Danny, the Champion of the World is one of the best-loved books for children. The relationship between Danny and his father is endearing, the fast-paced plot makes the book an exciting read, and combined with Dahl's amazingly vivid descriptions it is no wonder children adore it. It is also a very English book. Descriptions of the English countryside and nature evoke feelings of nostalgia in the reader. I think this is why many adults rediscover their love of the book when they read it again to their children.
Perhaps because Danny, the Champion of the World was first written as a story for adults (in Kiss Kiss), it addresses themes more commonly found in adult literature. The critic Rebecca Lukens comments that, "Good literature is good literature; it satisfies both children and critics." Because Dahl had spent the first fifteen years of his career successfully writing adult fiction, he was able to address issues and themes that would normally have been out of place in children’s literature. As Zohar Shavit (The Poetics of Children’s Literature) observes, “a writer for children is seldom asked for his view and rarely finds himself considered part of the literary establishment.” This was clearly not the case with Dahl.
One of the main themes addressed in literature through the centuries is the human condition and the struggle to feel alive despite the monotony of everyday life. T S Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, “The awful daring of a moment's surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract, by this, and this only, we have existed.” Dahl addresses the same theme in Danny, the Champion of the World. Danny’s father has “Such a powerful yearning” for poaching, and it is clear this activity, notwithstanding its dangers, brings him sheer exhilaration. He wants to keep his son away from an activity that he knows is dangerous, but at the same time cannot resist letting him experience it to show him how it can make a person feel. As Danny says, "Most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn't be exciting if they didn't."
The whole book is based on the morally questionable act of poaching. Even Danny says, “You mean stealing them?” when his father first reveals his actions. Danny’s father attempts to legitimise poaching by portraying it as a form of social justice and an act of revenge against the local villain, Victor Hazell. Hazell is detested by all the local residents, and even the most law-abiding (a policeman, a vicar's wife and a doctor) are clearly involved in the poaching plot, justifying it further. However, this is still a morally dubious story, and publishers at the time (as well as some more recently) raised concerns over the subject matter.
There are class themes running throughout the book. Although Dahl attended a private school, and was a prominent member of the upper classes, he detested snobbery. Victor Hazell, the villain of the book, is “A roaring snob and he tried desperately to get in with what he believed were the right kind of people.”
Danny, the Champion of the World was written in 1975 and set in the 1950s. However, the main themes of the novel are equally applicable today. Dahl ends his book with “A MESSAGE” to children, namely, “A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY”. With current debates about whether some of today's parents fail to interact and engage with their children, this message is perhaps more relevant than ever.
“A funny and subversive plot...highly imaginative.” The Daily Telegraph
(I am distinguished from other children’s writers by) “This business of remembering what it was like to be young.” (Roald Dahl).
"I never get any protests from children. All you get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like." (Roald Dahl)