In Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” the 1988 children’s classic, the 5½-year-old heroine enjoys such pluck and precocious wit that she escapes not only her neglectful parents and the authoritarian headmistress of her school but also the entire unfeeling and unthinking adult world.
It’s an ability that many might prize as the adult conversation in Washington revolves around sexual assault, death threats and binge drinking.
As the Roald Dahl Story Company prepared to mark the 30th anniversary of the novel, it asked the British public to weigh in on a replacement for Miss Trunchbull, the villainous headmistress. A survey asked who Matilda’s present-day antagonist would be.
Theresa May, the British prime minister, came in second, and Piers Morgan, the television presenter, third.
Topping the poll with 42 percent of the vote was President Trump.
Now, as a result, there’s a pair of life-size fiberglass statues in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, a village in the green Chiltern Hills of southeast England. The U.S. president leers at Matilda Wormwood, the title character in the beloved Dahl novel. Matilda — hands on her hips, eyes ahead — plants herself defiantly in his way.
The temporary installation is a monument to the disdain with which Trump is viewed abroad. Only 28 percent of the British public trusts the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs, according to recent Pew data. Elsewhere in Western Europe, the figure is even lower.
But it also bears physical witness to the degree to which the president, who made his name on reality TV, has come to dominate international cultural production, even as its gatekeepers pronounce him debased and culturally unacceptable. Trump famously struggled to find musicians to perform at his inauguration. Now, he is Barbra Streisand’s muse for a torch song, “Don’t Lie to Me,” on her upcoming album. Trump famously doesn’t read much. Now, he looms over anniversary celebrations of world-famous children’s books.
“Any visible public figure — which of course includes the president of the United States — is a reference point in our rapid-fire public debate, and I don’t see that as necessarily positive or negative,” said Steve Gardam, the director of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. “It’s simply how things are today, and it’s fascinating to see how people relate that to our tiny heroine.”
The two figures square off outside the local library in the village where Dahl, who died in 1990, lived for 36 years and which helped inspire Matilda’s world.
Gardam speculated that the similarity of the name “Trump” to “Trunchbull” may have played a role in the selection. The public chose a real-life figure, he said, “because Matilda herself feels so very real to them.”
Her power comes from unexpected places, he observed. She’s quiet and yet unafraid to speak up. She’s small yet “mighty.” She’s young “but fiercely, powerfully intelligent.” These traits are attractive in trying times, Gardam said.
“Matilda demonstrates that it’s possible for anyone, no matter how small and powerless they feel, to defeat the Trunchbulls in their own lives — a message that is perhaps even more relevant in 2018 than 30 years ago,” he said.
Matilda relies on the written world to craft a different life for herself. Books, Dahl wrote, “gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” From her bedroom in the English countryside, she assumes a global perspective. She travels the seas with Joseph Conrad and journeys to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.
It’s no surprise, then, that a stack of books — including “Moby Dick” and “Great Expectations” — forms the pedestal supporting Matilda in her faceoff with the powerful world leader. She stands at 4 feet, while the president rises another two feet into the air. He leans over, his tie falling nearly to his ankles. His lips jut out, in a caricature of the facial expression he sometimes makes when he speaks.
The statues are the work of a team of artists that includes Drew Roper, an animation entrepreneur based in Birmingham, England.
Matilda’s travails are marked by the disapproval of older men. Her father taunts her for preferring books to the “lovely telly with a twelve-inch screen.” His greed, however, is his own undoing, as the police pursue him for selling stolen cars.
Trunchbull also disappears after Matilda exposes her greed and lust for power. In her quest to shake off the yoke of her family and her headmistress, Matilda uses telekinesis — a psychic ability that young people looking to her for inspiration lack.
By the end of the story, however, Matilda loses her telekinetic power. Her teacher, Miss Honey, suggests this is because she is newly challenged in school and using her brain to its full potential.
“I’m glad it’s happened,” Matilda replies. “I wouldn’t want to go through life as a miracle-worker.”
The survey conducted by the Roald Dahl Story Company revealed that more than half of the British public thinks the heroine would still be armed with powers of telekinesis 30 years later.
But the character herself averred that miracles aren’t required to stand up to bullies.
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