would need to eat, so I fear all this would really create is still more stress on the world’s grain supply, already massively under stress from world overpopulation, drought, and other weather events, but I am putting a lot more thought into this than George’s father did, so I’ll stop. Enough to say that George’s father is pleased rather than horrified, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about him.)
Unfortunately, to do that, George and his father need to recreate the marvelous medicine, which proves a bit trickier than it sounds, possibly because George fails to repeat the magical rhyme he used when stirring the original medicine, partly because George’s Grandma is still around, shrieking and yelling. His later attempts create some strange looking animals indeed. And, not entirely to George’s relief, one of the medications makes his Grandma disappear entirely, to the unconcealed relief of his father and the distress of his mother.
It’s a relief because although the magical medicine certainly changed Grandma, and removed at least some of her physical issues, it did nothing to change her horrible personality. And here, Dahl is making another none too subtle point about medicine: even the best medications can only do so much. At the same time, it’s a surprisingly unsympathetic portrait from a man as aware as anyone of the stress pain and illness can cause, along with the resulting negative effects on a patient’s personality.
The greatest flaw of the book, however, is probably its abrupt ending, which leaves about a thousand questions unanswered. For instance: what happened to the giant cows? The giant chickens? Or the poor chicken with the long skinny legs? Were George and his father ever able to recreate the marvelous growing medicine, or was that a one-day-magical spell only? The last sentence seems to suggest that this was a unique occurrence, but then, how did George and his father explain away the oversized animals? How did they feed them? Did nobody come to investigate the disappearance of a not much liked elderly woman and perhaps suggest that the family had a reason to get rid of her? (Since the family did indeed have a reason to get rid of her.) Does George have magical abilities? Did the toxins in the paint and the antifreeze and other ingredients poured into the medicine eventually have a negative effect on the animals?
I might not have had so many questions if Dahl had taken a moment to answer any of them, but he does not—unusually enough, given that in previous books he had no problems summarizing the fate of minor and secondary characters in brief sentences. Here, really not so much.
The ending has another, perhaps more subtle problem. In the beginning, George has a lot of problems—his grandmother only one of them. He lives largely alone, with no brothers or sisters and no friends, and is incredibly bored. True, having to care for giant goats might help cure this, except that Dahl specifically informed us that George is specifically bored with farm animals. He also has a father who gets overexcited by small things.
The end of the book does nothing to end any of this—George still has no brothers or sisters or friends, he’s still on the farm with a bunch of now transformed farm animals, and he still has a father who gets overexcited by small things. I’m not sure that the removal of his grandmother will be enough. Especially since I suspect that George’s father will soon be harassing him for more of the marvelous medicine—and if George can’t produce any more (and since he can’t remember exactly what he put into it, he might not be able to), his ending may be unmarvelous indeed.
Mari Ness refuses to discuss the incident with the stove and the motor oil any further, except to say that it seemed like a good idea at the time.