Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1954
|Born:||September 13, 1916
Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales
|Died:||November 23, 1990, age 74
Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England
|Occupation(s):||Novelist, short story writer|
|Magnum opus:||Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach|
Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916 – November 23, 1990) was a British novelist, short story author, and screenwriter famous as a writer for both adolescents and adults. His most popular books for adolescents include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and The Witches, all of which were adapted into successful major motion pictures.
Roald Dahl, mainly through his output as a children's author, impressed millions of readers worldwide with his imaginative use of language, amusingly offbeat characters, inventive plots, and tender messages. Even posthumously, the sales of Dahl's books continue to flourish, due to the loyal following of young, reverent readers who find a special connection to the author's work.
To the young, Dahl is an adult figure who seems to have taken their side, speaking to them through his stories on an equal plane. Though this has made him popular with his adolescent readers, it has stirred much controversy with parents and critics. Parents also sometimes frown on the borderline inappropriateness of his language, as well as his apparent hostility toward social institutions. However, neither critics nor adults deny the Dahl's imaginative mastery of the art of storytelling, his unique control of language and humor, and his ability to strike an emotional chord.
Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales in 1916, to Norwegian parents, Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Dahl née Hesselberg. Roald was named after the polar explorer Roald Amundsen, a national hero in Norway at the time.
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. Despite these tragedies, Dahl's mother made the decision not to return to Norway to live with her relatives, but to remain in the UK, as it had been the wish of her husband to have their children educated in British schools.
Roald first attended Llandaff Cathedral School. Many of the author's early antics and life experiences from his years at Llandaff are depicted in the autobiographical work, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984). This includes the "Great Mouse Plot of 1923," the story of how at the age of eight, Roald and four of his schoolmates were caned by the headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of sweets at the local sweet shop. Such scenarios were typical of Dahl's relatively harmless but mischievous nature, both in his work and in his life.
Thereafter, he was sent to several boarding schools in England including Saint Peter's in Weston-super-Mare. His time at Saint Peter's was an unpleasant experience, though he was able to escape during summer holidays with his family on trips to his parents' native Norway. When at school, though, he was very homesick and wrote to his mother frequently, though never revealing to her his despondency lest it cause her to worry. Many years later, when she died, Roald discovered that she had saved all of his letters.
Roald grew very tall in his adolescence, reaching 6 feet, 6 inches (1.98m) by the time he was a young adult. Popular with peers and talented at sports, he was elected captain of the school's Fives (handball) and squash teams, and also played well for the soccer team. He also developed an interest in photography during these years. Signs of Roald's unique imagination began to appear at this point. One such example is when the Cadbury chocolate company sent boxes of new products to the school to be tested by the pupils, Dahl would dream of inventing a new chocolate bar that would win the praise of Mr. Cadbury himself, a memory that would later serve as the inspiration for the author's third children's tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In August 1939, as World War II became imminent, plans were made to round up the hundreds of Germans in Dar-es-Salaam. Dahl was made an officer in the King's African Rifles, commanding a platoon of askaris. Soon after this, in November 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force. He was accepted for flight training with 20 other men, 17 of whom would ultimately die in air combat. Following six months training in Hawker Harts, Dahl earned his wings as a Pilot Officer.
He was assigned to No. 80 Squadron RAF. Dahl was surprised to find that he would not receive any specialized training in aerial combat. On September 19, 1940, en route to Mersa Matruh from Abu Sueir in Egypt, Dahl crashed into a boulder while attempting to land on a desert airstrip at night, fracturing his skull and losing his sense of sight. Dahl was rescued and taken to a first-aid post in Mersa Matruh, where he regained consciousness. Despite doctors saying that he had no chance of flying again, in February 1941, five months after he was admitted to the hospital, Dahl was cleared to return to his flying duties.
He joined the Greek campaign based near Athens, flying a Hawker Hurricane. Here, Dahl saw his first aerial combat on April 15 while flying alone over the city of Chalcis. He attacked six Junkers Ju-88s that were bombing ships, managing to shoot one down. Then, on April 20, 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. Dahl survived the day with four take-downs to his credits, despite five of his fellow Hurricanes being shot down and four of their pilots killed, including Pattle.
When the German troops were pressing hard on Athens, Dahl's squadron was evacuated to Egypt before reassembling in Haifa. From here, Dahl flew missions every day for a period of four weeks, until he began to get severe headaches that caused him to frequently black out. Dahl, by this point a Flight Lieutenant, was invalided home to Britain. The year was 1942.
Dahl was transferred to Washington as Assistant Air Attaché and it was there that he began to write. 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."
He ended the war as a Wing Commander, with a record of five aerial victories confirmed by post-war research and cross-referenced in Axis records.
Dahl was known during the latter time of his service for the wild yarns he would spin about his adventures overseas. He decided to put one of these fabrications to paper, titled "Gremlin Lore," which was about the mythical creatures that sabotaged RAF planes. Since he was a serving officer at the time he wrote the story, Dahl was required to submit everything he wrote for approval. The officer who read it decided to pass it along to his friend Walt Disney, who was looking for war–related ideas as material for his fledgling film company. Disney liked Dahl's story but was unable to make a motion picture of it due to copyright issues. However, he did create a picture book from it entitled Walt Disney: The Gremlins (A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl). These days, the book is extremely rare and considered a treasure by Dahl collectors, as it was the author's first book.
By the fall of 1944, Dahl had a literary agent, Ann Watkins, and a number of stories published in American magazines, including Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Ladies Home Journal. Two of these stories were written for children.
In 1945 Dahl moved back home to Amersham, England to be near his mother. He spent the next year living simply amongst the residents of the small village, some of whom would later be immortalized as characters in Roald's works, such as Claud Taylor from the Claud's Dog series. In 1946 Reynal and Hitchcock published Over to You, a collection of Dahl's war stories. The book received mixed reviews but was successful enough to inspire Dahl's next major effort at writing: Sometime Never (1948), a novel about the possibilities of nuclear war. Though the book was a major flop, it is noted as the first published piece of fiction in the U.S. to depict nuclear catastrophe since the bombing of Hiroshima.
In the years following, Dahl reunited with his American friend and mentor Charles Marsh, helping the newspaper man amass a valuable collection of British art and antiques. Dahl also helped Marsh set up a charity known as Marsh's Public Welfare Foundation. In return, Marsh set up a trust in Dahl's name and invested thousands of dollars into Dahl's family forestry operation in Norway.
Though these years in England were enjoyable for Dahl, he began to miss the excitement of America, particularly of New York. As the 1950s began, Dahl began to earn some money from stories sold to Collier's and The New Yorker, and so he decided to make the move to the "Big Apple," settling in with the Marsh family in their Manhattan home. He soon found himself a part of the circuit of celebrity parties, and it was in 1951 at one such party, thrown by playwright Lillian Hellman, that he met the Tony award-winning actress Patricia Neal. Neal, like many of the New York elite, was charmed by Dahl's wit and clever sarcasm. The two soon began to see each other on a regular basis.
Dahl was enjoying a number of commercial successes by 1953, including the stories "Taste," "My Lady Love, My Dove," "Skin," and "Dip in the Pool," as well as the collection Someone Like You, which consisted of four stories taken from Dahl's days in the English countryside. It was also in 1953 that Roald and Patricia Neal were married, on July 2, at Trinity Church in New York.
The couple would go on to have five children together, and it is to them that Roald attributes his success as a children's book author. Though he had had success as a writer of adult fiction, it was through children's literature that he made his name. His first big success was with James and the Giant Peach in 1961 followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964.
Three tragedies struck the Dahl family in the 1960s. The first was in 1960 when the couple's only son was severely injured when a taxi drove into his baby carriage. For a time he suffered from hydrocephalus. Then in 1963 their eldest child, Olivia, died from a sudden outbreak of measles at the age of eight. And then, in 1965, Patricia suffered a series of near–fatal strokes caused by brain aneurysms during her pregnancy with the couple's youngest child, Lucy (who was nevertheless born healthy). She remained in a coma for 21 days though would eventually relearn to walk and speak. Roald was largely credited with her rehabilitation, as he had committed himself to staying by her side, and even designed her recovery routine.
The 1960s also saw a lot of success for the couple. Roald's career as an author was in full swing, and he wrote several screenplays for Hollywood, including the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) starring Dick Van Dyke. Patricia's career was also on the up as she was acting steadily in one major production after the other, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1964 for the film Hud and receiving a nomination in the same category for her role in The Subject Was Roses (1968).
Through the 1970s, Patricia and Roald's careers continued steadily, though their marriage grew more and more turbulent. With their children grown and their lifestyles calming, the couple finally divorced in 1983 after 30 years of marriage. Dahl remarried in that same year Felicity ("Liccy") d'Abreu Crossland, who had been Patricia's best friend at the time.
The last years of Roald's life were relatively happy and productive, and some of his best books were written during this period: The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983), Boy (1984), and Matilda (1988). Roald Dahl died at the age of 74 from the rare blood disease, myelodysplastic anemia, on November 23, 1990 at his home, Gipsy House, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. He was interred at the parish church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, buried with his snooker cues, a bottle of burgundy, chocolates, HB pencils, and a power saw. In his honor, the Roald Dahl Children's Gallery was opened at Buckinghamshire County Museum in nearby Aylesbury.
In a 2000 survey, British readers named him their favorite author.
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.
In 2004, over 10 million copies of his books sold worldwide.
Dahl's charitable commitments in the fields of neurology, hematology 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.
One day a year his widow, Felicity, invites children to the estate where he lived in Buckinghamshire. There are games, such as Splat the Rat and Guess the Number of Sweeties in the Jar, as well as tea, cakes, and orange squash for sale, all while an Royal Air Force band plays.
Even though Dahl is more well-known as an author for children and young adults, he did not begin as such. Most of his early work consisted of short stories for adults, a demographic he continued to write for throughout his career up until the end of his life. The content of these works often contained deadpan, ironic, and bizarre humor, and though they were "generally macabre in nature, his stories won praise for their vivid details, carefully constructed plots, and surprise endings." His style was to use plenty of plot twists, throw in a couple of anticlimaxes along the way, and to ultimately catch the reader off guard with a carefully constructed, often abrupt, surprise ending.
In his work for adults, Dahl mostly wrote in third person and from a single perspective. This was part of his strategy for twisting the plot around, pivoting his angle on the limited perspective and biases of the narrator.
My Uncle Oswald was Dahl's second adult novel, published in October, 1979. The titular character is a reoccurring one, having previously appeared in the short stories, "The Visitor" and "Bitch." In the story, Oswald discovers the world's most powerful aphrodisiac and with the aid of a female accomplice uses it to seduce the world's most famous men. He then sells their semen to women wishing to be impregnated by them.
Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying was Dahl's first short story collection, published in 1946. These stories (e.g., "An African Story," "Only This," and "Katina") are more reflective, slow-moving and, at times, more experimental than his later work.
Man of the South was a short story published in 1948. In this story, a man offers an American boy his Cadillac if the boy can strike a lighter ten times in a row. The catch is that if he cannot, his finger will be cut off. The story contains a dramatic surprise ending and was remade as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents by the same name. It was also the inspiration for the Quentin Tarantino-directed segment of the 1995 film Four Rooms.
Dahl's works for children are usually told from the point of view of a child. They typically involve adult villainouses, who hate and mistreat children, and feature at least one "good" adult to counteract the villain(s). They often contain black humor and grotesque scenarios, including gruesome violence. The Witches and Matilda are two examples of this formula. The BFG ("Big Friendly Giant") follows it in a more analogical way with the good giant representing the "good adult" archetype and the other giants being the "bad adults." This formula is also 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's books also feature characters that are very fat, usually children. Augustus Gloop, Bruce Bogtrotter, and Bruno Jenkins are a few of these characters. An enormous woman named Aunt Sponge is featured in James and The Giant Peach.
Some of Dahl's children's books contain references to trolls and mythical Norwegian creatures his mother used to describe to him and his sisters in stories. Other fanciful characters in his books appear to be the product of his own fertile imagination. His most famous character, perhaps, is Willy Wonka, from his popular book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wonka was the eccentric owner of the titular factory, a mad scientist who resembled Dahl in many ways, including his tendencies of obscure invention, sharp humor, and the unique way in which he relates to children.
James and the Giant Peach was Dahl's first major work for children, published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The story regards James, an ordinary seven-year-old boy, who was orphaned as a result of a bizarre and terrible accident (his parents were eaten by a rhinoceros). He is then sent to live with his two evil aunts who subject him to a variety of physical and mental abuse. The story evolves as James is given a magic ingredient that enlarges an ordinary peach to many-times its size. The ingredient also happens to enlarge and animate a variety of insects who were within proximity to the peach at the time. James and his new friends have many adventures as they use the peach as a vessel to escape the evil aunts, by sailing it across the Atlantic Ocean to America.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) is the story of the adventures of young Charlie Bucket inside the chocolate factory of eccentric candymaker Willy Wonka, and is often considered one of the most beloved children's stories of the 20th century. The book was adapted into two major motion pictures: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in 1971, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970) is the story of Mr. Fox, who steals animals from three mean farmers (Bunce, Boggis, and Bean) in order to feed his family. Although the farmers try repeatedly to kill the culprit, ultimately Mr. Fox gets the better of them. In the end, he invites all his friends to a feast made from the loot and decides never to go above ground again. Fantastic Mr. Fox has been adapted into an opera by Tobias Picker, and, in 2007, into a major motion picture directed by Wes Anderson.
Though the views of society revealed through Dahl's books—his implied criticism of adults and his contempt for social institutions—has made his works popular with adolescents, it has brought mixed reactions from critics and stirred quite a bit of controversy over the years with parents.
One example of this is The Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), which some have viewed as Roald Dahl's promotion of anti-capitalist values. Mr. Fox, unprovoked, steals from the three farmers, who represent capitalism and are portrayed as evil. His theft of private property and capital is celebrated. Dahl attempts to conceal the fact that Mr. Fox's actions are criminal, by making Mr. Fox into a good hero and the farmers into evil villains.
James and the Giant Peach, though at first glance rather tame in content, has actually been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 at number 56.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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