In adventure stories, the characters are usually broadly drawn and suggestive rather than well developed and realistic. The plots are generally a simple recitation of interesting and exciting events: adventures. A popular subset of adventure fiction is aviation stories. Frequently, such stories are aimed at teenage boys and have characters who are hypermasculine, particularly in the camaraderie, self-denial, and violence required by the military, but at the same time who have some of the same limitations as their adolescent audience: they are impulsive and free of introspection. These characters frequently inhabit a world in which women are idealized, mysterious, and above all removed from the ordinary course of life. Aviation adventure stories of this kind are exemplified by the Biggles books of W. E. Johns. Starting in 1932, the popularity of this series of short stories and novels (totaling one hundred volumes, though they were originally published in pulp magazines) about the fictional World War I Flying Ace James Bigglesworth clearly defined the adventure-laden genre of the aviation story in popular culture in Britain. During World War II, the genre was imported into the United States in the form of comic books in such titles as Airboy Captain Flight , and Wings In ‘‘Beware of the Dog,’’ Dahl subverts (that is, undercuts or goes against) the expectations of the genre, while adhering to some of its superficial features. Williamson, the main character of ‘‘Beware of the Dog,’’ is evidently an RAF pilot who has seen extensive service in the Battle of Britain and has, moments before the story opens, been involved in air-to-air combat. However, this is not described, certainly not in any high-flown heroic fashion, and is largely irrelevant to the story. The story instead concentrates on a detailed and realistic exploration of the results of that combat, namely the loss of the main character’s leg; for example, he finds it extremely difficult just to get out of bed without his leg. In fact, while he is beginning to black out due to loss of blood from his wounds, the main character experiences a sort of fantasy satirizing boys’ aviation adventure stories, in which he ‘manfully’ denies the significance of his wound and handicap, thinking that his comrades will refuse to believe and laugh it off as a joke. He further imagines explaining it to his girlfriend: ‘‘I’ve got a surprise for you. I lost my leg today. But I don’t mind so long as you don’t. We’ll go everywhere in cars. I always hated walking.’’ Here, Dahl subverts the genre’s emphasis on an unrealistic disregard of pain. At one point, the main character uses banter, the sort of coded language actually used among RAF pilots, when he refers to the English channel as ‘‘the drink.’’ This form of speech was often imitated in aviation stories. Similar to this is Williamson’s tendency to refer to people by nicknames or diminutives (Yorky, Bluey, Johnny), an affectation of the English public schools that perpetuated itself in the officer class.
Williamson, the main character of ‘‘Beware of the Dog,’’ is marked for his fearlessness. Certainly, although he is wounded in his Spitfire, he shows no inclination to panic but rather methodically carries out the steps necessary to save his life. Later, in the hospital, he does not seem to particularly fear the prospect of facing life without his leg, nor does he seem particularly frightened by his deduction that he has been captured by the Nazis. All of these are situations that one might reasonably expect to produce fear and even panic. Part of the explanation for the first instance lies in the fact that he is going into shock and losing brain function as his blood pressure falls, so that he is literally not in his right mind; he does not realize he ought to be afraid. For this reason, he reacts with dream-like fantasy rather than fear. However, that is far from a complete explanation. His reaction throughout the story to every crisis is to go by the book. Undoubtedly, this is because of the deep impression made on his character by his military training: ‘‘He had a moment of great clearness. His actions became orderly and precise. That is what happens with a good pilot.’’ He is also using inner resources of curiosity and perseverance. Even once he comes to believe he is in danger, what he experiences is not ordinary fear, but rather ‘‘a light, dancing fear that warned but did not frighten; the kind of fear that one gets not because one is afraid, but because one feels there is something wrong.’’ For the type of man that Williamson is, fear is simply irrelevant to the obstacles he has to overcome.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Roald Dahl, Published by Gale Group, 2010