Roald Dahl (Llandaff, September 13, 1916 – Oxford, November 23, 1990) was a Welsh-born British writer, the son of Norwegians. He achieved notoriety in the 1940s for his works for adults and children and became one of the world”s most acclaimed writers. He is mainly known for his children”s books, among which are The Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, The Good Giant Friend, and James and the Giant Peach. Several of his works have been adapted into movies.
Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, a district of the city of Cardiff, Wales. The son of Norwegian parents, Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg de Dahl, he was born on September 13, 1916. His name, Roald, was named after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole, considered a national hero in Norway at the time).
In 1920, when Roald was three years old, his seven-year-old sister Astri Dahl died of appendicitis. A few weeks later his father Harald also died, a victim of pneumonia, at the age of fifty-seven. Instead of returning to Norway to live with his relatives, his mother preferred to keep the family in Great Britain to fulfill her husband”s wish that the children study in English schools. Roald attended Llandaff Cathedral School.
At the age of eight, Roald and four of his friends were beaten with a stick by the principal after they put a dead mouse they found in their high school class into a jar of candy at a local store, a punishment Roald”s mother deemed unreasonable, thus removing him from school.
At the age of nine, Roald Dahl was sent to Saint Peter”s School, a private school in the coastal town of Weston-super-Mare, where he remained from 1923 until 1929. From the age of thirteen, he was educated at Repton School in Derbyshire, where he was an assistant prefect, became captain of the school fives team, and developed his interest in photography. During his years at Repton, the Cadbury chocolate factory would occasionally send boxes of their new products to the school to be sampled by the pupils. Dahl used to dream of inventing a new chocolate bar that would be the haunt of Mr. Cadbury, which served him as the inspiration for writing his second children”s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Throughout his childhood and adolescence he spent his summer vacations in Norway. His childhood is the subject of his autobiographical book Boy: Tales of Childhood.
After finishing high school, he spent three weeks exploring Newfoundland with a group called the Public Schools” Exploring Society. In July 1934 he started working for the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. After 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 luxuriously in Shell House on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam with a cook and personal helpers. Delivering fuel in Tanganyika, he faced ants and lions, among other dangers.
In November 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force. After a nearly 1,000-kilometer automobile trip from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, he was accepted for flight training with sixteen other men, thirteen of whom would later die in air combat. With seven hours and forty minutes of experience in his De Havilland Tiger Moth, he began flying solo and enjoyed the wildlife of Kenya during his flights. He continued with advanced training in Habbaniya (80 km west of Baghdad), Iraq. After six months flying Hawker Harts, he was made an officer and assigned to the RAF”s Number 80 Squadron, flying obsolete Gloster Gladiators. Dahl was surprised to find that he would not be trained in air combat or how to fly Gloster Gladiators.
On September 19, 1940, Dahl would fly his Gladiator from Abu Suweir, Egypt, to Amiriya to reload fuel, and then on to Fouka, Libya, for a second load. From there he would fly to the 80 Squadron airstrip, 50 km south of Mersah Matruh. On the final stretch, it could not find the runway and, with little fuel and night falling, was forced to attempt a landing in the desert. Unfortunately, the landing gear struck a rock and the plane crashed. Roald fractured his skull, broke his nose and was blinded. He managed to walk away from the burning plane and collapsed. He later wrote about his accident in his first published written work. In an RAF investigation into the incident, it was discovered that the location he was told to fly was completely wrong; he had been sent to a zone between British and Italian forces.
Dahl was rescued and taken to a first aid station at Mersah Matruh, where he regained consciousness (though not his sight), and was moved by train to the Royal Navy hospital in Alexandria. There he fell in love with a nurse, Mary Welland, who was the first person he saw when he regained his sight after eight weeks of blindness. Doctors said there was no possibility that he would ever fly again, but in February 1941, five months after entering the hospital, he was discharged and moved on to flying missions. At that time, Number 80 Squadron was at Elyseusis, near Athens, Greece, fighting alongside the British Expeditionary Force against Axis forces, with no hope of defeating them. Now in a Hawker Hurricane, in April 1941 Dahl crossed the Mediterranean Sea to finally join his squadron in Greece, six months after becoming a member.
There he met a cynical corporal who wondered how long the new plane, accompanied only by fourteen Hurricanes and four Bristol Blenheims across Greece, would survive against thousands of enemy planes. Neither was the squadron leader enthusiastic about having only one new pilot. In any case, Roald became friends with David Coke, who, had he not died later in combat, would have become Earl of Leicester.
Dahl had his first action over Chalcis, where Junker Ju 88s were bombing boats. With his Hurricane alone against six bombers, he managed to shoot down one. He wrote about all these incidents in his autobiographical book Going solo.
He later served in Syria, and soon worked in intelligence. He ended the war as Wing Commander (fourth-degree rank).
He began writing in 1942, when he was transferred to Washington, DC as a Military Air Attaché. His first published work, which appeared in the August 1, 1942 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, was a short story called Shot Down Over Lybia (“shot down in Libya”), describing his Gloster Gladiator accident. The original English title was A piece of cake, but it was changed for dramatic effect, even though the accident had nothing to do with enemy action.
Dahl married American actress Patricia Neal on July 2, 1953 at Trinity Church in New York City. Their marriage lasted 30 years and they had five children: Olivia (who died of measles and encephalitis in 1962 at the age of seven), Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, and Lucy. He dedicated The BFG to Olivia after her death, and subsequently became an advocate for immunization.
At four months old, Theo Dahl was seriously injured when his stroller was struck by a cab in New York City. For a time, he had hydrocephalus, and as a result his father became involved in the development of what became known as the “Wade-Dahl-Till” valve (or WDT), a device to alleviate the condition.
In 1965, Neal had three brain aneurysms while pregnant with the couple”s fifth child, Lucy; Dahl took charge of her rehabilitation, and she eventually relearned how to walk and talk. They divorced in 1983 after a turbulent marriage, and he then married Felicity (“Liccy”) d”Abreu Crosland (born December 12, 1938), 22 years younger.
Ophelia Dahl is director and co-founder (together with Dr. Paul Farmer) of Partners in Health, a non-profit organization. Lucy Dahl is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Tessa”s daughter Sophie Dahl (who was the inspiration for Sophie, the protagonist of her grandfather”s book The BFG) is a model and writer.
Death and Legacy
Roald Dahl died in November 1990, aged 74, of a rare blood disease, Myelodysplastic Syndrome, at his home, Gipsy House, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and was buried in the cemetery in the parish church of St Peter and Paul. In his honor, the Roald Dahl Children”s Gallery was opened in a museum in Aylesbury.
In 2002, a square in Cardiff was renamed “Roald Dahl Plass.” “Plass” means “square” in Norwegian, in reference to the writer”s Norwegian roots. There are also popular calls for a permanent statue of Dahl to be erected in the city.
Dahl”s charitable actions in the fields of neurology, hematology, and literacy were continued by his widow after the author”s death, through the Roald Dahl Foundation. (Roald Dahl Foundation)
In 2008, the UK charity organization Booktrust and award-winning author Michael Rosen inaugurated The Roald Dahl Funny Prize, an annual award for authors of humorous children”s fiction. (The Roald Dahl Funny Prize)
At the request of Cecil Scott Forester, Dahl wrote his first published work, Shot Down Over Lybia, which was purchased by the Saturday Evening Post for $1,000 and boosted his writing career.
His first book for children, “The Gremlins,” which was about evil little creatures that were part of RAF folklore, was published in 1943. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney to produce a movie, which was never made. Dahl went on to create some of the most beloved children”s stories of the 20th century, such as The Fantastic Chocolate Factory, Matilda and the Giant Peach.
In parallel, he had a successful career as a writer of macabre short stories for adults, which recurrently had dark humor and surprising endings. Many of the short stories were originally written for magazines in the United States, such as Ladies Home Journal, Harper”s, Playboy, and The New Yorker, and the author then collected them in anthologies, receiving worldwide acclaim. Dahl wrote more than sixty short stories, which appeared in numerous collections, some published in book form only after his death.
One of his most famous adult short stories, The Smoker (also known as “Man from the South”), was filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and also adapted for Quentin Tarantino”s segment of the 1995 film Grande Hotel. His short story collection Tales of the Unexpected was adapted into a successful TV series of the same name.
For a brief period in the 1960s, Dahl wrote screenplays, with relatively little success. Two of them, the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, were adaptations of novels by Ian Fleming. Dahl also wrote an adaptation sketch for his book The Fantastic Chocolate Factory, which was rewritten by David Seltzer and used in the 1971 film. Dahl later disowned the film. The author later received posthumous credit for the lyrics on the soundtrack to Tim Burton”s 2005 version, as several of the songs Dahl had written for the book were used with Danny Elfman”s music.
In 1983 Dahl wrote a review of Tony Clifton”s God Cried, a picture book about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that depicted Israelis killing thousands of Beirut residents by pumping civilian targets. Dahl”s review said that that invasion was when “we all began to hate Israel,” and that the book would make readers “violently anti-Israeli,” but subsequently insisted, “I”m not anti-Semitic. I”m anti-Israel.” Dahl told a reporter in 1983, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that actually provokes animosity…I mean, there”s always a reason for anti-anything to surface anywhere; even a brat like Hitler didn”t pick on them simply for no reason.”
In 1990, Dahl stated in an interview for The Independent that “I am certainly anti-Israeli and have become anti-Semitic to the extent that you see a Jew in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism.” In the same year, when asked about his anti-Semitic controversies by a Jewish reporter from The Jewish Chronicle he replied, snidely: “Why are you being so persistent? It is not a characteristic of your Jewish race to be rude, but you are certainly being rude … I am an old hand at dealing with you assholes.
His antisemitism was also evident in some of his works, in the short story “Madame Rosette”, the character of the same name is described as being “A filthy old Syrian Jewess”.
Because of his extensive history of statements considered antisemitic, the Mint decided not to produce a coin to commemorate the centennial of Dahl”s birth because he was considered to be “Associated with antisemitism and not considered an author of the highest repute.”
Roald Dahl”s family has apologized for Dahl”s 2020 antisemitism in a statement on the official Roald Dahl website, the statement reads “The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologize for the lasting and understandable pain caused by some of Roald Dahl”s statements. These prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and are in marked contrast to the man we knew and knew the values at the heart of Roald Dahl”s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations. We hope that, just as he did at his absolute best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
Racism and controversy with Eleanor Cameron
In 1972, Eleanor Cameron, also a children”s author and literary critic, published an article in The Horn Book reflecting on children”s classics such as Alice in Wonderland and what made a children”s book good, culturally enriching, and appropriate for children, In the midst of her reflection she criticized Dahl”s The Chocolate Factory, describing it as “poor, shallow, unsuitable for children, and unsophisticated in literary terms” stating that “What I object to in Charlie is its misrepresentation of poverty and its false humor, which is based on punishment with shades of sadism. Cameron also harshly criticized the Oompa-Loompas, who were portrayed as abused, half-naked African pygmy slaves.
Dahl refuted Eleanor”s criticisms, in an article written for the same magazine in 1973, where he catalogued her criticisms as “insensitive” and “monstrous” stating that she “Has overstepped the rules of literary criticism and begins to insinuate nasty things about me” and closed by saying that he believed himself to be a better judge than Eleanor as to which stories are good or not good for children, given that he had 5 children and she had none. Dahl did not respond to criticisms made about the depictions of the Oompa-Loompas, which were held to be loaded with racist stereotypes, but in the 1973 visual edition the Oompa-loompas were depicted more sympathetically and less controversially.