Why Roald Dahl Thought Fox Hunting Was 'Foolish, Pointless and Cruel'

Writer Lucy Jones reveals that even a young Roald Dahl thought foxes were fantastic

Fox in a meadow
A fox stands on a meadow near Freesdorf, northeastern Germany, on September 29, 2015. Whether cunning or fantastic, foxes have always been popular in literature. PATRICK PLEUL/AFP/Getty Images

The extract below is taken from Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones, published by Elliott & Thompson. The book explores Britain's national obsession with foxes; loved and vilified in equal measure.

The cerulean sky set everything off the day I travelled to Great Missenden, the little country village in the Chilterns made famous by its erstwhile resident Roald Dahl, to visit his archives. Trees were slightly burnished by the beginning of autumn and leaves browned like the top of an apple crumble. The houses became quaint and pretty as the train whizzed out of London.

Dahl was born in Cardiff in 1916 to Norwegian parents. He started writing during the Second World War and, in 1943, The Gremlins was published, the first of a run of funny and imaginative stories published in hundreds of languages. Unlike other children's books, Dahl's writing was never didactic or moralising; he revelled in high jinks and naughtiness. 'I am passionately obsessed with making the young readers laugh and squirm and love the story. They know it's not true. They know from the start it's a fairy tale, so the content is never going to influence their minds one way or another,' he once said.

The author's writing hut has been replicated exactly in the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. His ashtray, complete with cigarette butts, sat on the makeshift desk that rests on an armchair made specially to accommodate his back problems. Spectacles and other personal items were nearby: family photos, drawings, trinkets, lighters, mementoes. The lino is as it was: blue, red and yellow diamonds on a green background. It's the same lino filmmaker Wes Anderson gave to the study floor of his Mr Fox in the popular film based on the book. Dahl sat in his hut from ten in the morning until twelve, even when stuck, to write. 'It is my little nest, my womb,' he said. From there he could see down to an ancient beech called the Witches' Tree – the very one where he imagined a certain Mr Fox and his family lived.

The most famous fox in British literature today emerged in 1970. Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox was a complete transformation in the way foxes are perceived in this country—traditionally seen as a wicked trickster, he now became the first unequivocal fox hero. The very fact that a new vision of the fox had appeared provides fascinating insights into the tensions around the fox's place in Britain.

The plot of Fantastic Mr Fox sees our hero as a predator to be admired. With the fox family being relentlessly hunted by three nasty farmers, Mr Fox comes up with the idea of taking food from each of their farms through a series of underground tunnels. He gathers a vast feast for all the other families trapped by the farmers' determination to kill the crafty fox, and for that he is dubbed fantastic. Dahl created characters and a plot that make us delight, cheer and punch the air when the foxes outfox the repulsive farmers and feast on livestock and poultry to their hearts' content.

In the archives I discovered that the first draft was different from the story we know today. The foxes—and Dahl's original drawings of them are charming—dig up into the Main Street supermarket and fill their trolleys with cake and eggs and pie and candy and toys. Mr Fox is still the provider, but the family is essentially stealing from faceless shopkeepers. 'The cops are still looking for the robbers,' reads the final line.

The American publishers were concerned that this 'glorification of theft', as Roald Dahl's biographer Donald Sturrock put it, would put off libraries and schoolteachers from promoting the book. Editor Fabio Coen wrote to Dahl with a suggestion. Instead of stealing from the supermarkets, the foxes should steal from the horrible farmers. 'It would also hold something of a moral,' he wrote. 'Namely that you cannot prevent others from securing sustenance without yourself paying a penalty.'Dahl was thrilled with his editor's ingenuity. 'I'll grab them with both hands and get to work at once on an entirely new version,' he wrote. Later, there were conversations about whether the fox really needed to kill the three chickens in the coop, and a suggestion was made that the fox should just collect a huge basket of eggs instead. Dahl insisted that this would not be right. 'Foxes are foxes and as you're right to say they are killers,' he explained. The decision was made that it wouldn't distress children and the foxes' natural activity was kept in. Fox is a hero in spite of his natural carnivorous behaviour. He is cunning, and he is celebrated for it.

I wandered to the field near Gipsy House, where Dahl and his family once lived, to see the beech trees under which the real Mr Fox built his den. Hedgerows covered in clots of red hawthorn berries and blackberries the colour of dried blood bordered the footpath. Summer was over and the honeysuckle looked ropey. The late-afternoon September light made the foliage glow green and dappled the damp forest floor. It was quiet and seemed a fitting place for a fox family to make its home.

Dahl would have been well aware as he was writing that he had chosen an animal whose image was starting to be fiercely contested, that perhaps it was now ready for a more sympathetic portrayal. Although he never spoke publicly about fox hunting during his life, when he was sixteen and boarding at Repton School in the Midlands, he wrote an essay about hunting. The archivist at the Roald Dahl Museum dug it out during my visit. It is a forcible argument for why Dahl believed hunting to be 'foolish, pointless and cruel'. He concedes that riding a horse is enjoyable but questions the need to have 'something to chase, something at which to shout and blow trumpets...and finally to satisfy their bloodthirsty minds'. The red fox is described as 'small', 'valiant' and 'little'; he 'tires' and 'takes shelter'. Dahl recounts what happens if the animal is found: 'Slaughter takes place, after which certain young and usually too well-nourished members step forward to have the blood of sacrifice smeared on their faces.' Dahl's visceral and imaginative wit shows early: the huntsman has the appearance of 'having been grown in the dark'.

Dahl then draws a comparison between the killing of the fox and the lady who cries when her Pekinese gets a thorn in its paw. It is 'incredible', he writes, that the same lady should gloat at a fox being 'torn to pieces'. The piece ends with the assertion that the most humane method of killing foxes is surely to shoot them. Although views do, of course, change, it is still an interesting insight. We know Dahl was an animal-lover: he owned dogs, cats, goats and even 200 budgerigars at one point, and in his book The Magic Finger, published in 1966, a young girl who abhors hunting uses her magic to turn a local hunting family into the ducks they shoot.

Compare Dahl's portrayal of the fox, a noble and sympathetic creature, with another: licking his lips, eyes narrowed and thickly kohled beneath comic, angry eyebrows, often surrounded by a cloud of feathers, the fox is unequivocally dangerous, but also clever, and therefore a worthy opponent for sport. He even has a name: Charlie. This is the fox of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and if you read the classic hunting literature, you'd believe this fox is more attractive than the average town fox you might see today: richer in hue, it could be mistaken for a flame if you caught a glimpse of it across a field. He was distinguished from other animals by his cunning—he could roll in manure so that the hounds would lose his scent or run across bridges or swim across lakes. In a way, he was master of his own destiny. Some sources even suggested Charlie enjoyed being hunted, looking back at the hounds with a smile and a chuckle.

When I see a fox, I'm aware that I am utterly influenced by the stories I've been told, the pictures I've absorbed, the rumours I've heard. Foxes have a rich history in this country, as a creature we have used for our own physical needs, as fur, food or medicine, but also as one that has captured our collective imagination, at various times a rogue, a villain, a trickster, a character to be admired or reviled.