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Literature / Danny, the Champion of the World

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A 1975 Roald Dahl book about Danny, a half-orphan living with his father, a man with a certain fondness for poaching pheasants, in a caravan next to his father's petrol station/garage on a rather desirable plot in the English countryside. Mr. Hazell, the rich land-owner from whose land pheasants are poached, is less than amused by this hobby and attempts to thwart Danny's efforts.

Danny, however, comes up with an Evil Plan. All very sweet and lovely, unless you're a pheasant. (Though even then, it has to beat the fate Hazell had in mind for them....)

There is, of course, a film; a rather sweet one from 1989 starring Jeremy Irons and his son Samuel as the father and son, and Robbie Coltrane as Mr. Hazell.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Dahl wrote an earlier short story, simply titled The Champion of the World, which has a pair of adult protagonists and covers the events from the inception of the sleeping pill method to the pheasants awaking in the baby carriage. The book changes the story to one about a boy and his father and expands the plot, while featuring most of the same names and details. It also ends rather more happily than the short story did, softening the Downer Ending to a more Bittersweet one, and it even ends on an optimistic note with promises of more exciting adventures in the future.
  • Amusing Injuries: Played for Black Comedy. Danny's father describes gunshot wounds in rather humorous ways, while Danny himself is too horrified to laugh.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: Dahl, despite his apparent dislike for putting morals in children's books, delivers a very direct example of this trope at the end of the book:
    A MESSAGE to children Who Have Read This Book. When you grow up and have children of your own, do please remember something important: A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves, is a parent who is SPARKY.
  • Arcadia: The pleasant rural environment where it all takes place, spoiled only by this rather nasty Hazell character.
  • Asshole Victim: Good thing Hazell's such a jerk, or the fact that our hero is a poacher would be a lot more problematic.
  • Author Appeal: Roald Dahl loves childhood nostalgia, and he loves Food Porn.
  • Based on a True Story: Danny's caning by Captain Lancaster is closely based on Dahl's own experiences, as anyone who's read his autobiography Boy will immediately recognise.
  • Big "WHAT?!": Danny's father's reaction, when Danny reveals that he drove a car to Hazell's Wood.
    Danny: I brought the car. I came in the Baby Austin.
    Danny's father: You WHAT?!
  • Billions of Buttons: When discussing which electric oven to buy (perhaps one of the more advanced pieces of equipment in their filling station), Danny's father comments that one of them is so covered in dials and knobs, it looks like the cockpit of an aeroplane.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The great poaching expedition does not end up exactly as planned, with Danny and his father only able to keep two of the hundred and twenty pheasants they had originally bagged. However, Mr Hazell is greatly humiliated, albeit in a different way from expected.
  • Book Ends: The first three chapters of the book describe Danny's home life, and his relationship with his very loving father, who was "without the slightest doubt, the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had". The middle of the book is all about their adventures poaching pheasants; and the final chapter of the book, titled "My Father", winds down from the great poaching adventure, when Danny's father suggests that instead of opening the filling station, they do more interesting things. The book ends with the line about his father being the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.
  • Can't See a Damn Thing: The basis of Danny's father's favourite method of poaching pheasants, known as "The Sticky Hat": a paper hat has the inside smeared with glue and a few raisins dropped inside, with a trail of raisins leading up to it. The idea is that the pheasant puts his head inside to gobble up the raisins, gets the hat stuck on his head, and he won’t run away because he can't see.
  • The Caper: The latter half of the book is mostly about Danny's poaching idea and he and his dad's attempt to implement it.
  • Carload of Cool Kids: A highly incidental moment: just as Danny and his father are about to head off for the wood for their big job, a station-wagon pulls up at their filling-station, with a woman at the wheel, and about eight children in the back, all eating ice-creams; who pleads to be served with a few gallons, even though the filling-station is closed.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Danny points out early on that two hundred drugged raisins wouldn't net two hundred pheasants, since some of the greedier ones would eat ten or more. Danny and his father end up bagging a hundred and twenty pheasants out of the two hundred. After the sleeping pills have worn off and the pheasants have flown off, Doc Spencer checks where the pheasants were originally hidden and finds six that are still unresponsive, presumably having overdosed on the drug. The local vicar, Sergeant Samways, and Danny's father get two each.
  • Children as Pawns: A woman named Mrs. Clipstone smuggles the knocked-out, stolen ready-to-be-killed pheasants in a baby carriage under her baby son's mattress to avoid suspicion.
  • Contemplating Your Hands: Danny contemplates his hand just before it’s caned by Captain Lancaster. He also spends time examining the damage afterwards, which is described in detail; and it is also what alerts his father to the incident.
    I looked at my palm with the fortune-teller's lines running over it, and I could not bring myself to imagine that anything was about to happen to it.
  • Corporal Punishment: Danny is caned on the hand by his Sadist Teacher Captain Lancaster. Mr Hazell also threatens Danny with this, which is one reason of many for the animosity between Mr Hazell and Danny's father.
    There was a leather riding crop on the seat beside him. Mr Hazell picked it up, and pointed it at me like a pistol. "If you make any dirty finger marks on my paintwork, I'll step right out of this car and give you a good hiding."
  • Creator's Show Within a Show: Danny's father tells him The BFG as if it's a story, but also suggests he's seen it for real.
  • Didn't Think This Through: The titular Champion of the World and his father did not anticipate that the sleeping pills would wear off the morning after the pheasants took them. Also, on his very first attempt at poaching, Danny's father does not arrive at the wood until after the pheasants have gone up to roost. He blames this last one on being out of practice.
  • Dramatically Delayed Drug: Inverted. Danny's plan to poach pheasants is to feed them raisins laced with sleeping pills. At first, this works, causing the pheasants to fall out of the trees after they have roosted for the night. Unfortunately, the pills wear off the following morning, causing the pheasants to make a dramatic escape from their very unusual hiding place. The vicar's wife delivers everybody's poached pheasants hidden under a baby in a pram, and on this occasion, more than one hundred birds suddenly fly out of the pram.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Danny's father tells him about The BFG. It's interesting to see the illustration in the first edition, which shows the BFG as a much darker and more intimidating figure—though still ultimately a force for good—and contrast it with the now prevailing picture of the BFG derived from Quentin Blake and the Animated Adaptation.
  • Evil Is Petty: Danny's father just declined to serve Mr. Hazell petrol once after Hazell was dismissive and cruel towards Danny for no reason, and Mr. Hazell subsequently attempted to use various legal tricks to force the family off their land (although none of them work).
  • Everybody Knew Already: Danny is quite astonished when he finds out how many local notables (including, but not limited to, the village policeman, the doctor, the taxi driver and The Vicar) are well aware of the pheasant poaching going on and either turning a blind eye or having a go at it themselves.
  • Exact Words: When Danny's father has not returned from poaching at ten minutes past two in the morning, Danny immediately knows his father is in trouble, because he never breaks promises. Interestingly, Danny's father mentions having made a "vow" to give up poaching until Danny was old enough to be left alone at nights, but broke his vow, implying that a "vow" is not the same as a promise.
    He had said "I promise I'll be back by ten-thirty." Those were his exact words. And he never, absolutely never, broke a promise.
  • Extra Digits: Danny's father mentions that Mrs Snoddy is a sort of witch; and to prove it, she has seven toes on each foot.
  • Funetik Aksent: There's a policeman with a very rustic accent.
    Sergeant Samways: Drive on, Mr 'Azell, sir. Hignore them pheasants, Mr 'Azell, and haccelerate that hengine!
  • Giving Someone the Pointer Finger:
    • Captain Lancaster, just before Danny's caning.
      Captain Lancaster's finger shot out like a bullet and pointed at my face.
    • Mr Hazell also stabs his finger into Sergeant Samways' chest.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Danny's father says "Kindly do not molest us" to a keeper who tries to make them leave a public footpath.
  • The Great Depression: Referenced, in that Danny's father said that in his own childhood (which would have been in the right time period), times were hard for many people, there was very little work, some families were literally starving; and this was a justification for his family poaching pheasants, and he has not lost the "poaching fever" since.
  • The Grand Hunt: Mr. Hazell spends a fortune on pheasants to host an annual hunt for the upper crust, who are apparently happy to take advantage of his hospitality but secretly despise him. Danny and his father conspire to ruin the hunt and succeed in making a fool of him.
  • Henpecked Husband: The speculated reason for the "glass of water" (it's really gin) one of Danny's better teachers is always drinking in the book. Despite discovering the truth, Danny and his best friend never spill the beans. He is a good teacher, after all.
  • Homemade Inventions: Danny's father is good at these (in a more grounded-in-reality way than some examples).
  • Humiliation Conga: Danny and his father plot to humiliate Mr Hazell by trying to poach all the pheasants from his wood the night before his great pheasant shooting party. In the end, the humiliation manifests in a very different way. As the pheasants doped with sleeping pills are delivered to their filling station, the sleeping pills start wearing off, and the pheasants fly around drunkenly, settling all over the road. Mr Hazell happens to pass in his Rolls-Royce, and is horrified to discover the pheasants on "this dirty little filling-station". The local policeman craftily suggests chasing the pheasants back on to Mr Hazell's land, but they end up all over his beautiful car. This is witnessed by a large crowd of passers-by. And, insult to injury, when the pheasants fully recover (with the exception of the six birds that had overdosed), they fly away from Mr Hazell's land, meaning that they still won't be part of the great shooting party that Mr Hazell had planned.
  • Informed Poverty: Danny and his father live in an ancient traveling caravan, can’t afford a car, and a Bath of Poverty is described. They are not stated to be "poor", but are sometimes perceived as such by others, notably by a keeper who says "you live in that filthy old caravan, right?", and by Mr Hazell who sends inspectors round to try to get them off their land. Danny never invites anybody from school to where he lives, saying in the narrative that he has such a good time being alone with his father; although it’s possible (and not explicitly stated) that he would rather they didn’t see his home setting. Danny's father mentions that "times were hard for a lot of people when I was a boy", and many families were poor, justifying some of them poaching pheasants from the rich man's wood, and possibly justifying Danny's father being comfortable with a very basic lifestyle. That said, Danny's father mentions buying an electric oven and freezer in a tone that implies it would be a significant but not insurmountable expense, so...
  • Injured Limb Episode: During one of the pheasant-poaching trips, Danny's dad ends up with a wonky leg, when he falls into a pit expressly dug to catch poachers.
  • Jingle the Coins: When Danny asks if his father has money with him to buy raisins, his father replies by jingling the coins in his pocket.
  • Kick the Dog: A literal example when Mr Hazell visits Doc Spencer's surgery: instead of stepping over Doc Spencer's dog dozing on the doorstep, he kicks him out of the way with his riding boot. Doc Spencer gets his revenge by giving him an injection with the oldest, bluntest needle he can find, after using a metal file to make it even blunter.
  • Kid Has a Point: Danny comes up with the idea of dosing pheasants with sleeping pills to poach them, but he really has to persuade his father to listen; however, the title comes from this being Danny's great idea. Also, a lesser example, in the same scene:
    Danny: But two hundred raisins aren't going to get you two hundred pheasants.
    Danny's father: Why not?
    Danny: Because the greediest birds are going to gobble up about ten raisins each.
    Danny's father: You've got a point there.
  • Kids Driving Cars: When the nine-year-old Danny fears that his father has been injured while poaching, he takes a customer's car out to fetch him. Despite driving quite slowly, in complete terror, and being passed by a police car, he manages it without incident. Justified since he's helped out in his father's car repair shop for most of his life and knows them inside and out.
  • Kill the Lights: When young Danny is driving a car and hiding from the police, he instinctively switches off the car's lights while he is hiding behind a hedge, and feels quite scared sitting in his dark car.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Danny's father has a moment of this in his carefully planned operation to poach two hundred pheasants. Having planned to scatter two hundred prepared raisins in the wood over a wide area, he and Danny hide on the edge of a clearing full of pheasants under the nose of a keeper, and throw the raisins in, one by one. When the keeper turns his head away, Danny's father throws the whole lot of raisins in at once. Of course, the birds then pecking madly at the raisins attract the keeper's attention.
  • Less Embarrassing Term: Danny's father doesn't steal pheasants, he poaches them.
    Danny: You mean stealing them?
    Danny's father: We don't look at it that way. Poaching is an art. A great poacher is a great artist.
  • A Lighter Shade of Grey: This book introduces a bit more moral ambiguity than Dahl’s commonly known for, but there’s still clearly a good-guy side and a bad-guy side. What the good guys are doing is clearly not remotely legal, but they’re poor and hungry and the guy they do it to is kind of a tool so it's okay. This is lampshaded when Danny learns about keepers shooting (usually non-fatally) at poachers from behind:
    Danny: They can't do that! They could go to prison for shooting someone.
    Danny's father: [cheerfully] You could go to prison for poaching.
  • Missing Mom: Danny's mother died when he was four months old. One chapter looks at Danny's father talking about his wife's involvement in poaching, her brilliant sewing skills, and her plans to have two more children besides Danny. Danny reflects that he always finds it hard to know what to say when his mother comes up, but it's clear how much his father loved her.
  • Mr. Fixit: The father fixes cars at his petrol station and taught his son a fair bit.
  • Narrative Filigree:
    • The twelfth chapter "Thursday and School" mostly takes a break from the plot to describe Danny's school life, in particular the walks to school through the English countryside, where wildlife is described in great detail, including crickets having ears in their legs (also mentioned in the earlier novel James and the Giant Peach). Danny's school and teachers are also detailed in this chapter.
    • When Danny is loading poached pheasants into a sack, the moonlight is so strong that he can read the name and address printed on the sack, which is spelled out in the text in full.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: When Mr Hazell sees the doped pheasants all over the filling-station, the language he uses is so foul and filthy that it scorches Danny's earholes; is described as words he has never heard before and hopes never to hear again, and he cannot possibly repeat it.
  • Never Had Toys: Danny's father never gave him toys, but unlike most fictional parents who choose not to buy toys, he's not abusive. He just thinks it's easier to let Danny play with random everyday objects instead, which Danny does enjoy.
  • The Neidermeyer: Captain Lancaster. The fact that he is the only teacher who insists on being addressed by his former rank tells you all you need to know about what kind of an officer he was.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Despite Danny's fantastic idea of putting the pheasants to sleep, they do not consider that the sleeping pills will wear off by the following morning.
  • No Name Given: Danny's surname is never revealed. In the 1989 film, it's 'Smith'.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Subverted by Danny's grandfather, who always tested out his pheasant poaching theories on chickens well before trying them in the field. Danny's father at one point laments that the time and material constraints on their own operation mean he doesn't have time to do a test run with the sleeping pills like his dad would have.
  • No Time to Explain: A benevolent version in that Danny's father always surprises him, like a conjuror bringing things out of a hat. As well as Danny's idea of the great poaching expedition, Danny's father secretly arranges the taxi, and for the pheasants be delivered in a pram under a baby. Danny does not find out these things until they happen.
  • Pacing a Trench: Danny's father gets really excited when he reveals how he wants to poach the entire flock of Mr Hazell's pheasants, in order to cause his shooting party to be a total washout. Despite an injured leg, he hobbles down the caravan steps, and paces back and forth in front of Danny, waving his arms. Just before their great poaching expedition, Danny hops from one foot to the other, causing a customer to wonder if he is about to go to the dentist.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Danny's dad does NOT take kindly to Captain Lancaster caning his son. He is ready to go find Captain Lancaster and "beat the living daylights out of him", and only doesn't because Danny stops him.
    • In an earlier scene, Mr. Hazell stops by the station for service and threatens to whip Danny if he gets any smudges on his fancy car. Danny's father hands him his keys and quietly tells him that he will never receive service there again.
  • One Dose Fits All: Discussed. Danny is worried that they only have fifty sedative capsules for two hundred pheasants. His dad points out that pheasants are only a fraction of the size of a human, so even a quarter dose will be more than sufficient.
  • Parents as People: Danny's dad is clearly a kind and loving father, but he's got his share of flaws and he also poaches for fun, a hobby that could have potentially gotten him fatally shot which would have left Danny an orphan.
    You will learn as you get older, that no father is perfect. Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.
  • Roguish Poacher: Danny's father is a kindly but poor rural mechanic who learned to poach out of necessity during The Great Depression and went back to it for the pleasure of getting back at the local landowner, the loathsome Mr. Hazell. Even the vicar and the local police sergeant approve of his actions.
  • Sadist Teacher: Captain Lancaster is not a nice man. His appearance isn't terribly relevant to the plot (although it suggests he was based on one of Roald Dahl's own teachers), but adds a touch of colour to the story.
  • Scenery Porn: The English countryside and wildlife is described in loving detail throughout the book.
  • Shotguns Are Just Better: The keepers who guard the pheasants all carry shotguns. Danny's father mentions the guns almost every time he mentions the keepers, and how the thrill of poaching is precisely because the keepers have guns.
    Danny's father: Poaching is the greatest game of hide and seek in the world.
    Danny: You mean because they've got guns?
    Danny's father: Well, that does add a bit of flavour to it, yes.
  • Shot in the Ass: An easy target on a fleeing poacher. Danny's grandfather had so many scars there it looked like he'd been snowed on.
  • Silence of Sadness: After Danny's father has returned from hospital, Danny notices that his father his generally very silent. He is sure that he would tell him why if he asked, but he waits until his father does speak up a few days later, revealing his pent-up anger at Mr Hazell, and what he would really like to do to get his revenge.
  • Slice of Life: In contrast to Dahl’s other children’s stories with elements of whimsy and fantasy, Danny’s story lacks fantastical elements; the plot centers around him and his father poaching pheasants.
  • Sneakers of Sneaking: Danny's father tells him to take off his white sneakers and wear his black shoes instead for poaching in the woods, presumably because black shoes would be less noticeable in the twilight.
  • Social Climber: Mr. Hazell is a crude, cruel thug who happens to be very rich. He's happy to spend a fortune on his annual pheasant hunts because they're attended by the nobility and Old Money, all of whom secretly despise him.
  • So Proud of You: Danny's father says this, after Danny's first experience of creeping through the wood avoiding keepers.
  • Spiteful Spit: The head keeper does this to Danny's father, after Danny's father's Deadpan Snarker reply.
    "What are we playing?" my father said. "Twenty Questions?"
    The keeper spat out a big gob of spit which went sailing through the air and landed close to my father's plaster foot. It looked like a little baby oyster lying there.
  • Talking with Signs: Played with in Danny's imagination. As he notes the stone plaque above the school entrance which says "This school was erected in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of his Royal Highness King Edward VII", he thinks how boring it is to read the same words over and over again, and how nice it would be if it said something different every day. He imagines his father writing a different daily message on it with chalk, with facts such as:
    The guppy has funny habits. When he falls in love with another guppy, he bites her on the bottom.
    I'll bet you didn't know that in some big country houses, the butler still has to iron the morning newspaper before putting it on his master's breakfast table.
  • Talks Like a Simile:
    • Danny's father uses similes a lot, especially when describing doped pheasants falling out of trees:
      They will be falling out of the trees like raindrops.
      They will be falling out of the trees like apples.
      We'll be picking them off the ground like pebbles.
    • Another one to describe Danny's father when the pheasants do fall out of the trees:
      He was staring around him like a child who has just discovered that the whole world is made of chocolate.
  • Technically a Smile: Inverted. Danny's father never smiles with his mouth, but only with his eyes. This causes a lot of people to assume he is a very serious man, but he actually has a fantastic, deadpan sense of humour. Danny also notes that he prefers this style, as it's impossible to fake a smile with your eyes.
  • Thrill Seeker: Danny's father explains why he can't stop poaching, despite the inherent risks involved. It's not easy to catch a pheasant, it's just the hunter and the prey, but detests Hazell's organised shooting events as unnatural, wholesale slaughter, where the poor creatures stand no chance.
  • Too Unhappy to Be Hungry: Danny and his father are too afraid to eat their food because they plan to poach a whole lot of pheasants the next day. Downplayed though as they're not really unhappy, they're excited as well as afraid.
    Although the snakes were still wiggling in my stomach, I wouldn't have swapped places with the King of Arabia at that moment.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Raisins to pheasants, which was one of Danny's grandfather's greatest discoveries. Also Danny's father's favourite meal of toad in the hole, which is twice described in detail. Also, roasted pheasant, with the trimmings of bread sauce, chipped potatoes, and boiled parsnips.
  • Unconventional Food Usage: Danny's father's friend mentions stopping a car by putting sugar in its gas tank.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: Taxi driver and veteran poacher Charlie Kinch advocates putting sugar in the gamekeepers' petrol tanks, to prevent them from spying on suspected poachers.
    We always made sure to give the keepers a little sugar before we went out on a poach. I'm surprised you didn't bother to do that, especially for a big job like this one.
  • We Have to Get the Bullet Out!: A risk run by those who poach pheasants was to be "shot up" by the keepers, usually in the backside. Danny's father describes seeing his own father having pellets of shot dug out of his backside with a potato knife.
  • We Wait: Danny and his father have dosed pheasants with sleeping pills, and wait for the roosting pheasants to fall out of the trees. While they wait, they somewhat anxiously discuss whether the plan is likely to work.
    Danny: What do we do now?
    Danny's father: We sit here and we wait.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It is not clear what happens with Mr Hazell's great shooting party, although we are told that the pheasants fly in the opposite direction from the party; so presumably, there were not many left for the fancy folk to shoot.
  • You Have No Idea Who You're Dealing With: Mr Hazell. When Danny's father refuses to serve him, he uses his connections to try to run Danny and his father off their land. There is also this dialogue between him and Sergeant Samways:
    "All my finest birds are on this dirty little filling station when they ought to be in my woods getting ready for the shoot!" The words poured out of Mr Hazell's mouth like hot lava from an erupting volcano.
    "Am I correct," said Sergeant Samways, "am I habsolutely haccurate in thinking that today is the day of your great shootin' party, Mr 'Azell?"
    "That's the whole point!" cried Mr Hazell, stabbing his forefinger into the sergeant's chest as though he were punching a typewriter or an adding machine. "And if I don't get these birds back on my land quick sharp, some very important people are going to be extremely angry this morning. And I'll have you know that one of my guests is none other than your own boss, the Chief Constable of the County! So you had better do something about it fast, hadn't you, unless you want to lose those Sergeant's stripes of yours?"
  • Zany Scheme: Delivering pheasants under a baby. Because the keepers tend to watch the houses of those they suspect of poaching pheasants, poachers do not carry their loot straight home: instead it is delivered in a child's pram, with the baby on top. And not one pushed by any old woman, but a respectable lady, in this case, the vicar's wife. And because Danny's father is expecting a large number of pheasants, he himself converts the pram into an Extra-Large Poacher's Model beforehand. The scheme backfires when the sleeping pills with which the pheasants had been dosed start wearing off, and the pheasants wake up, tossing the baby about. When his mother realises something is up, she sprints along with her pram, attracting a lot of attention; and then pheasants start flying out of the pram.

The movie adds examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • Hazell is given an ulterior motive for attempting to run Danny and his father off their land: he wants to sell his vast land to a developer so they can build an entire new town.
    • The film includes an ongoing subplot of Danny being tormented by his teacher Captain Lancaster, expanded from a single event in the book.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Charles Tallon, the representative of the building corporation that is making a deal with Hazell to build a new town on his estate. This would likely make his company a lot of money, but it's clear from their meeting that he doesn't like Hazell any more than anyone else does, disapproves of what he's planning, and would prefer to have nothing to do with it. When he learns that Hazell lied about having bought Mr. Smith's land—a clear violation of their contract—and that Mr. Smith has no intention of selling, it's clearly with no small degree of satisfaction that he tells the man the deal's off, before cheerfully revealing the whole scheme to the locals and that the Smiths have "saved the day".
  • The Film of the Book: Naturally.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Danny and his father are given the surname Smith.
  • Period Piece: Set in 1955, while the novel was set in the present day of the mid-1970s.