Roald Dahl (13 September 1916 – 23 November 1990) was a Welsh novelist, short story author and screenwriter of Norwegian parentage, famous as a writer for both children and adults.
His most popular books include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, The BFG, and Kiss Kiss.
Roald Dahl was born at 32 Fairwater Road, Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales in 1916, to Norwegian parents, Harald Dahl (from Sarpsborg, Ostfold) and Sofie Magdalene Dahl née Hesselberg. Dahl’s family moved from Norway and settled in Cardiff in the 1880s. Roald was named after the polar explorer Roald Amundsen, a national hero in Norway at the time. He spoke Norwegian at home with his parents and sisters. Dahl and his sisters were christened at the Norwegian sailors’ church in Cardiff, where their parents worshipped.
In 1920, when Roald was three, his seven-year-old sister, Astri, died from appendicitis. About a month later, his father died of pneumonia at the age of 57. Dahl’s mother, however, decided not to return to Norway to live with her relatives but to remain in the UK, since it had been her husband’s wish to have their children educated in British schools.
Roald first attended Llandaff Cathedral School. At the age of eight, he and four of his friends were caned by the headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of sweets at the local sweet shop, which was owned by a “mean and loathsome” old woman called Mrs. Pratchett. This was known amongst the five boys as the “Great Mouse Plot of 1923”.
Thereafter, he was sent to several boarding schools in England including St Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare. His parents wanted Roald to be educated at an English public school and at the time, due to a then regular boat link across the Bristol Channel, this proved to be the nearest. His time at St Peter’s was an unpleasant experience for him. He was very homesick and wrote to his mother almost every day, but never revealed to her his unhappiness. Only when she died did he find out she had saved every single one of his letters, in small bundles held together with green tape.
He was very tall, reaching 6’6″ (1.98m) in adult life, and he was good at sports, being made captain of the school Fives and Squash team, and also playing for the football team. This helped his popularity. He developed an interest in photography. During his years there, Cadbury, a chocolate company, would occasionally send boxes of new chocolates to the school to be tested by the pupils. Dahl himself apparently used to dream of inventing a new chocolate bar that would win the praise of Mr. Cadbury himself, and this proved the inspiration for him to write his third book for children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Throughout his childhood and adolescent years, he spent his summer holidays in his parents’ native Norway, mostly enjoying the Fjords. His childhood is the subject of his autobiographical work, Boy: Tales of Childhood.
After finishing his schooling, he spent three weeks hiking through Newfoundland with a group called the Public Schools’ Exploring Society (now known as BSES Expeditions). In July 1934, he joined the Shell Petroleum Company. Following two years of training in the UK, he was transferred to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Along with the only two other Shell employees in the entire territory, he lived in luxury in the Shell House outside Dar-es-Salaam, with a cook and personal servants. While on the job, supplying oil to customers across Tanganyika, he encountered black mambas and lions, amongst other wildlife.
World War II
In August 1939, as World War II was imminent, plans were made to round up the hundreds of Germans in Dar-es-Salaam. Dahl was made officer in the King’s African Rifles, commanding a platoon of askaris. Dahl was uncomfortable about having to detain hundreds of German nationals, but managed to complete his orders.
Soon after this, in November 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force. After a 600-mile car journey from Dar-es-Salaam to Nairobi, he was accepted for flight training with 20 other men, 17 of whom would later die in air combat. With seven hours and 40 minutes experience in a De Havilland Tiger Moth he flew solo; Dahl enjoyed watching the wildlife of Kenya during his flights. He continued on to advanced flying training in Iraq, at RAF Habbaniya, 50 miles west of Baghdad. Following six months training on Hawker Harts, Dahl was made a Pilot Officer.
He was assigned to No. 80 Squadron RAF, flying obsolete Gloster Gladiators, the last biplane fighter plane used by the RAF. Dahl was surprised to find that he would not receive any specialised training in aerial combat, or in regard to flying Gladiators. On 19 September 1940, Dahl was ordered to fly his Gladiator from Abu Sueir in Egypt, on to Amiriya to refuel, and again to Fouka in Libya for a second refuelling. From there he would fly to 80 Squadron’s forward airstrip 30 miles south of Mersa Matruh. On the final leg, he could not find the airstrip and, running low on fuel and with night approaching, he was forced to attempt a landing in the desert. Unfortunately, the undercarriage hit a boulder and the plane crashed, fracturing his skull, smashing his nose in, and blinding him. He managed to drag himself away from the blazing wreckage and passed out. Later, he wrote about the crash for his first published work (see below). It was found in a RAF inquiry into the crash that the location he had been told to fly to was completely wrong, and he had mistakenly been sent instead to the no man’s land between the Allied and Italian forces.
Dahl was rescued and taken to a first-aid post in Mersa Matruh, where he regained consciousness, but not his sight, and was then taken by train to the Royal Navy hospital in Alexandria. There he fell in and out of love with a nurse, Mary Welland. Dahl had fallen in love with her voice while he was blind, but once he regained his sight, decided that he no longer loved her. Doctors said he had no chance of flying again, but in February 1941, five months after he was admitted to the hospital, he was discharged and passed fully fit for flying duties.
By this time, 80 Squadron had been trasnferred to the Greek campaign and based at Elevsis, near Athens. The squadron was now equipped with Hawker Hurricanes. Dahl flew a replacement Hurricane across the Mediterranean Sea in April 1941, after seven hours flying Hurricanes. By this stage in the Greek campaign, the RAF had only 18 combat planes: 14 Hurricanes and four Bristol Blenheim light bombers.
Dahl saw his first aerial combat on 15 April, while flying alone over the city of Chalcis. He attacked six Junkers Ju-88s that were bombing ships. Dahl managed to shoot one down. On 16 April in another air battle, he shot down another Ju-88.
On 20 April Dahl took part in the “Battle of Athens”, alongside the highest-scoring British Commonwealth ace of World War II, Pat Pattle and Dahl’s friend David Coke. Five Hurricanes were shot down and four of their pilots killed, including Pattle.
As the Germans were pressing on Athens, Dahl was evacuated to Egypt. His squadron was reassembled in Haifa. From here, Dahl flew missions every day for a period of four weeks, downing a Potez 63 on June 8 and another Ju-88 on 15 June, but he then began to get severe headaches that caused him to black out, and he was invalided home to Britain. At this time his rank was Flight Lieutenant.
Dahl began writing in 1942, after he was transferred to Washington as Assistant Air Attaché. His first published work, in the August 1, 1942 issue of the Saturday Evening Post was “Shot Down Over Libya”, describing the crash of his Gloster Gladiator. C. S. Forester had asked Dahl to write down some RAF anecdotes so that he could shape them into a story. After Forester sat down to read what Dahl had given him, he decided to publish it exactly as it was. The original title of the article was A Piece of Cake — the title was changed to sound more dramatic, despite the fact that the he was not “shot down”.
During the war, Forester worked for the British Information Service and was writing propaganda for the Allied cause, mainly for American consumption. This work introduced Dahl to espionage and the activities of the Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, known by the codename “Intrepid”. During the war, Dahl supplied intelligence from Washington to Stephenson and his organization, which was known as British Security Coordination. Dahl was sent back to Britain, for supposed misconduct by British Embassy officials: “I got booted out by the big boys,” he said. Stephenson sent him back to Washington — with a promotion] After the war Dahl wrote some of the history of the secret organization and he and Stephenson remained friends for decades after the war.
He ended the war as a Wing Commander. His record of five aerial victories has been confirmed by post-war research and cross-referenced in Axis records.
He was married for 30 years (from 1953 to 1983) to the Academy Award winning American actress Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Hud, The Subject Was Roses, A Face in the Crowd). They had five children: Olivia (died of measles encephalitis, aged seven), Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, and Lucy.
When he was four months old, Theo Dahl was severely injured when his baby carriage was hit by a taxi in New York City. For a time he suffered from hydrocephalus: as a result his father became involved in the development of what became known as the “Wade-Dahl-Till” (or WDT) valve, a device to alleviate the condition.
In 1965, Patricia Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant with their fifth child, Lucy. Roald took control of her rehabilitation and she eventually relearned to talk and walk. They were divorced in 1983 following a very turbulent marriage, and he subsequently married Felicity (“Liccy”) d’Abreu Crosland (b. 12 December 1938), Neal’s then-best friend, to whom he was married until his death.
Ophelia Dahl is director and co-founder (with doctor Paul Farmer) of Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing health care to some of the most impoverished communities in the world. Lucy Dahl, is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Tessa’s daughter (who was the inspiration for Sophie, the main character in her grandfather’s book The BFG) is model and author Sophie Dahl who remembers him as “a very difficult man – very strong, very dominant … not unlike the father of the Mitford sisters sort of roaring round the house with these very loud opinions, banning certain types – foppish boys, you know – from coming round.”
Dahl has been subject to calls for boycotts in Israel and elsewhere because of his alleged (and eventually admitted) anti-Semitism.
In the summer of 1983, he wrote a book review for the Literary Review of God Cried by Newsweek writer Tony Clifton, a polemical picture book about the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. Dahl’s review stated that the Israeli attack on Lebanon in June 1982 was when “we all started hating Israel,” and that the book would make readers “violently anti-Israeli”. According to biographer Jeremy Treglown, Dahl had originally written “when we all started hating Jews” – but editor Gillian Greenwood of the Literary Review changed Dahl’s terms from “Jews” and “Jewish” to “Israel” and “Israeli”.
On the basis of the published version, Dahl would later claim, “I am not anti-Semitic. I am anti-Israel.”Dahl believed that his review kept him from being knighted, which was reportedly an ambition of his. Perhaps due to his hopes for a knighthood, in 1986 Dahl had turned down the award of an OBE, according to government papers which were leaked in 2003.
According to at least two biographers, when defending his review he told a journalist that same year: “There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity . . . I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” Nonetheless, according to Treglown, Dahl maintained friendships with a handful of individual Jews.
In later years, Dahl occasionally tried to downplay some of the accusations of anti-Semitism with a sympathetic episode about German-Jewish refugees in his book Going Solo, and a separate claim that he was opposed to injustice, not Jews. He never retreated from his strong stance against Israel, however, and shortly before his death in 1990 he told the British newspaper The Independent “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.”
Death and legacy
Roald Dahl died of a rare blood disease, myelodysplastic anaemia, on 23 November 1990, at his home, Gipsy House, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, at the age of 74, and was buried in the cemetery at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul. According to his granddaughter, the family gave him a “sort of Viking funeral. He was buried with his snooker cues, some very good burgundy, chocolates, HB pencils and a power saw.” In his honour, the Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery was opened at Buckinghamshire County Museum in nearby Aylesbury.
In 2002 one of Cardiff’s modern landmarks, the historic Oval Basin plaza, was re-christened “Roald Dahl Plass”. “Plass” means plaza in Norwegian, a nod to the acclaimed late writer’s Norwegian roots. There have also been calls from the public for a permanent statue of him to be erected in the city.
Dahl’s charitable commitments in the fields of neurology, haematology and literacy have been continued by his widow since his death, through the Roald Dahl Foundation. In June 2005, the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre opened in Great Missenden to celebrate the work of Roald Dahl and advance his work in literacy.
Inspired by a meeting with C. S. Forester, Dahl’s first published work was Shot Down Over Libya (today the story is published as “A Piece of Cake”), a story about his wartime adventures, which was bought by the Saturday Evening Post for $900 and propelled him into a career as a writer. Its title was inspired by a highly erroneous and sensationalized article about the crash that blinded him, which claimed he had been shot down instead of simply forced to land by low fuel.
His first children’s book was The Gremlins, about mischievous little creatures that were part of RAF folklore. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney for a film that was never made, and published in 1943. Dahl went on to create some of the best-loved children’s stories of the 20th century, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach.
He also had a successful parallel career as the writer of macabre adult short stories, usually with a dark sense of humour and a surprise ending. Many were originally written for American magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, Playboy and The New Yorker, then subsequently collected by Dahl into anthologies, gaining world-wide acclaim for the author. Dahl wrote more than 60 short stories and they have appeared in numerous collections, some only being published in book form after his death. See List of Roald Dahl short stories. His stories also brought him three Edgar Awards: in 1954, for the collection Someone Like You; 1959, for the story The Landlady; and 1980, for the episode of Tales of the Unexpected based on “Skin”.
One of his more famous adult stories, The Smoker (also known as Man from the South), was filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and also adapted into Quentin Tarantino’s segment of the 1995 film Four Rooms. His short story collection Tales of the Unexpected was adapted to a successful TV series of the same name. A number of his short stories are supposed to be extracts from the diary of his (fictional) Uncle Oswald, a rich gentleman whose sexual exploits form the subject of these stories.
For a brief, relatively unsuccessful period in the 1960s, Dahl wrote screenplays. Two of his screenplays – the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – were adaptations of novels by Ian Fleming. Dahl also wrote an initial draft adapting his own novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was heavily rewritten by David Seltzer, and produced as the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Dahl later disowned the film.
Memories with Food at Gipsy House, written with his wife Felicity and published posthumously in 1991, was a mixture of recipes, family reminiscences and Dahl’s musings on favourite subjects such as chocolate, onions, and claret.
Many of his children’s books are illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Dahl’s works for children are usually told from the point of view of a child, typically involve adult villainesses, who hate and mistreat children, and feature at least one “good” adult to counteract the villain(s) (perhaps a reference to the abuse that Dahl himself experienced in the boarding schools he attended). They usually contain a lot of black humour and grotesque scenarios, including gruesome violence. The Witches and Matilda are two examples of this formula. The BFG follows it in a more analogical way with the good giant (the BFG or “Big Friendly Giant”) representing the “good adult” archetype and the other giants being the “bad adults”. This formula is also somewhat evident in Dahl’s film script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Class-conscious themes – ranging from the thinly veiled to the blatant – also surface in works such as Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny, the Champion of the World. Dahl also features in his books characters that are very fat, usually children. Augustus Gloop, Bruce Bogtrotter, and Bruno Jenkins are a few of these characters, although an enormous woman named Aunt Sponge is featured in James and The Giant Peach.
Dahl’s mother used to tell him and his sisters tales about trolls and other mythical Norwegian creatures and some of his children’s books contain references or elements inspired by these stories, such as the giants in The BFG.
Roald Dahl on the South Bank Show