It’s ‘Spotlight’ time again and instead of focusing on new and upcoming books, this week I want to throw one of my favourite childhood authors into the mix, Roald Dahl.
His books characterised my childhood. I must have read nearly all of his children’s books at primary school and the box set is probably one of the first I remember receiving as a gift. These books were so well read that they became tatty at the edges, and even though I haven’t read them for years, I can’t part with them or even box them up to give me a bit more shelving space. Out of all the books he wrote, my favourite has and will always be Matilda because he didn’t just write about a child who loved books, he wrote a story with dark, adult themes that weren’t sugar-coated. In terms of Matilda, you’ve got a child who is being emotionally abused, a school headmistress who creates fear through corporal punishment, a father who is committing fraud – acts that have deeper meanings that are not overtly obvious to begin with but show their true colours with age.
Born to Norwegian parents on 13th September, 1916, Roald Dahl spent most of his early life in Cardiff until he was sent to English boarding schools – Saint Peter’s at Weston-super-Mare, and Repton School in Derbyshire. Writing was not considered to be his strong suit, instead excelling at sports particularly football and squash. On leaving school he went on a hiking trip through Newfoundland until he was employed by Shell (the oil company), working in Kenya and Tanzania.
At the start of World War II he became a lieutenant in the King’s African Rifles (East African regiment of the British Army) and then considered a career move when he joined the RAF as a fighter pilot. Disaster struck in 1940 when he was forced to crash land in the desert, fracturing his skull as well as injuring his spine and hip. After recovering at the Royal Navy Hospital in Alexandria, he was passed fully fit and took part in a couple of important offences, including the Battle of Athens. However he began to suffer from severe headaches and blackouts, sending him home to Britain where he was posted to an RAF training camp in Uxbridge, and then to Washington DC to work for the British Embassy as an assistant air attaché. As part of his job he was to help neutralise the isolationist views held by Americans by giving pro-British speeches and discussing his war service.
Whilst there he met with writer CS Forrester, and was introduced to espionage and the activities of the Canadian spymaster, William Stephenson. It was on this meet that he would begin to supply intelligence for the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
Nonetheless, he also spent a lot of his time writing, and one of his first stories for children was born. It was called Gremlins, focusing on small, green, mythical creatures that would create havoc by sabotaging military aircraft. The story fell into the laps of Walt Disney and together they sat down to produce a film, wanting to capitalise from Disney’s success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (Pingback – Roald Dahl, Disney, and Gremlins) Unfortunately it was not to be and they parted, Dahl deciding there and then to temporarily stop writing for children.
Post-war, he settled down and married American actress Patricia Neal. Together they had five children, and were happy until the early death of his eldest daughter Olivia. Illness struck his family when his son Theo was also involved in an automobile accident, suffering severe injuries, and his wife experienced three cerebral aneurysms. As a result, Roald Dahl became a huge supporter of charities dedicated to neurological research and illnesses. He divorced Patricia Neal in 1983, and then went onto marry Felicity Crosland, whom he remained with until his own death in 1990.
Whilst he wrote stories for adults, and penned an autobiography under the title Boy: Tales of Childhood, he is most well-known for his children’s books:
1961 – James and the Giant Peach
1964 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
1966 – The Magic Finger
1970 – Fantastic Mr Fox
1972 – Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
1975 – Danny, the Champion of the World
1978 – The Enormous Crocodile
1980 – The Twits
1981 – George’s Marvellous Medicine
1982 – The BFG
1983 – The Witches
1985 – The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
1988 – Matilda
1990 – Esio Trott
1991 – The Vicar of Nibbleswicke and The Minpins.
Usually told from the perspective of a child, his stories typically involve adult villains who hate and mistreat children. There is, however, always one “good” adult to counteract the villain, i.e. Miss Honey in Matilda. Also, while his fantasy stories featured an underlying warm sentiment, they usually contained a lot of dark, comic, and grotesque scenarios, including gruesome violence.
Despite their popularity, his books have been the subject of some controversy – critics and parents commenting on the extent of revenge enacted on adult wrongdoers. In his defence, Dahl claimed that children have a cruder sense of humour than adults and that he was simply trying to appeal to his readers.
A key element of his writing was his inventive, playful use of language. He would invent new words by scribbling down words before swapping letters around and adopting spoonerisms and malapropisms. These new words would be built on familiar and onomatopoeic sounds. It has been said that he created more than 250 new words, most of them appearing in the BFG. To mark the centenary of his birth in 2016, lexicographer Dr Susan Rennie compiled the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary, which includes many of his invented words and their meaning.
As a popular author, his legacy is one that continues to inspire many generations. Ranking amongst the world’s best-selling fiction authors, the sale of his books estimate over 250 million, being published in almost 60 languages. Many of his stories have also been made into successful and well-loved films – Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (twice), Fantastic Mr Fox, and recently the BFG.
Along with his literacy legacy that also included the opening of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden (2005) and the annual Roald Dahl Funny Prize (2008), his charitable commitments in the fields of neurology and haematology have been continued by his widow through the Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity (formerly known as the Roald Dahl Foundation), providing care and support to seriously ill children and young people throughout the UK.
Other General Facts
Was named by The Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945
He wrote many of his books in a garden shed, sitting upon an old battered armchair.
Before he died, he was writing a third Charlie Bucket story – Charlie Bucket and the White House.
He also wrote screenplays, the most notable being the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Whilst at school in Ripton, Cadbury would often send chocolate to the school for testing. Dahl’s dream of inventing a new chocolate bar that would please Mr Cadbury was known as one of the inspirations for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The anniversary of his birthday is now celebrated as Roald Dahl Day, particularly in Africa, the UK, and Latin America.
I hope you enjoyed this long foray into one of my favourite authors.
I knew bits about his past but it was interesting to research more about him and share that information with the rest of you. Personally, I’m always taken aback by his imagination, and his talent for fictional words often reminds me of that of the Sherman Brothers, two of my favourite Disney composers and lyricists.
Whilst I have a few more spotlight authors lined up, if there any you would like me to consider and showcase on the blog, feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Thanks for reading