Famous Authors Series – Roald Dahl

‘Famous Authors Series – Roald Dahl’ is our second post profiling famous authors.

Best known for his hugely popular children’s books, Roald Dahl was a British author who was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1916 to immigrant Norwegian parents. He died in Oxford, England in 1990.

The themes of his children’s books are usually unsentimental and macabre, with a dark sense of humour. The stories feature villainous adult characters pitted against child heroes who ultimately prevail. Think Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryMatildaThe WitchesFantastic Mr FoxThe BFGThe Twits ... One of his well-known adult works is Tales of the Unexpected.

Roald Dahl was one of the authors whose stories our daughter grew up on. We read the book and watched the movie Matilda so many times she had the script memorised. I’m pretty sure that as an adult, she still remembers many of the lines.

Dahl also wrote short stories, poetry and screenplays. Furthermore, he was an ace fighter pilot during World War II, eventually moving into intelligence. He was a tall – 6ft 6in (1.98m) – and dashing figure, much sought-after by the ladies. His affairs with glamorous older ladies in the US gleaned him much useful information for his own and his host country.

Mouse in the gobstoppers

When the young author was at primary school, the headmaster caned Dahl along with four friends. Their crime? Putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers in the local sweetshop. The owner was a ‘mean and loathsome’ old woman. This mischievous act mirrors some of the mean tricks that Mr and Mrs Twit play on each other in The Twits.

Family life

Dahl had three sisters. Sadly, an older sister died from appendicitis when he was only three years old, and his father died just a few weeks later of pneumonia at the age of 57. Dahl’s mother remained in Wales instead of returning to Norway, as her husband had wanted their children to attend English schools.

Dahl married Patricia Neal, an American actress. They were together 30 years and had five children. Tragedy struck both their only son, and their seven-year-old daughter. Their son was injured as a baby when a taxi hit his pram in New York. The inventive Dahl commissioned a friend to make a valve that helped clear Theo’s brain of fluid, leading to his partial recovery. Then Olivia died of measles encephalitis. Dahl dedicated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Theo and The BFG to Olivia.

His second marriage was in 1983, lasting until his death.

Strong sense of justice

From the age of 13, Dahl attended Repton, a public school in Derbyshire, where he endured the infamous cruelty often portrayed in depictions of such institutions. Older boys and masters lorded it over the younger students. Dahl abhorred the cruelty and almost committed suicide. His sense of justice and his disgust at the excesses of authority or dominant figures comes through in his books. Bullying of the defenceless by the powerful and stupid always results in unflinching payback.

Schoolmasters don’t know everything

It appears that Dahl did not exhibit great writing talent at school, or at least, one of his English teachers didn’t think so. He said of him, ‘I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.’ One can only imagine the deep shade of beetroot that man would have blushed when many years later, he was proven so, so wrong.

Influences

Dahl grew up on Norse folktales told to him by his parents. Other influences include writers Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, William Makepeace Thackeray and Frederick Marryat.

Ian Fleming adaptations

Two famous screenplays that Dahl wrote were both adaptations of novels by Ian Fleming: the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and the children’s film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Roald Dahl’s eight main rules

The eight rules that Dahl applied to his children’s stories:

  1. Just add chocolate
  2. Adults can be scary
  3. Bad things happen
  4. Revenge is sweet
  5. Keep a wicked sense of humour
  6. Pick perfect pictures
  7. Films are fun…but books are better!
  8. Food is fun!

Other interesting stuff about Roald Dahl

He invented more than 500 new words and character names. Oxford University Press created a Roald Dahl Dictionary with almost 8,000 real and imaginary words he loved to use.

Famous Authors Series – Roald Dahl photo of girl reading Matilda
Roald Dahl’s Matilda (qz.com)

He wrote in a special garden shed based on Dylan Thomas’.

The first children’s book he wrote was The Gremlins, which later become the inspiration for the blockbuster film Gremlins produced by Steven Spielberg in 1984.

Death and legacy

Dahl died of myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare cancer of the blood. Buckinghamshire is his burial site. Considered one of the greatest storytellers for children of the twentieth century, he has named after him a gallery in Buckinghamshire, an asteroid, a plaza in Cardiff and a literary prize. His widow has continued his charitable commitments to neurology, haematology and literacy through Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this post Famous Authors Series – Roald Dahl.

Acknowledgements

BBC Newsround, ‘Roald Dahl Day: Seven fantastic facts about the author’, 13 September 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/36824907 Accessed 13 November 2020

Independent, ‘Once Upon a Time There Was a Man Who Liked to Make Up Stories…’ 12 December 2010, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-man-who-liked-to-make-up-stories-2158052.html Accessed 13 November 2020

Roald Dahl, ‘About Roald Dahl’, https://www.roalddahl.com/roald-dahl/about Accessed 13 November 2020 (Please note: reference only; no material has been used from this site)

Wikipedia, Roald Dahl, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roald_Dahl Accessed 13 November 2020

Acknowledgements for Photos: Hindustan Times and qz.com

‘Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it’

Roald Dahl

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