Children of all ages have read and enjoyed books by Roald Dahl. Many of his stories, such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach”, have become classics in their own time. He is famous for his ingenious short stories and macabre children's books. Dahl's taste for cruelty, rudeness to adults, and the comic grotesque fascinated young readers, but upset many adult critics. Several of Dahl's stories have been made into films, including and Matilda, dir. by Danny DeVito (1996).
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The world is astounded when Willy Wonka, for years a recluse in his factory, announces that five lucky people will be given a tour of the factory, shown all the secrets of his amazing candy, and will win a lifetime supply of Wonka chocolate. Nobody wants the prize more than young Charlie, but as his family is so poor that buying even one bar of chocolate is a treat, buying enough bars to find one of the five golden tickets is unlikely in the extreme. But in movieland, magic can happen. Charlie, along with four somewhat odious other children, get the chance of a lifetime and a tour of the factory. Along the way, mild disasters befall each of the odious children, but can Charlie beat the odds and grab the brass ring?
James and the Giant Peach
James' happy life at the English seaside is rudely ended when his parents are killed by a rhinoceros and he goes to live with his two horrid aunts. Daringly saving the life of a spider he comes into possession of magic boiled crocodile tongues, after which an enormous peach starts to grow in the garden. Venturing inside he meets not only the spider but a number of new friends including a ladybug and a centipede who help him with his plan to try and get to New York.
Matilda is an exceptionally bright young girl with an insatiable appetite for books and reading. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, think she's just a nuisance. Matilda thinks, rightly, that all they are interested in is watching TV and making money by cheating people. She decides to punish them. She soon discovers that she has supernatural powers which are not only going to prove useful at home but also at Crunchem Hall School where Matila and her classmates must contend with the scariest headmistress of them all - Miss Trunchbull.
The young boy narrator of the story overhears this terrible plan. Fortunately, his grandma knows something about witches. Unfortunately, before he has a chance to consult her, he is turned into a mouse himself.
Will the witches triumph? Are the children of England doomed? And what exactly is the secret behind grandma's missing finger? This award-winning tale has all the answers.
Danny the Champion of the World
Danny and his father live in an old gypsy caravan behind a filling station, in the middle of the countryside. Danny thinks his father is "the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had" but is shocked to discover that he has a deep, dark secret. Danny's father is a poacher - in the thick of night, he goes into Hazell's Wood to poach pheasants from the tyrannical Victor Hazell. As Mr. Hazell prepares to host the biggest shoot of the season, Danny and his father hatch a plan to poach all the pheasants from the woods.
Roald Dahl and Sociology 101
Largely known as the author of James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Roald Dahl is also the author of three full-length works for early adolescents. It is of this group of young people that Dahl once said, " 'If my books can help children become readers, then I feel I have accomplished something important' " (West). Dahl's books for adolescents have caught the attention of young people and adults alike. The view of society revealed through his books--his implied criticism of adults and his contempt for social institutions--has made his works popular with adolescents. This same view has brought mixed reactions from critics.
The variety of audiences that Dahl successfully wrote for throughout his career demonstrates his ability to appeal to specific groups of readers. Ironically, Roald Dahl wrote extensively for adults and children before he attempted to write books for young adults. His writing career began when Cecil Scott Forester interviewed him for the Saturday Evening Post and submitted Dahl's fictionalized account of his adventures in the Royal Air Force to the newspaper (Pendergast). In 1943, Dahl wrote his first children's story, The Gremlins, for Walt Disney, who wanted to make it into a film. Although it was never produced, Disney later published the story, complete with Disney's illustrations (West). After The Gremlins, Dahl left the field of children's literature and began writing short stories for adults. Although they were "generally macabre in nature, his stories won praise for their vivid details, carefully constructed plots, and surprise endings" (West). However, when he began to have difficulty coming up with new plots, Dahl decided to return to writing children's books. His first novel was James and the Giant Peach (1961), and his last was The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, published posthumously in 1991 (Bulaong). Dahl emphasized the importance of children's authors having experience with children when he noted, "Had I not had children of my own, I would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so" (Howard). Dahl's first attempt at the young adult market was in 1977, with a collection of two autobiographical pieces, one essay, and four short stories, entitled The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six Others. This work was viewed, by critics, as more appropriate for adults, because only two stories had young characters; therefore, the book was not especially successful (West). Five years later, however, Dahl published the enormously popular The BFG.
Three Novels that Appeal to Young Teens
Dahl's three major works for intermediate readers, The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988) have relatively young protagonists, although the books are written at middle school/junior high reading levels. These books are able to speak to young adolescent readers because the protagonists, in spite of their ages, are at stages in their psychosocial development similar to the readers. Erik Erikson, who studied under Sigmund Freud, said that young people between the ages of 12 to 18 experience the psychosocial crisis of "identity versus role confusion" (Slavin). During this stage, the task of adolescents is to establish themselves as independent and self-reliant individuals (Slavin). This is especially significant for early adolescents because studies show that students' self-esteem is lowest when they are entering middle school/junior high school (Slavin). Each of the protagonists in Dahl's books for intermediate readers illustrates the capacity of young people to accomplish great things, and to exhibit an independent spirit.
The main character in The BFG is Sophie, an eight-year old orphan who is kidnapped by the Big Friendly Giant, or the BFG for short, after she sees him blowing dreams into people's windows. Fortunately for Sophie, the BFG is not interested in eating humans, as are the other nine inhabitants of Giant Country. Outraged by the other giants' disgusting eating habits, Sophie and the BFG develop a plot, which involves the heads of the Army and Air Force as well as the Queen of England, to stop the giants from eating children around the world.
In Dahl's second work, The Witches, the main character is seven years old. His Norwegian grandmother, a retired witchophile, becomes his guardian upon the death of his parents. A short time later, when the two are vacationing in Bournemouth, England, the boy accidentally observes the Annual Meeting of the witches in England, and is turned into a mouse by The Grand High Witch. He manages to escape, and enlists the help of his indomitable grandmother to stop the witches' evil plot to kill all of the children in England in a very creative manner.
The title character in Matilda is a five-year-old child genius whose corrupt parents are practically oblivious to her existence. When she begins to attend school she encounters Miss Honey, her quiet and lovable teacher. She also meets Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress, and an ex-Olympic hammer thrower who continues to practice with children. "The Trunchbull" refuses to acknowledge Matilda's genius and promote her, but Matilda finds that she can channel her brainpower to manipulate objects. She then develops a plan to use her power to get rid of Miss Trunchbull for good, and to rectify the wrongs done to Miss Honey. These three books, with their young heroes and heroines, are major contributions to the young adult market, due to the high level of commonality that Roald Dahl's protagonists share with the readers.
Dahl's View of the World- and Its Place in his Books
Several occurrences in Dahl's life can be connected to emerging values seen in his literature for adolescents. From very early in life, he was isolated from society because his mother, who was Norwegian, did not feel comfortable in English society after the death of his father (West). He grew up hearing Norwegian myths and taking annual vacations to Norway, a setting that is significantly reflected in The Witches (Howard). Dahl's mother honored his father's wishes and sent their children to English schools, despite the fact that at that time English schools stressed corporal punishment, of which Dahl's mother did not approve (West). Consequently, Dahl was removed from preparatory school when he was severely beaten with a cane after he played a prank (West). Dahl remembered those times as "days of horrors, of fierce discipline, of not talking in the dormitories, no running in the corridors, no untidiness of any sort, no this or that or the other, just rules, rules and still more rules that had to be obeyed. And the fear of the dreaded cane hung over us like the fear of death all the time" (Pendergast).
Later, Dahl attended Repton, a prestigious English private school, where the headmaster was a clergyman who flogged students without mercy (West). Such schools would later be reflected in Matilda through Miss Trunchbull, who is known for her capability to throw students great distances for offenses such as eating liquorice during scripture lessons (Matilda). The author of an unauthorized biography on Dahl comments further on the effect that Dahl's life had on his writings: "Dahl's moral universe was one in which there could be no question without an answer, no battle without victory, no irresoluble complexity. This was true of his writing, also" (Treglown). Hence, the sum of these experiences developed in Dahl the cynical view of society that is conveyed in his literature. Although most of Dahl's contemporary readers have not had the experiences that Dahl did, through his writing he establishes a common bond with all young people who have been oppressed or unfairly disciplined.
This bond is developed as a result of Dahl's societal view, characterized by the belief that authorities and social institutions, such as government and schools, should not be trusted or accepted. Mark West, after spending a great deal of time interviewing Dahl and researching his works, concludes, "In almost all of Dahl's fiction--whether it be intended for children or for adults--authoritarian figures, social institutions, and societal norms are ridiculed or at least undermined" (x). Even the heads of the armed forces do not escape Dahl's scorn of social institutions. This attitude is seen in The BFG when the Head of the Air Force and the Head of the Army are unable to devise a plan to capture the child-eating giants. Consequently, the BFG states that they become "biffsquiggled" at any small obstacle, and the Queen calls them "rather dim-witted characters". By displaying and ridiculing their incompetence, Dahl communicates the message that heads of social institutions can not be trusted to act intelligently.
Adults, representations of authority to young people, are also dealt with harshly in Dahl's books if they dare to cause trouble for his young heroes or heroines. This treatment can be seen when Miss Trunchbull, the dictatorial headmistress of Matilda's school, becomes the target of Matilda's telepathic powers, and soon after vanishes. These instances, and many others like it, reflect Dahl's attitude that "beastly people must be punished" (in Pendergast). The introduction to the Children's Literature Review (1997) entry on Dahl explains, "The morality of his writings is simple, usually a matter of absolute good versus consummate evil--with no shades of gray--and those who fall into the latter category are sure to meet with a swift and horrible end". The exception to Dahl's portrayal of adult authority figures is "his tendency to see the family as a possible source of happiness and comfort" (West).
In Dahl's books, with the exception of Matilda, family members are willing to support one another, even against the rest of the world. This is evident in the relationship between the main character and his grandmother in The Witches. For example, after the protagonist has been turned into a mouse and shares his plan to eliminate all the witches in England with his grandmother, her immediate reaction is, "We shall check it out immediately!. . .There's not a second to waste!". Therefore, not all adults are portrayed negatively, but any that abuse their authority over young people are severely punished. All of these factors that contribute to Dahl's implied criticism of society have generated contradictory responses.
Dahl's Positive Impact on Adolescent Readers
Many people believe that Roald Dahl's sociology may have a positive effect on readers. His view of society appeals to adolescents because it closely reflects their own perspective. First, as one critic suggests, he appeals to their "gut-punching and slapstick sense of humor" as well as their "crude sense of fun and delight in jokey phrases" (Elkin). Second, young adults often experience feelings of rebellion against the adults trying to socialize them, which is reflected by Dahl's overwhelmingly negative portrayal of adults (Telgen). The tendency of adolescents to increasingly turn away from parents and reject the authority of adults while they seek to establish unique identities is cited by Erik Erikson as characteristic of the social development of adolescents (Slavin).
Another component of Dahl's philosophy that appeals to early adolescents is the belief that good triumphs and evil is punished or destroyed. For example, when the child-eating giants are captured in The BFG, they are thrown into a pit where they are imprisoned for life, without attempts to befriend them or draft them for some useful purpose (Rees). Belief in the destruction or punishment of evil leads to a fourth aspect of Dahl's sociology that appeals to young people: the presence of physical violence as a means of retribution. Julia Marriage, a reviewer for The School Librarian, notes that while the violence might concern adults, "children are likely to take this in their stride, however regrettable that may be" (Telgen). These elements in Dahl's books reflect many adolescents' perspectives and provide an incentive for young people to read.
Another positive feature of Dahl's works is that they encourage young people through positive presentations of their peers at a time when many are struggling with low self-esteem and looking to peers for their identity. Literary critic Linda Taylor notes that Dahl's main characters are known for their "wit, solitariness, independence, tenacity, intelligence and resourcefulness". This is especially significant for young women, because Dahl's female protagonists, like Matilda and Sophie, are independent and are not intimidated by authority figures (West). For example, Matilda does not allow herself to become a helpless victim by refusing to let her poor home life deny her a sense of self-worth (West). When her parents refuse to buy her books, she finds the public library on her own--at the age of four (Matilda). This independence, characteristic of all Dahl's main characters, allows them to exact revenge against their oppressors (Telgen). Matilda's revenge comes when her parents are going to force her to leave the country with them, but she manages to stay behind with her beloved teacher. However, Dahl also offers the encouragement that these young heroes and heroines--independent and resourceful though they may be--are able to find comfort and support from older allies (West). This is certainly the case in The Witches, when the main character, thinking about his grandmother, comments, "It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you". The results of these positive elements in Dahl's works are books that appeal to and offer encouragement to young adults. Yet, these positive effects are viewed by some to be overshadowed by the possible negative effects of Dahl's view of society on adolescents.
Critics' Objections to Dahl's Books
Many challengers of Dahl's work object to his unrealistic portrayal of life. For example, David Rees, in an article published in Children's Literature in Education (1988), states, "The trouble with Dahl's world is that it is black and white--two-dimensional and unreal". Dahl's portrayal of life can be seen as a result of his overall philosophy of society. Since adults are not to be trusted, they are often portrayed as villains. Yet, Rees explains, "adults enter a child's world in a thousand different moral shapes and sizes". Very rarely does the average child encounter, as Sophie did, adults as evil as the flesh-eating giants, as incompetent as the heads of the armed forces, or as childlike as the BFG. There is much more variety--and many fewer extremes--in the types of adults that children may encounter. Another unrealistic aspect of Dahl's work is the concept that virtue and poverty go together, such as with Miss Honey, Matilda's adored teacher (Telgen). Some find this connection objectionable because it is a view consistent with Marxist philosophy, not one that supports free market capitalism.
Adult readers also object to the unreality of Dahl's books because in life, everything is not fair, and good does not always win. Even when the hero of The Witches is permanently turned into a mouse, the main character assures the reader that; "I honestly don't feel especially bad about it. I don't even feel angry. In fact, I feel rather good" (The Witches). This lack of regret is the norm in Dahl's works instead of the exception, as some feel that it ought to be.
Dahl has garnered further criticism for his portrayal of adults, which many challengers believe has a negative effect on his young readership. Throughout his work, authoritarian adults are frequently the victims of vicious revenge. However, what some find most objectionable is that adults are treated harshly even when they are innocent, such as when the main character's parents are killed in a car crash in The Witches (Pendergast). Critics, Myra Pollack Sadker and David Miller Sadker have accused Dahl of ageism, and of conveying the message that "the needs and desires and opinions of old people are totally irrelevant and inconsequential". Some believe that presenting adolescents with such a view of adults, at an age when they are experiencing conflicting emotions about adults already, could adversely affect their relationships with older people. Commenting on this attitude, Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, points out its limitations:
It is this inclination to pretend that all people are good that Dahl challenges, and consequently his literature attracts opposition from many adult sources.
The final major concern of critics of Dahl's works is his treatment of important issues, and how that treatment might affect his readers. This concern is especially relevant when considering The Witches, ninth on the list of the most frequently banned books in the 1990s (Foerstel). Dahl has been accused of sexism by feminists in England, and has been criticized for his negative portrayal of witches by witches' societies in the United States. These critics point to statements such as the following in making their case against Dahl: "But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch" (Telgen; The Witches). However, his critics often ignore the statement that follows the first: "On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male" (The Witches). When questioned about this issue, Dahl defended his work by pointing to the " 'lovely grandmother, who is one of the major characters in the story' " (Telgen). The grandmother's character is communicated to the reader early in the book when the main character says, " 'The fact that I am still here and able to speak to you. . .is due entirely to my wonderful grandmother' " (The Witches). Dahl claims that the previous accusations are unfounded because of the courage and wisdom that the grandmother displays, in addition to her encouragement of unorthodoxy (Treglown). He does not concern himself with the possibility that certain groups of adults might be offended, but concentrates on entertaining his readers.
Dahl's treatment of the issue of child neglect has also been criticized. This view is based on the fact that Matilda is treated by her parents, at least from her perspective, "as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away" (Matilda). One reviewer, Anna A. Flowers, concluded, "Child neglect countered by revenge, however funny and however justified, is just not a nice theme" (in Telgen). However, Matilda could also be used as an avenue for discussion with students about child abuse and neglect. Nevertheless, because it leads to an unrealistic portrayal of life, a negative representation of adults, and a careless treatment of social issues, Dahl's sociology is viewed by many to be more harmful than beneficial to adolescents. Yet, as is often the case, controversy may lead directly to popularity.
The very controversy caused by Roald Dahl's works for early adolescents has
drawn millions of teens to his books and, subsequently, encouraged them to enjoy
reading. These young people found in Roald Dahl something that they could not
find anywhere else: an author with a view of society that was essentially
identical to their own--distrustful of authority figures and firm in the belief
that good will triumph. Concerning Dahl's popularity, the librarian of one
middle school made this comment during the spring of 1997: "Roald Dahl's
books are always on our reorder list, for copies of his books circulate so much
they are worn in no time! The titles are always checked out and usually on
reserve!" (Crawford). Roald Dahl's view
of society, his contempt for corrupt authority figures, and his distrust of the
system have made his works popular with adolescents. An expression of such
values in the disguise of fantasy and humor is a rare find and one that young
adolescent should be encouraged to make. Roald Dahl has certainly achieved his
goal as an author because his books have provided a way for many young people to
As recounted in Boy, Roald Dahl's father, Harald Dahl, immigrated to England from Norway around the turn of the century (1900). Not long after the death of his first wife, he took a trip back to Norway in hopes of finding a wife to help him raise his young son and daughter. He married Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg in 1911 and the couple moved to Dahl's home in Llandaff, Wales. Over the next six years they had five children: Astri, Alfhild, Roald, Else, Asta. Roald was born on September 13, 1916 in Llandaff. Unfortunately Astri, the eldest, died of appendicitis in 1920. Harald Dahl quickly deteriorated after his daughter's death and he died of pneumonia a few months later. Sofie Dahl, pregnant at the time with Asta, was left with three of her own children, two step-children, a sizeable estate, and her husband's dying wish that his children would be educated in English schools, which he thought the best in the world.
A less determined woman would have packed up and moved back home to Norway, but Sofie decided to stay in Wales and carry out Harald's wish. But she wasn't ready to move to England yet. First she moved the family into a smaller, more manageable home in Llandaff and then one-by-one sent each of her children to Elmtree House, a local school, for kindergarten. When Roald was seven Sofie decided it was time for him to go to a proper boy's school, so she sent him to nearby Llandaff Cathedral School. The family had to sell jewelry to pay for Dahl's upkeep at Repton, a private school in Derbyshire. His years at public schools in Wales and England Dahl later described without nostalgia: "I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn't get over it. I never got over it..." (from Boy: Tales of Childhood, 1984) He spent two years there and his only memories of it are described in “Boy”- one involves an older boy whizzing by on a bicycle, and the other involves The Great Mouse Plot that earned he and his friends a savage caning by the school's headmaster. The savage caning left a pool of blood on the floor that had to be mopped up. This violent incident was what prompted Sofie to withdraw Roald from the Llandaff school and finally send him off to an English boarding school: St. Peter's. This one event has in my opinion tainted all of his writings. If you look at his books with this event in mind you see what it is really about. Especially Dahl hated the matron who ruled the school dormitories. These experiences later inspired him to write stories in which children fight against cruel adults and authorities. "Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy," Dahl once said. "The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all." In WITCHES (1973) behind the mask of beautiful woman is an ugly witch, and in MATILDA (1988) Miss Turnbull throws children out of windows. Both parents are eaten in JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1961), but the real enemies of the hero of the story, a little boy, are two aunts.
St. Peter's Preparatory School in Weston-super-Mare was founded in 1900 and is described at length by Dahl in his book “Boy” (published in 1984). Roald attended St. Peter's from ages nine to thirteen, and he was so homesick at first the he even faked the symptoms of appendicitis (which he remembered from Astri and his older half-sister Ellen) to earn a trip home. He eventually adjusted to school life, but he never learned to like it. In “Boy” he describes savage beatings, sadistic headmasters, prejudiced teachers, and even an abusive dormitory Matron. His nightmarish description though, is somewhat tempered by his concession that his memory of it was "coloured by my natural love of fantasy" (Treglown, 20). Schoolmates remembered him as a tall, soft-faced boy; not especially popular but very close to the few boys who became his friends. He was good at sports like cricket and swimming, but academically he was toward the bottom of his class. One of his main hobbies was reading, and some of his favorite novelists were the adventure writers Rudyard Kipling, Captain Marryat, H. Rider Haggarrd, and G.A. Henty. Their books emphasized a kind of heroism and masculinity that would later influence both Dahl's life and his own writing.
By the time Roald was thirteen the family had moved to Kent in England, and he was soon sent off to the famous Repton Public School. His sisters all attended Roedean in Sussex. To Roald, Repton was even worse than St. Peter's. His account of it in “Boy” includes fagging (younger boys, "fags", were basically personal slaves to the older prefects, called "boazers"), beatings, the torture of new boys, and other miseries common to many, although not all, boys' boarding schools of the time. One particularly scandalous section alleges that a former headmaster of Repton, Geoffrey Fisher (who had subsequently become Archbishop of Canterbury), was a sadistic flogger. According to Dahl, the vicious beatings that this man would deliver combined with the fact that twenty years later he crowned Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, made Dahl doubt the existence of God. In Jeremy Treglown's biography, however, he discovers that Dahl got his dates mixed up. The beatings he was referring to happened in 1933; a year after Fisher left Repton. Dahl must have gotten Fisher mixed up with J. T. Christie, his successor.
Not all memories of Repton were bad, though. Dahl fondly recalls in “Boy” that "every now and again, a plain grey cardboard box was dished out to each boy in our House, and this, believe it or not, was a present from the great chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury" (BOY, 147). Inside were twelve new chocolate bar inventions that the boys were asked to sample and critique. Dahl and his schoolmates took this very seriously, and Roald used to dream of working in a chocolate company's inventing room. He said in “Boy”: "It was lovely dreaming those dreams, and I have no doubt at all that, thirty-five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them, and I began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (BOY, 149).
After completing his education at Repton, Dahl decided that he wanted a career that would take him to "wonderful faraway places like Africa or China" (BOY, 166). He won a coveted position with the Shell Company and spent two years training in England. Soon after he was posted to East Africa and started off on the two-week sea voyage to get there. This voyage marks the end of “Boy” and the beginning of “Going Solo”. Once he reached Mombasa (in Kenya), Dahl transferred to another ship for the voyage down to Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). There he lived with two other Shell representatives and the three of them together administered the entire vast East African territory.
The book “Going Solo” describes many of the exciting adventures Dahl lived through, including the time a green mamba entered his friend's house and the snake-catcher had to be called in. Another time a lion carried off a native woman, and Dahl's subsequent account of her rescue was printed in an African newspaper and became his first published work.
In 1939, it became clear to Dahl that something big was coming. It was World War II. Soon all the Englishmen in the territory were rounded up and transformed into temporary soldiers, responsible for containing the German population. This experience prompted Dahl to formally join the RAF (Royal Air Force) and learn to fly warplanes. Thus in November 1939 he drove cross-country to Nairobi to enlist and was awarded with the rank of Leading Aircraftman (LAC). After eight weeks of basic training and six months of advanced flying instruction, the RAF deemed him ready for battle.
Unfortunately Dahl's very first venture into combat territory resulted in his famous 1940 crash in the Libyan Desert. He was flying an unfamiliar airplane (a Gladiator) and was supposed to join 80 Squadron in the Western Desert. Unfortunately the co-ordinates he was given were incorrect, and he suddenly found himself losing both daylight and fuel in the middle of nowhere. He was forced to attempt a crash landing, praying for luck that he didn't get. His undercarriage hit a boulder and the nose of the Gladiator slammed into the sand at over 75 miles an hour. Dahl's head struck the reflector-sight and fractured his skull, pushing his nose in and blinding him for days. He managed to pull himself from the burning wreckage, though, and was later rescued by three brave soldiers from the Suffolk regiment. After convalescing for months in various army hospitals, Dahl was finally deemed fit to resume flying duties again in the spring of 1941.
The 80th Squadron was now engaged in the tragic RAF campaign in Greece, and after rejoining them Dahl was soon thrust into the desperate routine of trying to stay alive. On his first trip up, he encountered six Ju 88's (enemy planes) and managed to shoot one of them down. The next day he shot down another over Khalkis Bay. His victory was short-lived, though, as the German Messerschmitt fighters swarmed down upon him and he barely made it back to the base alive. Over the next four days he went up twelve more times, fighting against incredible odds and miraculously making it back to base each time. On the 20th of April the Germans discovered the camp and ground-strafed it, but luckily they didn't hit any of the seven remaining aircraft. Dahl and the other man in 80th Squadron fought bravely for many more months, and their battles are described at length in “Going Solo”. Dahl was not fated to remain with them for long though, and when he began to get blinding headaches (from his earlier accident) he was invalidated back home to Britain. His career in the RAF was over.
In 1941, Roald Dahl went home to England. He wasn't there for long, though. Through his friendship with artist Matthew Smith, he became acquainted with some very important men in the British government. Dahl was a cultivated, forceful young injured pilot who seemed able to talk about anything. It wasn't long before he was shipped off to the United States to help with the British War Effort as "assistant air attaché."
One of Dahl's first duties in America was to get close to as many well-placed people as possible. Newspaper-owner Charles Marsh was one of these, and he and Dahl struck up an immediate friendship. Another duty was to help create a kind of British propaganda to keep America interested in the war and sympathetic to Britain's effort. Famous English author C.S. Forester asked Dahl to tell him his own story, so that he could write it up. Dahl thought it easier to put something on paper himself, and the result was so good that Forester decided not to change a thing. The finished story appeared anonymously in The Saturday Evening Post in August 1942 under the title "Shot Down Over Libya."
The story was introduced as a "factual report on Libyan air fighting" by an unnamed RAF pilot "at present in this country for medical reasons." Of course, the "factual" part might have been a little bit of a stretch. As mentioned previously, Dahl's crash was actually caused by lack of fuel and wrong directions, not from any enemy shooting. Much later, when this discrepancy was pointed out to him, Dahl claimed that the story had been edited and misleadingly captioned by magazine editors looking for a more dramatic tale. While he was recovering from his wounds, Dahl had strange dreams, which inspired his first short stories. Encouraged by C.S. Forester, Dahl wrote about his most exiting RAF adventures. The story, “A Piece of Cake”, was published by the Saturday Evening Post. It earned him $1,000. The same story was later included in OVER TO YOU: THE STORIES OF FLYERS AND FLYING (1946). Dahl's first children's book, THE GREMLINS (1943), was written for Walt Disney and became later a popular movie. His collection of short stories, SOMEONE LIKE YOU (1954), gained a world success, as its sequel, KISS KISS (1959). The two books were serialized for television in America. A number of the stories had appeared in the New Yorker. Dahl's stories were seen in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) and in Tales of the Unexpected (1979) series
As time passed and Dahl became more popular among Washington's rich and famous, he became known for the wild yarns he would spin about his RAF adventures. He even wrote a story called "Gremlin Lore" about the mythical creatures that supposedly sabotaged RAF planes. Since he was a serving officer, Dahl was required to submit everything he wrote for approval by British Information Services. The officer, who read it, Sidney Bernstein, decided to pass it along to his good friend Walt Disney, who was looking for War-related features for his fledgling film company. Disney decided to turn Dahl's story into an animated feature called “The Gremlins”.
Problems immediately began to surface with the project. What did Gremlins
look like? How could Disney copyright a name already known (and invented) by
countless RAF pilots? Should the film be satirical or purely fantastic? Beyond
these concerns, audience enthusiasm for the film began to wane as the War
dragged on. Ultimately the project was scrapped, though Disney did put together
a picture book in 1943 entitled Walt Disney: The Gremlins
(A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl).
If the Gremlins never reached the big screen, the experience certainly made Dahl's name as a writer. By the fall of 1944, he had a literary agent, Ann Watkins. He had published a number of stories in American magazines: "Shot Down Over Libya". In The Saturday Evening Post; “The Gremlins”. In Cosmopolitan and in book form; "The Sword". In The Atlantic Monthly; "Katina" and "Only This" in the Ladies' Home Journal; and "Beware of the Dog" in Harper's. While Dahl, like any young writer, was trying out styles, he was also making sure each story contained some overt propaganda for the War effort. It's also worth nothing (in light of Dahl's later career) that two of these stories - “The Gremlins” and "Katina" - either featured or were written for children.
In 1945 Dahl moved back home to Amersham, England to be near his mother, Sofie. He enjoyed the rustic country life, making friends with some of the working-class men in the village. Among them was a butcher named Claud Taylor, who would later be immortalized in the "Claud's Dog" series of stories. Meanwhile, in 1946 Reynal and Hitchcock published “Over to You”, a collection of Dahl's war stories. It was released in England soon after by Hamish Hamilton. The book received mixed reviews but was ultimately successful enough to prompt Dahl's next effort: a full-blown novel about the possibilities of nuclear war.
The novel Dahl wrote, “Sometime Never”, was published in the United States in 1948 by Scribner's, and in England a year later by Collins. There's no easy way to put this: the book was a total flop. It was almost an adult version of the Gremlins story, beginning with the Battle of Britain and continuing on to the end of the world. Despite its utter failure, the book is remarkable for being the first book about nuclear war to be published in the United States after Hiroshima.
In the years following “Sometime Never”, Dahl renewed his friendship with American Charles Marsh, helping the newspaperman amass a valuable collection of British art and antiques. Dahl also helped his mentor set up a charity known as the Marsh's Public Welfare Foundation. In return, Marsh set up a trust in Dahl's name and invested thousands of dollars in a Dahl-family forestry operation in Norway.
These years in England had been profitable ones for Dahl, but he came to miss the sophistication of New York life. As the 1950's began, Dahl finally began to see some money from stories sold to Collier's and The New Yorker. He applied for and was granted a permanent American visa, and soon found himself taking up residence with the Marsh family back in the Big Apple. He slid easily back into the circuit of celebrity parties, and it was at one of these functions in 1951 that he met his future wife, actress Patricia Neal.
Patricia Neal was born in Packard, Kentucky on January 20, 1926. Her father was a manager for the Southern Coal and Coke Company, and though the family was not sophisticated, they were comfortably well off. Neal's theatrical ambitions were evident early in her school career, and she later enjoyed a measure of success at Northwestern University. After her father's early death, Neal left to pursue life as an actress in New York. "Before she was twenty-one, she had been taken to lunch by Richard Rodgers, pursued by David O. Selznick, had turned down one Broadway role in favor of another, and had made the cover of Life" (Treglown, 111).
Patricia Neal's most scandalous claim to fame, however, was her long affair with Gary Cooper, her co-star from The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949). The affair with Cooper began two years earlier, in 1947, and by 1950 Cooper's wife had found out and joined the battle. On one occasion, Treglown reports, Neal received the following telegram: "I HAVE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU. YOU HAD BETTER STOP NOW OR YOU WILL BE SORRY. MRS. GARY COOPER." Eventually Mrs. Cooper got her way, but not before her husband had made Pat pregnant and persuaded her to have an abortion. Guilty and scared, Neal called off the relationship.
After this trying period, Neal won a part in The Children's Hour, a new play by Lillian Hellman. It was at one of Hellman's dinner parties in 1951 that she first met the newly relocated author Roald Dahl. He had become quite a favorite amongst the New York elite, and he loved to shock and scorn unsuspecting newcomers with his wit and sarcasm. When he found himself seated next to the beautiful (and ten years his junior) rising star Patricia Neal, his tactic was to ignore her all evening. It wasn't long, though, before the two of them were going out together on a regular basis.
Dahl was also enjoying a measure of commercial success now as well. The
sixty-year-old publisher Alfred Knopf had recently discovered some of Dahl's
short stories and was eager to sign him to a deal. The collection Dahl later
delivered in 1953 included such tales as "Taste",
"My Lady Love, My Dove", "Skin" and "Dip
in the Pool."
The publicity department at Knopf soon had even more to work with: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal were married on July 2, 1953 at Trinity Church in New York.In 1953 Dahl married actress Patricia Neal, whom he had first met at a party in 1951. She was a promising Warner Bros. star who had recently ended a much-publicized affair with Gary Cooper. They had five children together and he attributes his success as a writer of children's books to them. "Had I not had children of my own, I would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so." Neal suffered a series of near-fatal strokes in 1965 and her road to recovery (with Roald's help) was described in Barry Farrell's book “Pat and Roald” (later made into the film The Patricia Neal Story).
In 1983, Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal divorced after thirty years of marriage. Dahl quickly remarried Felicity Dahl, with whom he had fallen in love and carried on an affair for some time. Thus the last years of his life were relatively happy and productive, and some of his best books were written during this period: “The BFG”, “The Witches”, and “Matilda”. Roald Dahl died on November 23, 1990 in Oxford, England. He was buried in Great Missenden.
Roald Dahl and his siblings were raised to be very conscious of their Norwegian heritage. Not only did his mother speak the language around the house; she also read them Norse myths and took them on annual trips to Norway to visit relatives. This heritage is most evident in Dahl's book “The Witches”, but its influence can be seen in other books as well.
“Danny The Champion of the World”, “Matilda”, and “Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes” are examples of stories resulting from Dahl's beliefs that "The writer for children must be a jokey sort of fellow... he must be unconventional and inventive."
Of children, he said, "They love being spooked... They love chocolates and toys and money... They love being made to giggle."
The only stageplay Dahl ever wrote, THE HONEYS, failed in New York in 1955. After showing little inclination towards children's literature, Dahl published JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1961). It was followed by the highly popular tale CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1964), filmed in 1971. The story dealt with one small boy's search for the ultimate prize in fierce competition with other, highly unpleasant children, many of whom come to sticky ends as a result of their greediness. It presented the central theme in Dahl's fiction for young readers: virtue is rewarded, vice is punished. In the end the fabulous chocolate factory is given to the kind, impoverished boy. MY UNCLE OSWALD (1979) was Dahl's first full-length novel, a bizarre story of a scheme for procuring and selling the sperm of the world's most powerful and brilliant men.
Dahl received three Edgar Allan Poe Awards (1954, 1959, 1980). In 1982 he won his first literary prize with THE BFG, a story about Big Friendly Giant, who kidnaps a little girl to Giantland, where giants eat children. In 1983 he received the Whitbread award and in the same year World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement award. Dahl died of infection on November 23, 1990, in Oxford. Dahl's autobiographical books, BOY: TALES OF CHILDHOOD and GOING SOLO, appeared in 1984 and 1986 respectively.
Dahl's stories have unexpected endings and strange, menacing atmospheres. The principle of "fair play" works in unconventional but unavoidable ways. Uncle Oswald, a seducer from 'The Visitor', gets seduced. In 'Parson's Pleasure' an antique dealer tastes his own medicine and the Twits from THE TWITS (1980) use glue to catch birds and meet their own gluey ends. In 'Lamb to the Slaughter' officers who in vain search for the murder weapon eat the evidence of a murder, a frozen leg of lamb. A meeting inspired the story with the writer Ian Fleming at a dinner party. Puns, word coinages, and neologism are more often used in the children's stories, whereas in adult fiction the emphasis is on imaginative plots. In addition of his children's books, Dahl also arose much controversy with his politically incorrect opinions - he was accused of anti-Semitism and antifeminist and when a prowler managed to get into Queen Elizabeth's bedroom, Dahl was wrongly suspected of giving the idea for the unwanted quest in one of his books, The BFG (1982). In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the Umpaloopas were originally little black pigmy men. When he fell under criticism with the accusation that he was promoting slavery of blackmen he changed them into little orange and yellow dwarfs. He defended himself saying that his intention was not the promotion of slavery but he had designed the book like a Victorian fantasy with little unknown workers who Willy Wonka saved from terrible circumstances. They are not slaves. He was from England, a country who didn’t have the hang-ups like the United States about slavery. So that no one would be offended he changed it.
The stories of Roald Dahl are indeed treasures for our children and for generations to come.
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