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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Roald Dahl (1916-1990 )


British writer, famous for his ingenious short stories and macabre children's books. Dahl's taste for cruelty, rudeness to adults, and the comic grotesque fascinated young readers, but upset many adult critics. Several of Dahl's stories have been made into films, including Matilda, dir. by Danny DeVito (1996).

'Aunt Glosspan,' the boy said, ' what do ordinary people eat that we don't?'
'Animals,' she answered, tossing her head in disgust.
'You mean live animals?'
'No,' she said. 'Dead ones.'

(from 'Pig' in Kiss, Kiss, 1959)

Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales, of Norwegian parents. His father, Harald Dahl, was the joint owner of a successful ship-broking business, "Aadnesen& Dahl" with another Norwegian. Before emigrating to Wales, Harald had been a farmer near Oslo. He married a young French girl named Marie in Paris; she died after giving birth to their second child. In 1911 he married Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg. Harald died when Dahl was four years old, and three weeks later his elder sister, Astri, died from appendicitis. The family had to sell their jewellery to pay for Dahl's upkeep at a private school in Derbyshire. When Dahl was 13 he went to a public school named Repton.

His years at public schools in Wales and England Dahl later described without nostalgia: "I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn't get over it. I never got over it..." (from Boy: Tales of Childhood, 1984) Dahl especially hated the matron who ruled the school dormitories. These experiences later inspired him to write stories in which children fight against cruel adults and authorities. "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended," one of Dahl's English teachers commented.

"Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy," Dahl once said. "The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all." In Witches (1973) behind the mask of a beautiful woman is an ugly witch, and in Matilda (1988) Miss Turnbull throws children out of windows. Both parents are eaten in James and the Giant Peach  (1961), but the real enemies of the hero of the story, a little boy, are two aunts.

At eighteen, instead of entering university, Dahl joined an expedition to Newfoundland. Returning to England he took a job with Shell, working in London (1933-37) and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1937-39). During World War II he served in the Royal Air Forces in Libya, Greece, and Syria. He was shot down in Libya, wounded in Syria, and then posted to Washington as an assistant air attaché to British Security (1942-43). In 1943 he was a wing commander and worked until 1945 for British Security Co-ordination in North America.

In the crash Dahl had fractured his skull, and said later: "You do get bits of magic from enormous bumps on the head." While he was recovering from his wounds, Dahl had strange dreams, which inspired his first short stories. Encouraged by C.S. Forester, Dahl wrote about his most exiting RAF adventures. The story, A Piece of Cake, was published by the Saturday Evening Post. It earned him $1,000. The same story was later included in Over To You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (1946). Dahl's first children's book, The Gremlins (1943), about mischievous little creatures, who eventually join the Allied forces in the Battle of Britain, caught also Walt Disney's attention. Later it inspired a popular movie. Dahl's collection of short stories, Someone Like You (1954), gained world success, as did its sequel, Kiss Kiss (1959). The two books were serialized for television in America. A number of the stories had appeared in the New Yorker. Dahl's stories were seen in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) and in the Tales of the Unexpected (1979) series.

In 1953 Dahl married the successful and wealthy actress Patricia Neal; they had one son and four daughters – the eldest daughter Olivia died of measles when she was eight. Dahl's wife suffered a series of brain hemorrhages at the age of 38; while pregnant with their fifth child she had a stroke. She described her recovery and her husband's solicitous help in the autobiography As I Am (1988). The marriage ended after other family tragedies; she also discovered that Dahl had been having an affair with her friend, Felicity Ann Crossland, who was 22 years his junior. Dahl married her in 1983. Patricia Neal received in 1964 an Oscar for her performance in Hud. She died in 2010.

The only stageplay Dahl ever wrote, The Honeys, failed in New York in 1955. After showing little inclination towards children's literature, Dahl published James and the Giant Peach. The book came out first in the United States, but it took six years before Dahl found a published in Britain. James and the Giant Peach was followed by the highly popular tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), which has inspired two film adaptations. The story dealt with one small boy's search for the ultimate prize in fierce competition with other, highly unpleasant children, many of whom come to sticky ends as a result of their greediness. It presented the central theme in Dahl's fiction for young readers: virtue is rewarded, vice is punished. In the end the fabulous chocolate factory is given to Charlie, the kind, impoverished boy. The Witches (1983) won the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 1983. The judges described the book as "deliciously disgusting". Later Felicity Dahl collected her husband's culinary "delights", such as "Bird Pie", "Hot Frogs", and "Lickable Wallpaper" in Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes (1994).

My Uncle Oswald (1979) was Dahl's first full-length novel, a bizarre story of a scheme for procuring and selling the sperm of the world's most powerful and brilliant men. Dahl received three Edgar Allan Poe Awards (1954, 1959, 1980). In 1982 he won his first literary prize with The BFG, a story about Big Friendly Giant, who kidnaps and takes a little girl to Giantland, where giants eat children. In 1983 he received World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement award. Dahl died of an infection on November 23, 1990, in Oxford. Dahl's autobiographical books, Boy: Tales of Childhood and Going Solo, came out in 1984 and 1986 respectively. The success of his books resulted in the foundation of the Roald Dahl Children's Gallery in Aylesbury, not far from where he lived.

"Good ghost stories, like good children's books, are damnably difficult to write. I am a short story writer myself, and although I have been doing it for forty-five years and have always longed to write just one decent ghost story, I have never succeeded in bringing it off. Heaven knows, I have tried. Once I thought I had done it. It was with a story that is now called 'The Landlady'. But when it was finished and I examined it carefully, I knew it wasn't good enough. I hadn't brought it off. I simply hadn't got the secret. So finally I altered the ending and made it into a non-ghost story." (from Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, 1983)

Dahl's stories have unexpected endings and strange, menacing atmospheres. The principle of "fair play" works in unconventional but unavoidable ways. Uncle Oswald, a seducer from 'The Visitor', gets seduced. In 'Parson's Pleasure' an antique dealer tastes his own medicine and the Twits from The Twits (1980) use glue to catch birds and meet their own gluey ends. In 'Lamb to the Slaughter' the evidence of a murder, a frozen leg of lamb, is eaten by officers who in vain search for the murder weapon. The story was inspired by a meeting with the writer Ian Fleming at a dinner party. Puns, word coinages, and neologism are more often used in the children's stories, whereas in adult fiction the emphasis is on imaginative plots. In addition to his children's books, Dahl also aroused much controversy with his politically incorrect opinions - he was accused of anti-Semitism and antifeminism and when a prowler managed to get into Queen Elizabeth's bedroom, Dahl was wrongly suspected of giving to the unwanted guest the whole idea in one of his books, The BFG (1982).

For further reading: Roald Dahl by Chris Dowling (1983); Roald Dahl by Alan Warren (1988); Roald Dahl: A Biography by Jeremy Treglown (1994); St James Guide to Young Adult Writers, ed. by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast (1999); Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: Portraits of children's writers by Julia Eccleshare (2002)

Selected works:

  • The Gremlins, 1943
    - The Gremlins movies uses the name but are unrelated: first 1984, dir. by Joe Dante; the second 1990, Grewmlins 2. dir. by Joe Dante. One episode of The Twilight Zone Movie (1983), scripted by Richard Matheson, drew on Dahl's original idea
  • Over To You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, 1945
    - Helppo nakki ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Erkki Haglund, 1992)
  • Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen, 1948
  • Someone Like You, 1953 (rev. 1961)
    - Rakkaani, kyyhkyläiseni: jännityskertomuksia (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1961); Joku kaltaisesi (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1970)
    - film adaptations: 'The Taste', TV film 1952, dir. by Richard Goode, starring Peter Lorre; 'Taste', TV film 1954, starring Ed Begley, Patricia Breslin, Joseph Schlidkraut; 'Taste', TV film 1955, starring Leonard Elliot, Violet Heming, Diana Millay, Rudy Vallee; 'Taste', TV film 1967, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. by John Glenister, starring Donald Pleasence, Leonard Rossiter, Maureen O'Brien, Marion Mathie
  • Lamb to the Slaughter, 1953
  • The Honeys, 1955 (play, prod. in New York City)
  • Kiss Kiss, 1959
    - Rakkaani, kyyhkyläiseni: jännityskertomuksia (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1961) / Joku kaltaisesi (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1970)
  • James and the Giant Peach, 1961 (illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert)
    - Jaakko ja jättipersikka (suom. Kimmo Pietiläinen, 1995) / Jaakko ja jättipersikka (suom. Peikko Pitkänen, 2009)
    - animation film 1996, prod. Allied Filmmakers, dir. by Henry Selick
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964 (illustrated by Joseph Schindelman)
    - Jali ja suklaatehdas (suom. Aili Nissinen, 1971)
    - films: 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, dir. by Mel Stuart, starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, Julie Dawn Cole, Leonard Stone 2005, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, dir. by Tim Burton, screenplay by John August, starring Johnny Depp, Charlie Bucket, Helena Bonham Carter - Jali ja suklaatehdas
  • 36 Hours, 1965 (screenplay, based on 'Beware of the Dog', film dir. by George Seaton, starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Taylor; TV film Breaking Point, 1989, dir. by Peter Markle, starring Corbin Bernsen, Joanna Pacula, John Glover, David Marshall Grant)
  • The Magic Finger, 1966 (illustrated by William Pène Du Bois)
    - Taikasormi (suom. Päivi Heininen, 1998)
  • You Only Live Twice, 1967 (screenplay, with Harry Jack Bloom based on Ian Fleming's novel)
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968 (screenplay, with Ken Hughes, based on Ian Fleming's children's book)
  • Twenty-Nine Kisses from Roald Dahl, 1969
  • Fantastic Mr Fox, 1970 (illus. by Donald Chaffin)
    - Kekseliäs kettu (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1978)
    - film 2009, dir. by Wes Anderson, voices: George Clooney, Owen Wilson, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe
  • Selected Stories, 1970
  • The Night Digger, 1971 (screenplay based on Joy Cowley's novel, film dir. by Alastair Reid, starring Patricia Neal, Pamela Brown, Nicholas Clay, Jean Anderson)
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1971 (screenplay)
  • Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, 1972 (illustrated by Joseph Schindelman)
    - Jali ja lasihissi (suom. Päivi Heininen, 2000) / Jali ja mahtava lasihissi: seitsenosainen lastenkuunnelma (suom. Pekka Ojalehto)
  • Penguin Modern Stories 12, 1972 (with others)
  • Switch Bitch, 1974
    - Alahuuli (suom. Raija Mattila, 1975)
  • Danny, the Champion of the World, 1975 (illustrated by Jill Bennett)
    - Me salamestarit (suom. Eeva Heikkinen, 1977) / Iskä ja Danny maailmanmestari (suom. Päivi Heininen, 1999)
    - film 1989, prod. Children's Film and Television Foundation (CFTVF), dir. by Gavin Millar, screenplay by John Goldsmith, starring Jeremy Irons, Robbie Coltrane, Samuel Irons, Cyril Cusack, Jean Marsh
  • The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, 1977
    - Henry Sugarin ihmeellinen tarina ja kuusi muuta (suom. Jaana Kapari, 2003)
  • The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr Willy Wonka, 1978
  • The Enormous Crocodile, 1978 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Suunnattoman suuri krokotiili (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1978)
  • The Best of Roald Dahl, 1978
  • Tales of the Unexpected, 1979
    - TV series 1979-1988, 26 episodes, prod. Anglia Television
  • Taste and Other Tales, 1979
  • My Uncle Oswald, 1979
    - Oswald-eno (suom. Pentti Nieminen, 1981) / Oswald-eno (suom. Seppo Heikinheimo, 1992)
  • The Twits, 1980 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Nilviöt (suom. Sami Parkkinen, 1991
  • George's Marvellous Medicine, 1980 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Ilmarin ihmelääke (suom. Asser Korhonen ja Antti Mäkinen, 1989)
  • More Tales of the Unexpected, 1980
    - TV series 1979-1988, 26 episodes, prod. Anglia Television
  • The Way up to Heaven and Other Stories, 1980
  • A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories, 1980 (edited and introduced by Roy Blatchford with photographs by Catherine Shakespeare Lane)
  • The BFG, 1982 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Iso kiltti jätti (suom. Tuomas Nevanlinna, 1989)
    - animation film 1989, prod. Cosgrove Hall Films, dir. by Brian Cosgrove, voices: David Jason, Amanda Root, Angela Thorne, Ballard Berkeley, Michael Knowles, Don Henderson
  • Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, 1982 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Tautisia tarinoita (suom. Kimmo Pietiläinen, 1996)
  • Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, 1983
  • Two Fables, 1983 (Princess and the Poacher; Princess Mammalia; with illustrations by Graham Dean)
  • The Witches, 1983 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Kuka pelkää noitia (suom. Sami Parkkinen, 1990)
    - film The Witches, 1990, dir. by Nicolas Roeg, starring Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher, Jane Horrocks, Anne Lambton, Rowan Atkinson
  • Boy: Tales of Childhood, 1984
    - Poika; Yksinlentoon (suom. Seppo Sipilä, 2004)
  • Dirty Beasts, 1984 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
  • The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, 1985 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Kirahvi, Kaani ja minä (suom. Kimmo Pietiläinen, 1996)
  • Going Solo, 1986
  • The Roald Dahl Omnibus, 1986
  • The Second Roald Dahl Selection, 1987
  • Matilda, 1988 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Matilda (suom. Eeva Heikkinen, 1990)
    - film: Road Dahl's Matilda, 1996, dir. by Danny deVito, starring Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, Paul Reubens
  • Measles, a Dangerous Illness, 1988
  • Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life: The Country Stories of Roald Dahl, 1989
  • Rhyme Stew, 1989 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Riimihärkää muusilla (suom. Tuomas Nevanlinna, 2001)
  • Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlies and the Great Glass Elevator, The BFG, 1989
  • Esio Trot, 1990 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
    - Annok iplik (suom. Sami Parkkinen, 1993)
  • The Minpins, 1991 (illustrated by Patrick Benson)
    - Tynkätyiset (suom. Päivi Heininen, 2002)
  • The Vicar of Nibbleswick, 1991 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
  • Memories with Food at Gipsy House, 1991 (with F. Dahl)
  • The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, 1991 (an omnibus volume containing Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected)
  • Roald Dahl's Guide to Railway Safety, 1991
  • The Dahl Diary 1992, 1991 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
  • The Dahl Collection of Nursery Verse, 1992 (ed., illustrated by Quentin Blake)
  • My Year, 1993 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
  • Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes, 1994 (illustrated by Quentin Blake; with photographs by Jan Baldwin; recipes compiled by Josie Fison and Felicity Dahl)
  • The Great Automatic Grammatizator, 1997 (US title: The Umbrella Man and Other Stories, 1998)
  • The Roald Dahl Treasury, 1997
    - Roald Dahlin maailma (suom. Eeva Heikkinen, et al.)
  • Skin and Other Stories, 2000
    - Nahka ja muita novelleja (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 2007)
  • Roald Dahl's Even More Revolting Recipes, 2001 (introduced by Felicity Dahl; illustrated by Quentin Blake; photographs by Jan Baldwin; recipes by Lori-Ann Newman)
  • Roald Dahl: Collected Stories, 2006 (edited and introduced by Jeremy Treglown)
  • More About Boy: Roald Dahl’s Tales from Childhood, 2009
  • The Missing Golden Ticket and Other Splendiferous Secrets, 2010 (illustrated by Quentin Blake)

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