As a kind of final round up of Roald Dahl’s fiction before we get to the movies based on Dahl’s fiction, two short reviews of Dahl’s last works: The Minpins and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. Reviews short because, well, the books are short (for some reason I remembered The Minpins as being much longer), but here because they serve as a nice coda to his work. Both were written while Dahl was in failing health—perhaps why neither turned into a novel—and this sensibility colors both books.
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke is, like some of Dahl’s other books, less an novel than an illustrated short story, written for the benefit of the Dyslexia Institute. It was finished shortly before his death, and contains a short tribute from his long-time illustrator Quentin Blake.
The Vicar is a kindly sort of man with just one slight problem: when he talks, he sometimes says words completely backwards. Sometimes this just leads to general confusion, since many words make no sense backwards, but at other times, this can lead to embarrassing situations—“dog,” after all, does not mean quite the same as “god,” and tends to be a rather important distinction, when you are a Vicar. His village more or less tolerates the situation until one really embarrassing speech, at which point, all agree that a Solution Must Be Found. I won’t spoil it for you, but it does reassure young readers that these sorts of conditions can be managed, even if the management seems rather silly or difficult. The book also contains many of Dahl’s better word jokes, and is a nice, gentle and very short read.
The Minpins, Roald Dahl’s last published book, is another cross between a children’s novel and a picture book; the American edition I obtained from the library contains multiple full colored illustrations from Patrick Benson. Little Billy lives near the Forest of Sin, which he has been expressly forbidden to enter. Unable to resist the temptation, however, he enters, only to find himself running in terror from a mysterious monster—and straight into the Minpins, tiny people who live in the trees of the Forest of Sin. Their choice of dwelling possibly explains their distinctly old fashioned clothing choices. After exploring their dwellings, and learning that he can never return home unless he defeats the mysterious monster—now identified as the Gruncher—Little Billy conceives of a plan, which works, improbably enough, even though it involves flying on a swan, something I’m not sure is physically possible, no matter how small Little Billy might be. But then again, the Minpins exist in a magical world where the normal rules of physics really don’t seem to work.
I find the ongoing use of the name “Little Billy” annoying, especially as the kid is constantly interacting with considerably smaller people, and the last few pages of the book have a wistful touch, as if Dahl knew he was nearing the end of his own explorations in fantastic worlds. It says something, I suppose, that he named this last world the forest of Sin, as if in a final comment on his own writings. But all of this is countered by the last page of the book, which urges children, once again, to never lose belief in magic, a message I can totally support. And the illustrations are genuinely magical. Find a child and read it together.