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Updating modern audiences for old texts



Puffin Books’ decision to revise new editions of Roald Dahl’s corpus last month caused something of a stir. Some of the reaction seemed to be a reflexive nostalgia from generations who grew up reading the books, outraged at the idea that they would be altered (like all those avid Harry Potter fans who critiqued the movies in minute detail for liberties taken with the original Hogwarts world of the books). But controversies like this reveal other interesting dynamics at play. What do later readers do with texts that are a product of their time? And how do we read older texts that include difficult or even dangerous elements, from the Bible to Huck Finn or Dahl’s The Witches?

While many worried about political correctness distorting a work of art, it seems to me that Puffin’s extensive alterations to Dahl’s work are designed to remove not only elements that might offend readers, but also to remove any jolt of anachronism. As though the worlds Dahl created could be completely transposed to the cultural mores of later times. The intention here is for Puffin to continue to sell books to future generations not as old classics, but as part of the new readers’ own worlds. And on this score, Penguin’s ultimate compromise following the backlash — making the original versions available in a ‘classics’ series by Penguin alongside the revised Puffin versions — may seem like a master stroke to keep two audiences happy. A desire for continued commercial relevance makes more sense not only of the move away from descriptions of the child Augustus Gloop as ‘fat’ or Mrs Twit as ‘ugly,’ but the inclusion of more contemporary views of women’s professions, or the switches from ‘frumpet’ to ‘frump,’ giving a ‘tinker’s toot’ to ‘flip,’ ‘horny’ to ‘bony’ finger, or ‘chambermaid’ to ‘cleaner.’ Naturally, these kinds of changes are not unrelated; removing elements contemporary audiences might find offensive does its own bit to hide the anachronisms, too. 

But we can’t just remove that jolt of anachronism with any of our older texts. We might paper over the sense of temporal dislocation, but they’re still coming at us from another time. Sometimes there’ll be something good about an encounter over that distance; other times it’ll hijack us with a set of embedded assumptions we need to navigate carefully.

With the Bible, for instance, it should be immediately more obvious that we’re moving to a different time, though it’s sometimes packaged in a way that obscures its distance. Most of us will read a version translated from the original Hebrew or Greek. We might not realise, as we pick up a neat edition in a single volume, all the detailed work that lies behind even getting a text to translate in the first place — ancient fragments excavated from caves, monasteries, or even ancient rubbish tips, and then studied in an effort to build coherent manuscript traditions. Then, once we get reading from the neatly published form, it can be tempting to collapse the distance between our contemporary worlds and, say, the first-century world of the New Testament gospels. This can be dangerous, though.

For instance, simplistic readings of disability and impairment in the gospels have caused distress, leaving people feeling that they need to be changed (given some gospel characters are healed) in order to participate fully in the faith community, or associating certain infirmities with hostile spiritual forces. Biblical translations mediate to us a world with its own rules and assumptions — for instance, that illness can be caused by an imbalance of heat or moisture within the body or an invasion from outside. For all the insights of ancient medicine, invading spirits or too much dryness do not reflect modern accounts of disability. In other places, the biblical text shows a capacity for inclusion that would challenge contemporary stereotypes.

Mixed messages on gender likewise require careful interpretation. Some biblical texts are radical for their historical contexts, moving towards greater gender equality; others portray terrible sexual violence that contemporary readers might only be able to describe, in the words of Phyllis Trible, as Texts of Terror. And there are plenty of further examples where damage can be done through anachronistically equating the assumptions of our world and those of the biblical world.


'We should read the texts as they come to us. The jolt of anachronism should grab our attention, and call us to read more closely. It might reveal a pitfall, or a precious insight from the people of another time and place.'


There are no good shortcuts for reading texts from another time. Updating a few words here or there might seem to help, but it might also obscure the cultural worldview that is shaping all the rest of the story. And all of this is important to appreciate, if we are to be discerning readers. (Dahl himself had a record of expressing offensive views, which is largely absent from the current discussion about whether his works should endure).

For those who read biblical texts as scripture, there is even more at stake. Reading as scripture affirms that the texts can speak to us across millennia, providing solace and challenge from beyond the habits and assumptions of our own time. This is where anachronism becomes a gift, flipping something back to us that illuminates the present.

Shakespearean productions provide an instructive illustration. Notwithstanding the odd example of editorial adjustment to Shakespeare’s terminology, by and large the plays convey the language of another time. It’s just similar enough to make sense to an untrained listener (the kind who might be tuning in via English-speaking school classrooms across the world), but no one is mistaking it for twenty-first-century playwrighting. Productions frequently draw the plays into the present, though. They relocate the action to modern settings, or alien encounters, and through the intersection of the sixteenth-century language and the new setting, leverage the anachronistic jolt to say something into the theatre company’s present time.

Discerning reading requires a capacity to read a text as a product of its own time, but also to find ways to lose some of the preoccupations of our own times. Seeing how readers from other times and places have dealt with older texts often helps, as in a recent interest in studying the ‘reception history’ of biblical and other texts. For instance, some of the biblical stories of gender and violence might be illuminated by interpretations and images from different times or social locations. Other readers help us to notice new things. They also help us to wonder why our own cultural context or social location made it hard for us to notice that, too.

Without any jolt of anachronism as we encounter older texts, we find ourselves imposing our own cultural preoccupations while concealing some of the baggage that comes from the text’s first context. And any authors, from the biblical writers to Dahl, communicate to us from times that are chock-full of their own assumptions, just like our own. Simply altering the text, by removing biblical healing narratives or specific colonial slurs in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or comments from characters who say dreadful things about women in Dahl’s books, might obscure something else we need to understand in order to assess the rest of the book (indeed, in some cases, to assess whether we even want to keep reading the book). And it will likely also give the false impression that the rest of the text’s worldview is simply the same as ours.

The only solution, it seems to me, is to devise reading practices that help children and adults alike to take account of the historical and cultural influences of a text’s own time. We should read the texts as they come to us. The jolt of anachronism should grab our attention, and call us to read more closely. It might reveal a pitfall, or a precious insight from the people of another time and place.




Kylie Crabbe is a Senior Research Fellow in Biblical and Early Christian Studies at Australian Catholic University, currently working on an Australian Research Council funded project: Inside Others: Early Christian Protagonists and Their Impairments. She is also a Minister in the Uniting Church.

Main image: Roald Dahl's Matilda book cover featurin Quentin Blake’s illustration of Matilda reading. (Roald Dahl Wiki)

Topic tags: Kylie Crabbe, Roald Dahl, Anachronism, Texts, Bible



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Existing comments

George Orwell saw all of this coming: "Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."
The censors use the pretext of protecting modern readers sensitivities, but the ultimate intention is to make it impossible for people to think anything they don't want you to think, and to foreclose on the possibility of future generations realizing the world that once was.
The Woke bowdlerizers have no intention of stopping with Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming (James Bond). Harper Collins have now “rewritten for modern sensitivities” the works of Agatha Christie. The Bible must be high on their list.
So it was pleasing to read that a new company, Swift Press, is specializing in publishing cancelled authors and books that others will not publish. In two years, they have already sold a quarter of a million books.

Ross Howard | 30 March 2023  

There is also the question in 'woke' censorship of just what kind of sensitivities are being protected. Superficial, highly artificed offence is being manipulated for purposes identified by Orwell, and, in his own time, Swift - salutary debunkers of humbug and defenders of real human rights.
I recall a senior English teacher responding to a student who complained about expressions of crude vernacular in Chaucer and in Shakespeare and their unfitness for student acquaintance: "Both these great authors appreciated the uses of robust language in its appropriate context and its contribution to characterization and realism in literature. And they wrote with a spirit of catholicity foreign and incomprehensible to puritanical perception and its inhibiting of growth."

Johhn RD | 02 April 2023  

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