Born: September 13, 1916
Llandaff, South Wales
Died: November 23, 1990
A writer of both children's fiction and short stories for adults, Roald Dahl is best known as the author of the 1964 children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (he also wrote the script for the 1971 movie version). Dahl has been described as a master of story construction with a remarkable ability to weave a tale.
Roald Dahl was born September 13, 1916, in Llandaff, South Wales, United Kingdom, to Norwegian parents. He spent his childhood summers visiting his grandparents in Oslo, Norway. He was a mischievous child, full of energy, and from an early age he proved himself skilled at finding trouble. His earliest memory was of pedaling to school at a very fast speed on his tricycle, with his two sisters struggling to keep up as he whizzed around curves on two wheels.
After his father died when Dahl was four, his mother followed her late husband's wish that Dahl be sent to English schools. Dahl first attended Llandaff Cathedral School, where he began a series of unfortunate adventures in school. After he and several other students were severely beaten by the principal for placing a dead mouse in a storekeeper's candy jar, Dahl's mother moved him to St. Peter's Boarding School and later to Repton, an excellent private school. Dahl would later describe his school years as "days of horrors" filled with "rules, rules and still more rules that had to be obeyed," which inspired much of his gruesome fiction. Though not a good student, his mother nevertheless offered him the option of attending Oxford or Cambridge University when he finished school. His reply, recorded in his book about his childhood called Boy: Tales of Childhood, was, "No, thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China."
After graduating from Repton, Dahl took a position with the Shell Oil Company in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Africa. In 1939 he joined a Royal Air Force training squadron in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as a fighter pilot in the Mediterranean during World War II (1939–45). Dahl suffered severe head injuries in a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt. Upon recovering he was sent to Washington, D.C., to be an assistant air attache (a technical expert who advises government representatives). There Dahl began his writing career, publishing a short story in the Saturday Evening Post. Soon his stories appeared in many other magazines. Dahl told Willa Petschek in a New York Times Book Review profile that "as I went on, the stories became less and less realistic and more fantastic. But becoming a writer was pure fluke. Without being asked to, I doubt if I'd ever have thought of it."
In 1943 Dahl wrote his first children's story, The Gremlins, and invented a new term in the process. Gremlins were small creatures that lived on fighter planes and bombers and were responsible for all crashes. Through the 1940s and into the 1950s Dahl continued as a short story writer for adults, establishing his reputation as a writer of deathly tales with unexpected twists. His stories earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America.
In 1953 Dahl married Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, star of such movies as The Fountainhead and, later, Hud, for which she won an Academy Award. Although the marriage did not survive, it produced five children. As soon as the children were old enough, Dahl began making up stories for them each night before they went to bed. These stories became the basis for his career as a children's writer, which began seriously with the publication of James and the Giant Peach in 1961. It tells the fantastic tale of a young boy who travels thousands of miles in a house-sized peach with as strange a group of companions as can be found in a children's book. Dahl insisted that having to invent stories night after night was perfect practice for his trade, telling the New York Times Book Review : "Children are … highly critical. And they lose interest so quickly. You have to keep things ticking along. And if you think a child is getting bored, you must think up something that jolts it back. Something that tickles. You have to know what children like."
One way that Dahl delighted his readers was to take often vicious revenge on cruel adults who had harmed children, as in Matilda (1988). But even some innocent adults received rough treatment, such as the parents killed in a car crash in The Witches (1983). Many critics have objected to the rough treatment of adults. However, Dahl explained in the New York Times Book Review that the children who wrote to him always "pick out the most gruesome events as the favorite parts of the books.… They don't relate it to life. They enjoy the fantasy." He also said that his "nastiness" was payback. "Beastly people must be punished."
In Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children's Literature, Dahl said that adults may be disturbed by his books "because they are not quite as aware as I am that children are different from adults. Children are much more vulgar than grownups. They have a coarser sense of humor. They are basically more cruel." Dahl often commented that the key to his success with children was that he joined with them against adults.
"The writer for children must be a jokey sort of a fellow," Dahl once told Writer. "He must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be … inventive. He must have a really first-class plot."
Dahl's children's fiction is known for its sudden turns into the fantastic, its fast-moving pace, and its decidedly harsh treatment of any adults foolish enough to cause trouble for the young heroes and heroines. Similarly, his adult fiction often relied on a sudden twist that threw light on what had been happening in the story.
Looking back on his years as a writer in Boy: Tales of Childhood, Dahl contended that "two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock.… A person is a fool to become a writer. His only [reward] is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it."
Roald Dahl died in Oxford, England, on November 23, 1990.
Dahl, Roald. Boy: Tales of Childhood. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1984.
Dahl, Roald. Going Solo. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986.
Dahl, Roald. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. New York: Knopf, 1977.