James and his friends look around at the clouds, which tower over them like mountains. The moon rises and illuminates the swaying peach. It’s completely silent. Airplanes, the narrator says, make so much noise that they scare anything hiding in the “cloud-mountains.” A peach, however, is a “soft, stealthy traveler,” so James and his friends see things that no one has ever seen before. As they drift past one cloud, they see wispy creatures twice the height of normal men. The Ladybug is afraid, but James shushes her—these must be Cloud-Men. Everyone is afraid the Cloud-Men will see them. The Centipede tells the Earthworm that the Cloud-Men would love to eat an earthworm like salami.
Dahl links airplanes to the manmade world of adults. They’re noisy and they make it so people using them can’t see their world for what it really is. Because James is a child and embraces the natural world, he is open to seeing all of the spectacular, unbelievable things that nature has to offer. The Cloud-Men support the Old-Green-Grasshopper’s earlier point that there are lots of things people don’t know about—but if they’re willing to accept that the world is full of mysteries, those mysteries will begin to reveal themselves.
As the group on the peach watches, the Cloud-Men grab handfuls of cloud, roll them into marbles, and then toss the marbles in a pile. The Cloud-Men don’t notice the peach behind them. After a while, one Cloud-Man tells his fellows to get their shovels. Then, the Cloud-Men shovel the marbles over the edge of the cloud, chanting about sending hail and snow down to Earth below. When James notes that they just witnessed the creation of hailstones, the Centipede deems that ridiculous—it’s summer. The Centipede refuses to listen to James’s explanations or requests that he quiet down. Laughing loudly, the Centipede loudly calls the Cloud-Men idiots.
The Cloud-Men are Dahl’s imaginative version of a figure like the Greek god Zeus, who throws thunderbolts down to earth to make lightning storms. In essence, the novel encourages readers to wonder what’s actually more absurd and unbelievable: the idea that there are Cloud-Men in the sky making weather, or the idea that the clouds make hail all by themselves. Of course, clouds do make hail, but Dahl encourages readers to see that life itself is absurd.
The Cloud-Men jump. When they notice the peach, they drop their shovels and stare, dumbfounded. Everyone on the peach, save for the Centipede, sits still and terrified. The Centipede insists he’s not afraid and dances while making rude gestures at the Cloud-Men. Angered, the Cloud-Men begin to hurl hailstones at the peach. James yells for his friends to lie flat. But the Cloud-Men throw the hailstones hard enough to make holes in the peach. One hits the Centipede right in the nose. The Cloud-Men make bigger and bigger hailstones. When they throw some as big as cannonballs, James tells his friends to run down the tunnel into the peach. The Ladybug asks for someone to inspect her shell, but the Glow-worm’s bulb is cracked. Eventually, James realizes that they can’t hear hailstones anymore. He peeks outside and the coast is clear.
Even if the natural world has a lot to teach James and his friends, that doesn’t mean it’s wholly benevolent. Indeed, the natural world is full of danger—the Cloud-Men could do serious damage to the peach and its passengers with their huge hailstones. It’s telling, though, that the Cloud-Men only launch their attack after the Centipede insults them. It’s better, per the novel, to approach the natural world with respect, reverence, and a desire to understand. The Centipede, on the other hand, assumes the Cloud-Men are inferior and is punished for making that assumption.