Roald Dahl’s The BFG was one of my favorite books in elementary school. Even among his other books that I loved – Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The BFG was far and away the one I liked best. There’s no other book like it, although it does share elements with stories like Peter Pan or Wizard of Oz. This is because the BFG himself is a wholly unique character, from his strangely endearing broken English to his big flappy ears to his net and trumpet for catching dreams and blowing them in the ears of children (respectively). I had been excited there would finally be a movie last year, for pretty much the same reason I’m excited about A Wrinkle In Time next year… and then managed to forget about it. Having finally watched it, the movie version did not disappoint.
I hadn’t expected to write many (or any?) movie reviews for Disinfo. But watching the movie version, after not having read the book for decades, caused the Big Friendly Giant’s otherness to smack me in the face. I always related to the BFG more than Sophie, as a weird person who was often an outsider, smarter than most of his peers, with interests they might call crazy. But it took watching the movie to realize he meets all the usual criteria for a shaman. All you need to see this is to exchange the word “dreams” for the word “spirits”. It’s not even much of a stretch, since the story makes it clear these “dreams” have volition and language, in addition to their narratives.
The shaman works in darkness. This one is easy. When we first see the BFG, he is slinking about at night in a cloak. At “the witching hour”, no less. Check.
The shaman must enter a trance state in order to “control” the spirit world and function effectively. This is present in the story in a metaphoric way. In order to enter the dream realm, the BFG jumps through a lake in giant country that leads to a mirror world. The elemental meanings of water come into play here, as it represents dreams, intuition, and those subtle senses that can help with sensing or visiting the the astral plane or shamanic otherworld. This is where the BFG collects the spirits (“dreams”) that he later blows into the ears of sleeping children. When Sophie comes with him to the otherworld, he takes great care to protect her, since she doesn’t have his expertise on which spirits that live there (trogglehumpers) could be malicious.
The shaman employs “spirit flight” or out-of-the-body travels, into the spirit world. Even leaving out his jaunts to the actual spirit world above, we see him run so fast between England and giant country that it would feel like flying to Sophie when she travels with him. The giants could be thought of as a particular kind of spirit, inhabiting their own world that humans can’t reach unless physically carried or given directions by a native. The arrival of helicopters later is narratively convenient, but doesn’t contradict this interpretation thematically.
The shaman is equally proficient in the practice of “good” or evil, e.g., “healing” or cursing work. We see this from the way the other giants come to the BFG when they have a wound that needs to be treated. While he is normally content to blow good dreams into the ears of children at night, he seems more than willing to mix up some very frightening and disturbing dreams for both the other giants and the Queen of England, in order to prevent more children from being eaten.
The power the shaman claims to use is either that given by the spirits themselves, or a force conceptually differentiated from the spirits but which is indistinguishable from them. The BFG calls his spirits “dreams”, but they seem difficult to distinguish from spirits. They move around on their own, resist being captured, and can speak with those who know how to listen properly. Bringing back wisdom or messages from the spirits for the community is traditional. The BFG’s chosen community just happens to be a different species from his own.
It is essential for the shaman to contact one or more (sometimes dozens or hundreds) spirit guides. One need only look at how many glass jars the BFG has in his house, each with a different spirit inside, waiting for the right person to join with and inspire.
Shamans acknowledge that spirit possession supplies their magical powers. We see how strong and fast the BFG is when compared with humans, but the other giants make it clear he is too physically weak to resist them. We also see that his ability to create custom dreams is about mixing several dreams together to get the desired result. Without the raw material of the dreams themselves, the BFG would lack this power. Likewise, he only knows a little about Sophie’s future life path at the end because a golden phizzwizard told him, seemingly so that he would let her dream it later. His only supernatural powers are understanding and communicating with spirits, visiting their world, and maybe controlling them a little with net and trumpet when necessary. Since we never see anyone else who is able to do this without his help, it’s fair to say the spirits have chosen him or blessed him with these abilities.
The shaman experiences temporary or extended periods of mental illness similar to psychosis and schizophrenia; extended periods of acute physical suffering and torture are also common. The physical suffering comes from the other giants, who torment the BFG physically. The book makes it more clear that the snozzcumbers he eats are repulsive in taste as well as appearance, but they are the only vegetables in giant country. He also seems to suffer from melancholy, some of it related to his other human friend whom the giants ate.
I would add that like mental illness, some cultures consider physical differences a mark of who should be the next shaman or medicine person. The BFG, as we know, is the smallest of the giants, who call him “Runt” as if it’s his name. He also has the very big ears, not typical of the other giants. Most of the time, his otherness seems to make them want to leave him alone. Being in his house makes them feel confused, which is why they take such pleasure in trashing the place.
Do I think Roald Dahl was consciously aware of how shamanic practice works? Not likely, though it has some similarities with traditional European witchcraft lore he probably knew. He was writing a long ago, and seems to have believed in dreams more than spirits, especially after becoming an atheist. I think Dahl’s main interest, like the BFG’s, was crafting beautiful dreams that would make children happy. “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” Willy Wonka says in the first film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl didn’t write that line, but it captures the feel of his books rather well.
Like some of my other favorites – The Neverending Story, Lady in the Water, The Longest Journey / Dreamfall game series – Dahl’s work sometimes involves commenting on the nature of narrative itself. The beauty of the film version of The BFG is that it preserves an essential but often overlooked lesson of the book: that storytelling is itself a powerful tool of shamanic healing. I explored this theme a bit myself, with a fable on my personal blog. Humans have always known a story can deliver important information that sits in the listener’s unconscious mind until they are ready to process it. But in modern Western culture, adults often forget that “medicine” can mean more than just pills. Kids (and the best artists) usually know better. The BFG, with his net and trumpet, reminds us that medicine can mean any idea or story that heals our mind or soul. That’s part of why the story is timeless.
I think the other reason is that as long as humans have had societies, we have relied on those few people existing on the fringes, walking shadow paths in the liminal spaces between things, to provide us with reality checks, help us identify our blind spots, and dive into the worlds we cannot enter to bring us the wisdom and dreams we need. Too often, these people are treated poorly; it’s no coincidence medicine people are often LGBT or people with disabilities. Plato may be the first to identify this pattern with the Allegory of the Cave. In his own coded and likely subconscious way, Roald Dahl reminds us of the healing power of the fringe-walker with The BFG. This is a kids’ movie that seems nearly as subversive as The Lego Movie, some of the highest praise I can give it.
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