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Hear Me Out: Kurt Cobain is the archetypal Roald Dahl character

When Roald Dahl wrote, Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it” as part of The Minpins, he could not have been more accurate, and nor could he have summed up the essence of all of his children’s books so succinctly. 

In terms of escapism, Roald Dahl is unmatched. Over his writing career, he gave audiences multiple different options for a route out of the mundanity of modern living. His children’s novels are brimming with fantastical worlds brought to life by the marvellous subtlety of illustrator Quentin Blake, who facilitated Dahl affirming himself as one of the world’s most beloved authors. Blake’s role often gets overlooked in the tale of Roald Dahl, and without his work, these kaleidoscopic universes would not have come to fruition and changed every reader’s life. 

Notably, the magic of his literary worlds often came from the way that he positioned the youthful positivity of children antithetically to the dastardly cynical adults. This is something that both children and adults can relate to, owing to the fact that we all started our lives as children with our lives ahead of us, and that as adults, we find ourselves yearning for the greener days due to the many constraints and pressures of adulthood. 

This inventive perspective originated in his childhood at the Repton boarding school, particularly from his clashes with the local sweetshop lady and the physical and mental abuse suffered at the hands of his teachers. Amanda Craig perfectly summed up this sentiment: “He was unequivocal that it is the good, young and kind who triumph over the old, greedy and the wicked.”

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Dahl’s villains are often sinister figures, menacing caricatures, whose ghastly flaws are aptly portrayed by the nuance of Quentin Blake’s drawings. Because of their unrelenting wickedness, they meet darkly comic and violent ends, getting their comeuppance and leaving the world a much better place. 

Similar to how the Wicked Witch of the West dies in The Wizard of Oz or Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, after this moment of shocking violence, equilibrium is restored, and Dahl’s protagonists can go on with their lives, free to pursue whatever dream was halted by the presence of the nefarious force in question.

Dahl’s mission to cure the ills of the world has resulted in a vast amount of discourse, as there is also a socially conscious element to a lot of his works, including Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny, the Champion of the World. His books are invariably allegorical, a remarkable feat when you note that they’re all rather short. 

Somewhat of a modern successor to Lewis Carroll, the magic Roald Dahl released into the world can be used as a lens with which to approach some of our other favourite artists who have helped us move into the orgiastic green light of the future. When looking back at Roald Dahl and his protagonists such as Matilda and James from James and the Giant Peach, I couldn’t help but notice that there are many similarities between their narratives and that of the late frontman of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain.

Whilst it might sound far-fetched, mainly because Cobain lived in the real world there are hues of Dahl’s characters that can be found across Cobain’s storied life, that position him as something of a manifestation of them.

Take this review of the biography, Nirvana: Come As You Are, in the Chicago Tribune from 1997, for instance. Naim D. from Bensenville wrote: “If you like Roald Dahl books, then you would love this book. It is called ‘Matilda’ ($5). It is funny because there are all kinds of tricks and Matilda does them. Why? Because people are rude to her. I think people that like fantasy would like this book.”

Whilst Naim D. might have been joking, there is something pertinent to what they were saying. For almost his entire life Cobain found himself in conflict with the adults of the world, especially his parents, who divorced when he was just nine years old. Having a profound impact on his life, Cobain’s personality changed markedly after this momentous moment, and became withdrawn and defiant, with him retreating into dream worlds for safety. Growing up and forging an identity would be a challenging time for Cobain, as he struggled to find his place in the world, shunned by his peers for being different. 

Discussing the divorce in a 1993 interview, he revealed that he felt “ashamed” of his parents as a child and that he had always desperately wanted to have a “typical family,” he said, before adding: “I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.”

Whether it be ‘Sliver’ where he describes going to his grandparents and hating it and just wanting to be alone, or ‘Lithium’, in which he finds his “friends” in “my head”, throughout his music, Cobain clearly depicted his experiences growing up and showed that he used music as an antidote to them and a barricade from the outside world. They also provided solace for those of his listeners who were also jaded and disillusioned.  

One of the best examples of the opposition he had as a child to his parents, came after he had found his first real friend. Showing just how misunderstood he was, because of his sensitivity, individuals in High School thought he was gay, and ironically, when he found his first true friend, they just so happened to be gay. 

Once, when responding to a question asking if people thought he was gay in High School, Cobain responded: “Yeah. I even thought that I was gay. I thought that might be the solution to my problem. Although I never experimented with it, I had a gay friend, and then my mother wouldn’t allow me to be friends with him anymore because, erm, she’s homophobic.”

Of this momentous time in his development, Cobain said: “It was real devastating because finally, I found a male friend who I actually hugged and was affectionate to, and we talked about a lot of things… I couldn’t hang out with him anymore.”

This strongly echoes the themes and narrative of Matilda and the protagonist’s search for love and acceptance. Reading his life story, the parallels to the experiences of the titular hero from James and the Giant Peach are also readily clear. After the death of his parents, James experiences an unhappy childhood when living with his cruel aunts, before he eventually is whisked off into a dreamland where considerate insects such as the ladybug show him that there is kindness and warmth in the world. Namely, you can find this in Cobain’s feelings towards his “wicked stepmother”.

Interestingly, during a 1993 interview with Michael Azerrad, Cobain explained that for a long time during his childhood, he was convinced that he was actually adopted, evidence of how he used his vivid imagination to whisk him away from the pain of everyday life. He said: “I always used to think that I was adopted by my mother because she found me after a spaceship left me from a different time or a different planet. Every night I used to talk to my real parents in the skies. I knew that there were thousands of other alien babies dropped off who were all over the place and I’d met quite a few of them. It’s just something I’d always like to toy with in my mind… it was really fun to pretend that there’s some special reason for me to be here.”

Next time you’re listening to Nirvana, be sure to look for the uncanny hints of Roald Dahl that coarse through Kurt Cobain’s work. 

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