In 1940, a young British fighter pilot awoke in a war hospital. His plane had crashed in the North African desert. Somehow he crawled away from the burning wreckage, then lost consciousness. The last thing he remembered thinking was, “I’m dead,” but he was rescued and flown to safety.
His nose was smashed, almost severed, his skull was fractured, and his face swollen so badly he was blind. For two months he lay immobilized, sightless. He later came to believe that his brain injury somehow made him more creative and turned him into a writer.
Roald Dahl was born in 1916 to parents who had emigrated from Norway to Cardiff, Wales. They pronounced his name the Norwegian way—“Roo-all” (no final “d”)—but his Welsh teachers insisted that was wrong! and called him “Roeald.” Perhaps that was his first clash with arbitrary adult authority—a theme that would recur later in his writing.
Roald was the baby of the family, called “Apple” by his mother and three doting sisters. The Dahls were well-to-do and happy until, when Roald was three years old, one sister died suddenly from appendicitis. A few weeks later his grieving father died of pneumonia.
When he was eight, Roald was caned by a schoolmaster for putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers, a favorite sweet. (Decades later, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he immortalized the candy as the Everlasting Gobstopper.) His mother, outraged by the caning, sent him off to boarding school in England. She didn’t know it, but that school relied even more on corporal punishment.
Roald was miserable living far from home. He was afraid of being caned again by school authorities, especially by one sadistic headmaster (the original Trunchbull?) who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. That man’s cruelty raised lasting doubts in Dahl’s mind about religion and even God.
Roald was an athletic teenager, six and a half feet tall— perhaps he was his own model for the Big Friendly Giant— and devoted to chocolate. Luckily for children’s literature, near to his second boarding school was the Cadbury Chocolate Factory (yes!) and he spent his allowance on the amazing variety of treats manufactured in that wonderful building.
After finishing his schooling, Dahl longed for excitement. He joined the Shell Oil Company, who sent him to Mombasa and Tanganyika, where he had his first experiences of the larger world.
When World War II broke out, Dahl joined the Royal Air Force. He was fearless and distinguished himself during the aerial dogfights of the Battle of Athens. But headaches and blackouts caused by his extensive injuries eventually made flying impossible and he was reassigned to the British Embassy in Washington D. C. There he became friends with
Ian Fleming, boxed with Ernest Hemingway, and played poker with Harry Truman. He also, it is believed, did a bit of spying. Dahl wrote a series of magazine articles about his war experiences—his first paid writing job—and then a children’s book called Gremlins, about mythical imps who sabotage airplanes.
When peace came, Dahl pursued his new passion for writing. He found success with bizarre mystery tales, some of which became episodes on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (remember the one about the wife who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasts it and serves it to the detectives looking for the murder weapon?)
In 1953, he married Patricia Neal, the American actress. Their marriage lasted 30 years and produced five children. In 1960, three-month-old Theo was severely injured when a taxi struck his baby carriage. He developed hydrocephalus; Roald collaborated in the invention of a valve to alleviate the condition. Two years later, daughter Olivia died of measles at age seven, leaving him “limp with despair.” And in 1965, Pat Neal suffered three strokes while pregnant with their fifth child. Doctors held little hope for her recovery, but Roald took control of her rehabilitation, coaching her tirelessly as she learned to walk and talk again.
During the sixties, perhaps as a diversion from mental and physical pain, Dahl began his great series of children’s books: James and the Giant Peach was first, then Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Witches, and many, many more. They all explore themes that enchanted or enraged him throughout his life: resilient children; grotesquely cruel adults; outrageous humor; the importance of reading; and silly, made-up words like buzzwangle and zippfizzing.
Matilda was one of the last Dahl books, and a tricky one to write. At one point he abandoned the nearly complete manuscript and started all over again. Working as always in his writing hut at the end of the garden, nested in his mother’s old armchair, he revised the story to emphasize the importance of books, which he feared might soon be obsolete.
Dahl died in 1990. The family gave him a sort of “Viking funeral,” burying him with his snooker cues, some very good burgundy, chocolates, hard black pencils, and a power saw.
Why are his books so loved? Children instinctively realize that Roald Dahl is firmly on their side, that he will never talk down to them, and that he will lead them through the most alarming adventures unscathed.
By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic & Music Associate
Illustration by Jeff Carpenter