Dahl, Roald 1916–1990

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Dahl, Roald 1916–1990

PERSONAL: Given name is pronounced "Roo-aal"; born September 13, 1916, in Llandaff, South Wales; died November 23, 1990, in Oxford, England; son of Harald (a shipbroker, painter, and horticulturist) and Sofie (Hesselberg) Dahl; married Patricia Neal (an actress), July 2, 1953 (divorced, 1983); married Felicity Ann Crosland, 1983; children: (first marriage) Olivia (deceased), Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, Lucy. Education: Graduate of British public schools, 1932.

CAREER: Shell Oil Co., London, England, member of eastern staff, 1933–37, member of staff in Dar-es-Sa-laam, Tanzania, 1937–39; writer. Host of a series of half-hour television dramas, Way Out, during early 1960s. Military service: Royal Air Force, fighter pilot, 1939–45; became wing commander.

AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1954, 1959, and 1980; New England Round Table of Children's Librarians award, 1972, and Surrey School award, 1973, both for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Surrey School award, 1975, and Nene award, 1978, both for Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator; Surrey School award, 1978, and California Young Reader Medal, 1979, both for Danny: The Champion of the World; Federation of Children's Book Groups award, 1982, for The BFG; Massachusetts Children's award, 1982, for James and the Giant Peach; New York Times Outstanding Books award, 1983, Whitbread Award, 1983, and West Australian award, 1986, all for The Witches; World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement Award, and Federation of Children's Book Groups award, both 1983; Maschler award runner-up, 1985, for The Giraffe and Pelly and Me; Boston Globe/Horn Book nonfiction honor citation, 1985, for Boy: Tales of Childhood; International Board on Books for Young People awards for Norwegian and German translations of The BFG, both 1986; Smarties Award, 1990, for Esio Trot; The BFG, The Twits, Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were all voted "one of the nation's 100 best-loved novels" by the British public as part of the BBC's The Big Read, 2003.



Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen (novel), Scribner, 1948.

My Uncle Oswald (novel), M. Joseph, 1979, Knopf, 1980.

Going Solo (autobiography), Farrar, Straus, 1986.


The Gremlins, illustrations by Walt Disney Productions, Random House, 1943.

James and the Giant Peach: A Children's Story (also see below), illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Knopf, 1961, illustrations by Michel Simeon, Allen & Unwin, 1967.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (also see below), illustrations by Joseph Schindelman, Knopf, 1964, revised edition, 1973, illustrations by Faith Jaques, Allen & Unwin, 1967.

The Magic Finger (also see below), illustrations by William Pene du Bois, Harper, 1966, illustrations by Pat Marriott, Puffin, 1974.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (also see below), illustrations by Donald Chaffin, Knopf, 1970.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: The Further Adventures of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Chocolate-Maker Extraordinary (also see below), illustrations by J. Schindelman, Knopf, 1972, illustrations by F. Jaques, Allen & Unwin, 1973.

Danny: The Champion of the World, illustrations by Jill Bennett, Knopf, 1975 (collected with James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bantam, 1983).

The Enormous Crocodile (also see below), illustrations by Quentin Blake, Knopf, 1978.

The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka (contains Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), illustrations by F. Jaques, Allen & Unwin, 1978.

The Twits, illustrations by Q. Blake, J. Cape, 1980, Knopf, 1981.

George's Marvelous Medicine, illustrations by Q. Blake, J. Cape, 1981, Knopf, 1982.

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, illustrations by Q. Blake, J. Cape, 1982, Knopf, 1983.

The BFG (also see below), illustrations by Q. Blake, Farrar, Straus, 1982.

Dirty Beasts (verse), illustrations by Rosemary Fawcett, Farrar, Straus, 1983, reprinted with illustrations by Q. Blake, Puffin (New York, NY), 2002.

The Witches (also see below), illustrations by Q. Blake, Farrar, Straus, 1983.

Boy: Tales of Childhood, Farrar, Straus, 1984.

The Giraffe and Pelly and Me, illustrations by Q. Blake, Farrar, Straus, 1985.

Matilda, illustrations by Q. Blake, Viking Kestrel, 1988.

Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, The BFG (boxed set), Viking, 1989.

Rhyme Stew (comic verse), illustrations by Q. Blake, J. Cape, 1989, Viking, 1990.

Esio Trot, illustrations by Q. Blake, Viking, 1990.

The Dahl Diary, 1992, illustrations by Q. Blake, Puffin Books, 1991.

The Minpins, Viking, 1991.

Three More from Roald Dahl (includes The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, and Danny: The Champion of the World), Puffin, 1991.

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, illustrations by Q. Blake, Viking, 1992.

My Year, illustrations by Q. Blake, Viking Children's, 1994.

Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes, illustrations by Quentin Blake, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

The Mildenhall Treasure, pictures by Ralph Steadman, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.

Some of Dahl's works have been translated into French and Spanish.


Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (also see below), Reynal, 1946.

Someone Like You (also see below), Knopf, 1953.

Kiss, Kiss (also see below), Knopf, 1959.

Selected Stories of Roald Dahl, Modern Library, 1968.

Twenty-nine Kisses from Roald Dahl (contains Someone Like You and Kiss, Kiss), M. Joseph, 1969.

Switch Bitch (also see below), Knopf, 1974.

The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More, Knopf, 1977 (published in England as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Cape, 1977).

The Best of Roald Dahl (selections from Over to You, Someone Like You, Kiss Kiss, and Switch Bitch), introduction by James Cameron, Vintage, 1978.

Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, Vintage, 1979.

Taste and Other Tales, Longman, 1979.

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories, edited and introduced by Roy Blatchford, photographs by Catherine Shakespeare Lane, Longman, 1980.

More Tales of the Unexpected, Penguin, 1980 (published in England as More Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, Joseph, 1980, and as Further Tales of the Unexpected, Chivers, 1981).

(Editor) Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, Farrar, Straus, 1983.

Two Fables (contains "Princess and the Poacher" and "Princess Mammalia"), illustrations by Graham Dean, Viking, 1986.

The Roald Dahl Omnibus, Hippocrene Books, 1987.

A Second Roald Dahl Selection: Eight Short Stories, edited by Helene Fawcett, Longman, 1987.

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life, illustrations by John Lawrence, J. Cape, 1988, Knopf, 1989.

The Collected Short Stories, Michael Joseph, 1991.

The Umbrella Man and Other Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1998.

Contributor of short fiction to Penguin Modern Stories 12, 1972.


Lamb to the Slaughter (teleplay), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), 1958.

(With Jack Bloom) You Only Live Twice, United Artists, 1967.

(With Ken Hughes) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, United Artists, 1968.

The Night-Digger (based on Nest in a Falling Tree, by Joy Crowley), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1970.

Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (motion picture; adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Paramount, 1971.

Also author of screenplays Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Ling-a-Ling?, United Artists, The Lightning Bug, 1971, and The Road Builder.


The Honeys (play), produced in New York City, 1955.

(With Felicity Dahl) Memories with Food at Gipsy House, Viking, 1991.

(With Felicity Dahl) Roald Dahl's Cookbook, Penguin Group, 1996.

The Roald Dahl Treasury, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.

Skin and Other Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.

Dahl recorded Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Caedmon, 1975, James and the Giant Peach, Caedmon, 1977, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Caedmon, 1978, and Roald Dahl Reads His "The Enormous Crocodile" and "The Magic Finger," Caedmon, 1980, as well as an interview, Bedtime Stories to Children's Books, Center for Cassette Studies, 1973. Contributor to anthologies and periodicals, including Harper's, New Yorker, Playboy, Collier's, Town and Country, Atlantic, Esquire, and Saturday Evening Post.

ADAPTATIONS: 36 Hours (motion picture; adaptation of Dahl's short story "Beware of the Dog"), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1964; Delicious Inventions (motion picture; excerpted from film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Paramount, 1971), Films, Inc., 1976: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Story-time (filmstrip; excerpted from the 1971 Paramount motion picture of the same name), Films, Inc., 1976: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Learning Kit (film-strip; excerpted from the 1971 Paramount motion picture of the same name), Films, Inc., 1976; The Witches, screenplay by Allan Scott, Lorimar, 1990; James and the Giant Peach (animated motion picture; adapted from Dahl's novel of the same name), screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, and Steve Bloom, Walt Disney, 1996; Matilda (based on Dahl's novel of the same name), screenplay by Robin Swicord and Nicholas Kazan, directed by Danny DeVito, 1996; Tales of the Unexpected, WNEW-TV, 1979; Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A Play, by Richard George, introduction by Dahl, Knopf, 1976; Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach: A Play, by George, introduction by Dahl, Penguin, 1982. The Great Switcheroo, (recording) read by Patricia Neal, Caedmon, 1977; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was adapted as a stage musical by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley titled Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka, 2004 and the book is also scheduled to be adapted for film a second time. The forthcoming film will be directed by Tim Burton.

SIDELIGHTS: Roald Dahl, best known as the author of children's books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, was also noted for his short stories for adults, and his enchanting autobiographical descriptions of growing up in England and flying in World War II. His children's fiction is known for its sudden turns into the fantastic, its wheeling, fast-moving prose, and its decidedly harsh treatment of any adults foolish enough to cause trouble for the young heroes and heroines. Similarly, his adult fiction often relies on a sudden twist that throws light on what has been happening in the story, a trait most evident in Tales of the Unexpected, which was made into a television series.

Dahl was born on September 13, 1916, the son of an adventurous shipbroker. He was an energetic and mischievous child and from an early age proved adept at finding trouble. His very earliest memory was of pedaling to school at breakneck speed on his tricycle, his two sisters struggling to keep up as he whizzed around curves on two wheels. In Boy: Tales of Childhood, Dahl recounted many of these happy memories from his childhood, remembering most fondly the trips that the entire family took to Norway, which he always considered home. Each summer the family would tramp aboard a steamer for the two-day trip to Oslo, where they were treated to a Norwegian feast with his grandparents, and the next day board a smaller ship for a trip north to what they called "Magic Island." On the island the family whiled away the long summer days swimming and boating.

Though Dahl's father died when the author was four, his mother abided by her husband's wish to have the children attend English schools, which he considered the best in the world. At Llandaff Cathedral School the young Dahl began his career of mischievous adventures and met up with the first of many oppressive, even cruel, adults. One exploit in particular foretold both the author's career in school and the major themes of his adult work. Each day on the way to and from school the seven-year-old Dahl and his friends passed a sweetshop. Unable to resist the lure of "Bootlace Liquorice" and "Gobstoppers"—familiar candy to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fans—the children would pile into the store and buy as much candy as they could with their limited allowances. Day after day the grubby, grouchy storekeeper, Mrs. Pratchett, scolded the children as she dug her dirty hands into the jars of candy; one day the kids had had enough of her abuse, and Dahl hatched the perfect plan to get back at her. The very next day, when she reached into the jar of Gob-stoppers she clamped her hand around a very stiff, dead mouse and flung the jar to the ground, scattering Gob-stoppers and glass all over the store floor. Mrs. Pratchett knew whom to blame, and when the boys went to school the next day she was waiting, along with a very angry Headmaster Coombes. Not only did Coombes give each of the boys a severe beating, but Mrs. Pratchett was there to witness it. "She was bounding up and down with excitement," Dahl remembered in Boy, "'Lay it into 'im!' she was shrieking. 'Let 'im 'ave it! Teach 'im a lesson!'"

Dahl's mother complained about the beating the boys were given, but was told that if she didn't like it she could find another school. She did, sending Roald to St. Peters Boarding School the next year, and later to Repton, a renowned private school. Of his time at St. Peters, Dahl said: "Those were 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."

Dahl received undistinguished marks while attending Repton, and showed little sign of his future prowess as a writer. His end-of-term report from Easter term, 1931, which he saved, declared him "a persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel." Nevertheless, his mother offered him the option of attending Oxford or Cambridge when he finished school. His reply, recorded in Boy, was, "No, thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places life Africa or China." He got his wish, for he was soon hired by the Shell Oil Company, and later shipped off to Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where he enjoyed "the roasting heat and the crocodiles and the snakes and the log safaris up-country, selling Shell oil to the men who ran the diamond mines and the sisal plantations…. Above all, I learned how to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilization."

In 1939, Dahl's adventures took on a more dangerous cast as he joined the Royal Air Force training squadron in Nairobi, Kenya. World War II was just beginning, and Dahl would soon make his mark as a fighter pilot combating the Germans all around the Mediterranean Sea. While strafing a convoy of trucks near Alexandria, Egypt, his plane was hit by machine-gun fire. The plane crashed to the ground and Dahl crawled from the wreckage as the gas tanks exploded. The crash left his skull fractured, his nose crumpled, and his eyes temporarily stuck shut. After six months of recovery he returned to his squadron in Greece and shot down four enemy planes, but frequent blackouts as a result of his earlier injuries eventually rendered him unable to fly.

Dahl was soon transferred to Washington, DC, to serve as an assistant air attache. One day C.S. Forester interviewed Dahl over lunch for an article he was writing for the Saturday Evening Post, but was too engrossed in eating to take notes himself. The notes that Dahl took for him turned out to be a story, which Forester sent to the magazine under Dahl's name. The magazine paid Dahl one thousand dollars for the story, which was titled "Piece of Cake" and later published in Over to You: Ten Stories of Fliers and Flying. Soon his stories appeared in Collier's, Harper's, Ladies' Home Journal, Tomorrow and Town and Country. Dahl indicated in a New York Times Book Review profile by Willa Petschek that "as I went on, the stories became less and less realistic and more fantastic. But becoming a writer was pure fluke. Without being asked to, I doubt if I'd ever have thought of it."

Dahl went on to publish numerous short story collections during the next several decades, some of which-notably 1953's Someone Like You and 1959's Kiss, Kiss—sold widely in the United States and earned Dahl a measure of fame. After 1960 Dahl's primary focus became children's fiction, although he did produce a short story collection, Switch Bitch, in 1974 as well as a novel, My Uncle Oswald, in 1979. Both of the latter works are marked by themes of sexual sadism and obsession; both were controversial and received criticism from reviewers for the sexual violence they portrayed. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor John L. Grigsby summarized Dahl's achievements as a short fiction writer: "In his best stories Dahl presents skill-fully composed plots that convey powerful insights into the frequently negative depths of the human psyche…. In his less effective works, however, Dahl's outsider status results in a kind of cynical condescension toward and manipulation of the reader in surprise-of-plot stories that stereotype characters outside his self-focused realm of psychological experience."

In 1943, Dahl wrote his first children's story, and coined a term, with The Gremlins. Gremlins were tiny saboteurs who lived on fighter planes and bombers and were responsible for all crashes. Mrs. Roosevelt, the president's wife, read the book to her children and liked it so much that she invited Dahl to dinner, and he and the president soon became friends. Through the 1940s and into the 1950s Dahl continued as a short story writer for adults, establishing his reputation as a writer of macabre tales with an unexpected twist. A Books and Bookmen reviewer called Dahl "a master of horror—an intellectual Hitchcock of the writing world." J.D. O'Hara, writing in New Republic, labeled him "our Supreme Master of Wickedness," and his stories earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America.

In 1953 he married Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, star of such movies as The Fountainhead and, later, Hud, for which she won an Academy Award. Dahl recalled in Pat and Roald that "she wasn't at all movie-starish; no great closets filled with clothes or anything like that. She had a drive to be a great actress, but it was never as strong as it is with some of these nuts. You could turn it aside." Although the marriage did not survive, it produced five children. As soon as the children were old enough, he began making up stories for them each night before they went to bed. These stories became the basis for his career as a children's writer, which began in earnest with the publication of James and the Giant Peach in 1961. Dahl insisted that having to invent stories night after night was perfect practice for his trade, telling the New York Times Book Review: "Children are a great discipline because they are highly critical. And they lose interest so quickly. You have to keep things ticking along. And if you think a child is getting bored, you must think up something that jolts it back. Something that tickles. You have to know what children like." Sales of Dahl's books certainly attest to his skill: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator have sold over one million hardcover copies in America, and James and the Giant Peach more than 350,000.

James and the Giant Peach recounts the fantastic tale of a young boy who travels thousands of miles in a house-sized peach with as bizarre an assemblage of companions as can be found in a children's book. After the giant peach crushes his aunts, James crawls into the peach through a worm hole, making friends with a centipede, a silkworm, a spider, a ladybug, and a flock of seagulls that lifts the peach into the air and carries it across the ocean to Central Park. Gerald Haigh, writing in Times Literary Supplement, said that Dahl had the ability to "home unerringly in on the very nub of childish delight, with brazen and glorious disregard for what is likely to furrow the adult brow."

One way that Dahl delighted his readers was to exact often vicious revenge on cruel adults who harmed children. In Matilda, the Amazonian headmistress Miss Turnbull, who deals with unruly children by grabbing them by the hair and tossing them out windows, is finally banished by the brilliant, triumphant Matilda. The Witches, released as a movie in 1990, finds the heroic young character, who has been turned into a mouse, thwarting the hideous and diabolical witches who are planning to kill all the children of England. But even innocent adults receive rough treatment: parents are killed in car crashes in The Witches, and eaten by a rhinoceros in James and the Giant Peach; aunts are flattened by a giant peach in James and the Giant Peach; and pleasant fathers are murdered in Matilda. Many critics have objected to the rough treatment of adults. Eleanor Cameron, for example, in Children's Literature in Education, found that "Dahl caters to the streak of sadism in children which they don't even realize is there because they are not fully self-aware and are not experienced enough to understand what sadism is." And in Now Upon a Time: A Contemporary View of Children's Literature, Myra Pollack Sadker and David Miller Sadker criticized Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for its "ageism": "The message with which we close the book is that the needs and desires and opinions of old people are totally irrelevant and inconsequential."

However, Dahl explained in the New York Times Book Review that the children who wrote to him "invariably pick out the most gruesome events as the favorite parts of the books…. They don't relate it to life. They enjoy the fantasy. And my nastiness is never gratuitous. It's retribution. Beastly people must be punished." Alasdair Campbell, writing in School Librarian, argued that "normal children are bound to take some interest in the darker side of human nature, and books for them should be judged not by picking out separate elements but rather on the basis of their overall balance and effect." He found books such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Magic Finger "ultimately satisfying, with the principles of justice clearly vindicated."

In Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children's Literature, Dahl contended that adults may be disturbed by his books "because they are not quite as aware as I am that children are different from adults. Children are much more vulgar than grownups. They have a coarser sense of humor. They are basically more cruel." Dahl often commented that the key to his success with children was that he conspired with them against adults. Vicki Weissman, in her review of Matilda in the New York Times Book Review, agreed that Dahl's books are aimed to please children rather than adults in a number of ways. She thought that "the truths of death and torture are as distant as when the magician saws the lady in half," and delighted that "anarchic and patently impossible plots romp along with no regard at all for the even faintly likely." Just as children are more vulgar than adults, so too do they have more tolerance for undeveloped characters, loose linking of events, ludicrous word play, and mind-boggling plot twists. Eric Hadley, in his sketch of Dahl in Twentieth Century Children's Writers, suggested that the "sense of sharing, of joining with Dahl in a game or plot, is crucial: you admire him and his cleverness, not his characters." The result, according to Hadley, is that the audience has the "pleasure of feeling that they are in on a tremendous joke."

"The writer for children must be a jokey sort of a fellow …," Dahl once told Writer. "He must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive. He must have a really first-class plot." As a writer, Dahl encountered difficulty in developing plots. He filled an old school exercise book with ideas that he had jotted down in pencil, crayon, or whatever was handy, and insisted in The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More that every story he had ever written, for adults or for children, "started out as a three-or four-line note in this little, much-worn, red-covered volume." And each book was written in a tiny brick hut in the apple orchard about two hundred yards away from his home in Buckinghamshire, England. The little hut was rarely cleaned, and the walls were lined with "ill-fitting sheets of polystyrene, yellow with age and tobacco smoke, and spiders … [making] pretty webs in the upper corners," Dahl once declared. "The room itself is of no consequence. It is out of focus, a place for dreaming and floating and whistling in the wind, as soft and silent and murky as a womb."

Looking back on his years as a writer in Boy, Dahl contended that "the life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to go to work…. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it."

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre opened in Great Missenden, England, on June 12, 2005.



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Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale, Volume 1, 1973, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 79, 1993.

Dahl, Lucy, James and the Giant Peach: The Book and Movie Scrapbook, Disney Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Dahl, Roald, The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More, Knopf, 1977.

Dahl, Roald, Boy: Tales of Childhood, Farrar, Straus, 1984.

Dahl, Roald, Going Solo, Farrar, Straus, 1986.

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