Roald Dahl (13 September 1916 – 23 November 1990) was a British novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, born in Wales of Norwegian parents, who rose to prominence in the 1940s with works for both children and adults, and became one of the world's bestselling authors.
In 1920, when Roald was four, his seven-year-old sister, Astri, died from appendicitis. About a month later, his father died of pneumonia at the age of 57, following grief from his daughter's death. Dahl's mother, however, decided not to return to Norway to live with her relatives, but to remain in Wales since it had been her husband's wish to have their children educated in British schools.
Dahl first attended The Cathedral School, Llandaff. At the age of eight, he and four of his friends were caned by the headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of sweets at the local sweet shop, which was owned by a "mean and loathsome" old woman called Mrs. Pratchett (wife of blacksmith David Pratchett). This was known amongst the five boys as the "Great Mouse Plot of 1924". This was Roald's own idea.
Thereafter, he was sent to several boarding schools in England, including Saint Peter's in Weston-super-Mare. His parents had wanted Roald to be educated at a British public school and at the time, due to a then regular boat link across the Bristol Channel, this proved to be the nearest. His time at Saint Peter's was an unpleasant experience for him. He was very homesick and wrote to his mother almost every day, but never revealed to her his unhappiness, being under the pressure of school censorship. Only when she died did he find out that she had saved every single one of his letters, in small bundles held together with green tape. He later attended Repton School in Derbyshire, where, according to his novel Boy, a friend named Michael was viciously caned by Geoffrey Fisher, the man who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. This caused Dahl to "have doubts about religion and even about God".
Dahl was very tall, reaching 6'6" (1.98m) in adult life, and he was good at sports, being made captain of the school Fives and Squash teams, and also playing for the football team. This helped his popularity. He developed an interest in photography. During his years there, Cadbury, a chocolate company, would occasionally send boxes of new chocolates to the school to be tested by the pupils. Dahl himself apparently used to dream of inventing a new chocolate bar that would win the praise of Mr. Cadbury himself, and this proved the inspiration for him to write his third book for children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Throughout his childhood and adolescent years, Dahl spent his summer holidays in his parents' native Norway, mostly enjoying the fjords. His childhood is the subject of his autobiographical work, Boy: Tales of Childhood.
After finishing his schooling, he spent three weeks hiking through Newfoundland with a group called the Public Schools' Exploring Society (now known as BSES Expeditions). In July 1934, he joined the Shell Petroleum Company.
Following 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 in luxury in the Shell House outside Dar-es-Salaam, with a cook and personal servants. While out on assignments supplying oil to customers across Tanganyika, he encountered black mambas (a type of snake), and lions, amongst other wildlife.
In November 1939, Dahl joined the Royal Air Force. After a car journey from Dar-es-Salaam to Nairobi, he was accepted for flight training with 20 other men, 17 of whom would later die in air combat. With seven hours and 40 minutes experience in a De Havilland Tiger Moth, he flew solo; Dahl enjoyed watching the wildlife of Kenya during his flights. He continued on to advanced flying training in Iraq, at RAF Habbaniya, west of Baghdad. Following six months training on Hawker Harts, Dahl was made a Pilot Officer.
He was assigned to No. 80 Squadron RAF, flying obsolete Gloster Gladiators, the last biplane fighter plane used by the RAF. Dahl was surprised to find that he would not receive any specialised training in aerial combat, or in regard to flying Gladiators. On 19 September 1940, Dahl was ordered to fly his Gladiator from Abu Sueir in Egypt, on to Amiriya to refuel, and again to Fouka in Libya for a second refuelling. From there he would fly to 80 Squadron's forward airstrip south of Mersa Matruh. On the final leg, he could not find the airstrip and, running low on fuel and with night approaching, he was forced to attempt a landing in the desert. Unfortunately, the undercarriage hit a boulder and the plane crashed, fracturing his skull, smashing his nose, and blinding him. He managed to drag himself away from the blazing wreckage and passed out. Later, he wrote about the crash for his first published work (see below).
Dahl was rescued and taken to a first-aid post in Mersa Matruh, where he regained consciousness, but not his sight, and was then taken by train to the Royal Navy hospital in Alexandria. There he fell in and out of love with a nurse, Mary Welland. Dahl had fallen in love with her voice while he was blind, but once he regained his sight, he decided that he no longer loved her. An RAF inquiry into the crash revealed that the location he had been told to fly to was completely wrong, and he had mistakenly been sent instead to the no man's land between the Allied and Italian forces.
In February 1941, Dahl was discharged and passed fully fit for flying duties. By this time, 80 Squadron had been transferred to the Greek campaign and based at Eleusina, near Athens. The squadron was now equipped with Hawker Hurricanes. Dahl flew a replacement Hurricane across the Mediterranean Sea in April 1941, after seven hours flying Hurricanes. By this stage in the Greek campaign, the RAF had only 18 combat planes in Greece: 14 Hurricanes and four Bristol Blenheim light bombers. Dahl saw his first aerial combat on 15 April 1941, while flying alone over the city of Chalcis. He attacked six Junkers Ju-88s that were bombing ships and shot one down. On 16 April in another air battle, he shot down another Ju-88.
On 20 April 1941 Dahl took part in the "Battle of Athens", alongside the highest-scoring British Commonwealth ace of World War II, Pat Pattle and Dahl's friend David Coke. Of twelve Hurricanes involved, five were shot down and four of their pilots killed, including Pattle. Greek observers on the ground counted twenty-two German aircraft downed, but none of the pilots knew who they shot down due to the carnage of the aerial engagement. Roald Dahl described it as "an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side." The wing returned back to Elevsis. Later on in the day, the aerodrome was ground-strafed by Bf 109s, but miraculously, none of them hit any of the Hawker Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were then evacuated to a small, secret airfield near Megara, a small village on 21 April 1941, where the pilots hid. Approximately north half of the Luftwaffe were searching for the remaining Hurricanes. By approximately 6 or 7 A.M., about thirty Bf-109s and Stuka dive-bombers flew over the seven pilots who were hiding. The Stukas dived bombed a tanker in the Bay of Athens, and sank it. Dahl and his comrades were only away from the incident. Surprisingly, none of the bombers nor the fighters were able to spot the Hurricanes parked in the nearby field. Sometime in the afternoon, an Air Commodore arrived in a car to the airfield and asked if one of the seven could volunteer to fly and deliver a package to a man named Carter at Elevsis. Roald Dahl was the only one who volunteered to do it. The contents of the package were of vital importance, and Dahl was told that if he was shot down, or captured, he should burn the package immediately, so it would not fall into enemy hands, and once he had handed over the package, he was to fly to Argos, an airfield, with the rest of the seven pilots in the squadron.
For the rest of April, the situation was horrible for the RAF in Greece. If the Luftwaffe destroyed the remaining seven planes, they would then have complete control of the skies in Greece. They intended to wipe them out. If the squadron were to be found, it would mean the worst. According to Dahl's report, at about 4:30 P.M. a Bf 110 swooped over the airfield at Argos, and found them. The pilots discussed that it would take the 110 roughly half an hour to return to base, and then another half hour for the whole enemy squadron to get ready for take-off, and then another half hour for them to reach Argos. They had roughly an hour and thirty minutes until they would be ground-strafed by enemy aircraft. However, instead of having the remaining seven pilots airborne and intercepting the 110s an hour ahead, the CO ordered them to escort ships evacuating their army in Greece at 6:00. The seven planes got up into the air, but the formation was quickly disorganized as the radios were not working. Dahl and Coke found themselves separated from the rest of the wing. They could not communicate with the rest of the wing, so they continued on flying, looking for the ships to escort. Eventually they ran out of fuel and returned back to Argos, where they found the entire airfield in smoke and flames, with tents flamed, ammunition destroyed, etc.; however there were few casualties. What happened was that while Roald Dahl and David Coke took off, three other aircraft in the wing somehow managed to get away. The sixth pilot who was taking off was ground-strafed by the enemy and killed. The seventh pilot managed to bail out. Everybody else in the camp was hiding in the slit trenches. Immediately after Dahl and Coke figured out what was going on, the squadron was sent to Crete. A month later they were evacuated to Egypt.
As the Germans were pressing on Athens, Dahl was evacuated to Egypt. His squadron was reassembled in Haifa. From there, Dahl flew missions every day for a period of four weeks, downing a Vichy French Air Force Potez 63 on 8 June and another Ju-88 on 15 June, but he then began to get severe headaches that caused him to black out. He was invalided home to Britain; at this time his rank was Flight Lieutenant.
Dahl began writing in 1942, after he was transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air Attaché. His first published work, in the 1 August 1942 issue of the Saturday Evening Post was "Shot Down Over Libya", describing the crash of his Gloster Gladiator. C. S. Forester had asked Dahl to write down some RAF anecdotes so that he could shape them into a story. After Forester sat down to read what Dahl had given him, he decided to publish it exactly as it was. The original title of the article was A Piece of Cake — the title was changed to sound more dramatic, despite the fact that the he was not "shot down".
During the war, Forester worked for the British Information Service and was writing propaganda for the Allied cause, mainly for American consumption. This work introduced Dahl to espionage and the activities of the Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, known by the codename "Intrepid". During the war, Dahl supplied intelligence from Washington to Stephenson and his organization, which was known as British Security Coordination. Dahl was sent back to Britain, for supposed misconduct by British Embassy officials: "I got booted out by the big boys," he said. Stephenson sent him back to Washington — with a promotion. After the war Dahl wrote some of the history of the secret organization and he and Stephenson remained friends for decades after the war.
He ended the war as a Wing Commander. His record of five aerial victories, qualifying him as a flying ace, has been confirmed by post-war research and cross-referenced in Axis records, although it is most likely that he scored more than that during 20 April 1941 where 22 German aircraft were downed.
Dahl married American actress Patricia Neal on 2 July 1953 at Trinity Church in New York City. Their marriage lasted for 30 years and they had five children: Olivia (who died of measles encephalitis, aged seven), Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, and Lucy. He dedicated The BFG to Olivia.
When he was four months old, Theo Dahl was severely injured when his baby carriage was hit by a taxi in New York City. For a time, he suffered from hydrocephalus, and as a result, his father became involved in the development of what became known as the "Wade-Dahl-Till" (or WDT) valve, a device to alleviate the condition.
In 1965, Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant with their fifth child, Lucy. Dahl took control of her rehabilitation and she eventually relearned to talk and walk. They were divorced in 1983 following a very turbulent marriage, and he subsequently married Felicity ("Liccy") d'Abreu Crosland (born 12 December 1938), who was 22 years his junior.
Ophelia Dahl is director and co-founder (with doctor Paul Farmer) of Partners in Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing health care to some of the most impoverished communities in the world. Lucy Dahl is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Tessa's daughter Sophie Dahl (who was the inspiration for Sophie, the main character in her grandfather's book The BFG) is a model and author who remembers Roald Dahl as "a very difficult man – very strong, very dominant ... not unlike the father of the Mitford sisters sort of roaring round the house with these very loud opinions, banning certain types – foppish boys, you know – from coming round."
In 2002, one of Cardiff's modern landmarks, the historic Oval Basin plaza, was re-christened "Roald Dahl Plass". "Plass" means plaza in Norwegian, a nod to the acclaimed late writer's Norwegian roots. There have also been calls from the public for a permanent statue of him to be erected in the city.
Dahl's charitable commitments in the fields of neurology, haematology and literacy have been continued by his widow since his death, through the Roald Dahl Foundation In June 2005, the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre opened in Great Missenden to celebrate the work of Roald Dahl and advance his work in literacy.
His first children's book was The Gremlins, about mischievous little creatures that were part of RAF folklore. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney for a film that was never made, and published in 1943. Dahl went on to create some of the best-loved children's stories of the 20th century, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach.
He also had a successful parallel career as the writer of macabre adult short stories, usually with a dark sense of humour and a surprise ending. Many were originally written for American magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Harper's, Playboy and The New Yorker, then subsequently collected by Dahl into anthologies, gaining world-wide acclaim. Dahl wrote more than 60 short stories and they have appeared in numerous collections, some only being published in book form after his death. See List of Roald Dahl short stories. His stories also brought him three Edgar Awards: in 1954, for the collection Someone Like You; in 1959, for the story The Landlady; and in 1980, for the episode of Tales of the Unexpected based on "Skin".
One of his more famous adult stories, "The Smoker" (also known as "Man From the South"), was filmed twice as both 1960 and 1985 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and also adapted into Quentin Tarantino's segment of the 1995 film Four Rooms. This bizarre, oft-anthologized suspense classic concerns a man residing in Jamaica who wagers with visitors in an attempt to claim the fingers from their hands; the 1960 Hitchcock version stars Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre.
His short story collection Tales of the Unexpected was adapted to a successful TV series of the same name, beginning with "Man From the South". When the stock of Dahl's own original stories was exhausted, the series continued by adapting stories by authors that were written in Dahl's style, including the American writers John Collier and Stanley Ellin.
A number of his short stories are supposed to be extracts from the diary of his (fictional) Uncle Oswald, a rich gentleman whose sexual exploits form the subject of these stories.
For a brief, relatively unsuccessful period in the 1960s, Dahl wrote screenplays. Two of his screenplays – the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – were adaptations of novels by Ian Fleming. Dahl also wrote an initial draft adapting his own novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was heavily rewritten by David Seltzer, and produced as the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Dahl later disowned the film. Dahl would later receive posthumous songwriting credits for the soundtrack of Tim Burton's 2005 film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as several songs written by Dahl for the novel were used in the film, set to music composed by Danny Elfman.
Memories with Food at Gipsy House, written with his wife Felicity and published posthumously in 1991, was a mixture of recipes, family reminiscences and Dahl's musings on favourite subjects such as chocolate, onions, and claret.
Dahl ranks amongst the world's bestselling fiction authors, with sales estimated at 100 million.
Dahl also features in his books characters that are very fat, usually children. Augustus Gloop, Bruce Bogtrotter, and Bruno Jenkins are a few of these characters, although an enormous woman named Aunt Sponge is featured in James and The Giant Peach. All of these characters (with the possible exception of Bruce Bogtrotter) are either villains or simply unpleasant gluttons. They are usually punished for this: Augustus Gloop drinks from Willy Wonka's chocolate river, disregarding the adults who tell him not to, and falls in, getting sucked up a pipe and nearly being turned into fudge. Bruce Bogtrotter steals cake from the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, and is forced to eat a gigantic chocolate cake in front of the school. Bruno Jenkins is turned into a mouse by witches and, it is speculated, possibly disowned or even killed by his parents because of this. Aunt Sponge is flattened by a giant peach.
Dahl's mother used to tell him and his sisters tales about trolls and other mythical Norwegian creatures and some of his children's books contain references or elements inspired by these stories, such as the giants in The BFG. Many of his children's books are illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Dahl told a reporter in 1983, "There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity . . . I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason." Nonetheless, according to Treglown, Dahl maintained friendships with a handful of individual Jews. Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who served alongside Dahl in Washington during WWII, said, "I thought he might say anything. Could have been pro-Arab or pro-Jew. There was no consistent line. He was a man who followed whims, which meant he would blow up in one direction, so to speak."
In later years, Dahl included a sympathetic episode about German-Jewish refugees in his book Going Solo, and on another occasion he said he was opposed to injustice, not Jews. He believed the media suppressed details about Israeli military actions, such as the killing of civilians, and maintained his strong political stance against Israel, telling the British newspaper The Independent, shortly before his death in 1990: "I'm certainly anti-Israeli and I've become anti-Semitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism. I think they should see both sides. It's the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren't any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media - jolly clever thing to do - that's why the President of the United States has to sell all this [military] stuff to Israel.