When Roald Dahl published The BFG in 1982 — 20 years after James and the Giant Peach — his particular and peculiar writing style was already well-known. He told dark and twisted tales with a wink and at a leisurely pace, like a friend catching you up on a fantastical fairy tale you’d somehow missed. In his characters, he valued cleverness and wit, scorning gluttony and arrogance. He made up words so delightfully bizarre that happening upon one in the middle of an otherwise "normal" bit of prose felt like reaching for something and feeling an unexpected shock of static electricity.
The BFG follows in these same footsteps. It opens with a spine-chilling sequence in which Sophie, a bright and quiet orphan, sees the titular BFG — which stands for "Big Friendly Giant" — outside her window. Realizing he’s been spotted, the BFG panics. He grabs Sophie and takes her back to the land of giants, where he lives in fear of his bloodthirsty, drooling peers with names like "The Bonecruncher" and "The Gizzardgulper." Unlike the gentle-hearted BFG, they go hunting every night for "human beans" to eat.
But when the BFG and Sophie arrive at the cave where he stockpiles jars of phosphorescent dreams — "golden phizzwizards" and "trogglehumpers" and all — it becomes clear that The BFG isn’t a horror story, but a fantasy.
Though the book eventually becomes about Sophie and the BFG embarking on a determined mission to stop the giants from eating people, its most remarkable scenes are quieter, wistful, and at times, achingly lovely.
The BFG and Sophie quickly — we’re talking within a single night — form a firm bond. He’s eager to share the fantastic elements of his life with someone who’s not galumphing around in search of vulnerable children to scarf down; she’s curious and kind, earnestly interested in every strange thing he has to say. They open up each other’s worlds, in all the best ways.
Here is the essence of one of Dahl’s best and most gorgeous stories, in a single passage:
"Don’t go," he said. "Look in the jar carefully and I think you will be seeing this dream."
Sophie peered into the jar and there, sure enough, she saw the faint translucent outline of something about the size of a hen’s egg. There was just a touch of colour in it, a pale sea-green, soft and shimmering and very beautiful. There it lay, this small oblong sea-green jellyfish thing, at the bottom of the jar, quite peaceful, but pulsing gently, the whole of it moving in and out ever so slightly, as though it were breathing.
"It’s moving!" Sophie cried. "It’s alive!"
"Of course it’s alive."
"What will you feed it on?" Sophie asked.
"It is not needing any food," the BFG told her.
"That’s cruel," Sophie said. "Everything alive needs food of some sort. Even trees and plants."
"The north wind is alive," the BFG said. "It is moving. It touches you on the cheek and on the hands. But nobody is feeding it."
Sophie was silent. This extraordinary giant was disturbing her ideas. He seemed to be leading her towards mysteries that were beyond her understanding.