By Seán Hall
In the city of Cardiff, on 13th September 1916, Norwegian immigrant couple, Harald Dahl and Sofie Hesselberg, gave birth to their third child and only son, Roald, named for their homeland’s famed explorer, Roald Amundsen, the leader of the first human arrival at the South Pole.
Three daughters, Astri, Alfhild and Else, were also born of their union. In 1920, when Roald was aged only four, his father and his eldest sister, Astri, both tragically passed from pneumonia and appendicitis respectively.
Dahl’s education in Britain was maintained by his mother’s upholding of his father’s belief that the British school system were far superior to their own education in Norway. Many of Dahl’s experiences at school were recorded in his autobiographical novel, Boy, including a famous incident in which he dropped a mouse into a jar of gobstoppers, leading to a severe caning by his headmaster.
Sweets were a mainstay of his school years, with Cadbury’s sending test bars to his secondary school of Repton in Derbyshire. The experience of dealing with teachers who enjoyed punishing children inspired his great novel, Matilda, whilst these other misadventures told in Boy, inspired his many mischievous and daring protagonists, as well as the world of Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory.
Dahl signed onto the RAF during the Second World War, after spending years in Africa, which he tells of in his sequel to Boy, Going Solo. He was approached by the novelist, C.S. Forester, on one afternoon, where they shared lunch, to recount his wartime experiences both for Allied propaganda efforts and for a piece by Forester in The Saturday Evening Post.
The story Dahl sent to Forester was published under his name as Shot Down Over Libya. Dahl’s authoring years began with this article, which eventually led him to publish The Gremlins, a children’s story based on monsters who tampered with the mechanisms of aeroplanes. Walt Disney immediately offered the 26-year-old a film deal, which never came to fruition despite both Dahl and Disney’s commitment.
At this point, Dahl was working for British intelligence, however as he comically told Terry Wogan in 1984; “…that’s an ugly word, a spy.”
Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly read Gremlins to her grandchildren which led to cordial dinners with the First Family at the White House for young Roald. Dahl has admitted to relaying all the information he received back to SIS in London, for the reason, as he put it “to tell Winston (Churchill) what was going on in the old boy’s (Roosevelt’s) mind.”
In the States, Dahl met his first wife and mother of his five children, Patricia Neal, the celebrated actress and star of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Their married life, was harrowed by the unfortunate suffering of their son, Theo, in a car accident as an infant which severely damaged his spine (which led Roald to invest in the WDT (Wade-Dahl-Till) Valve to aid those with disabilities such as Theo’s), the death of his daughter Olivia, in 1962, and the several strokes of Patricia during her final pregnancy with Lucy in 1965.
The family returned to England, to the village of Great Missenden, where Dahl would spend the rest of his life, and Patricia relearned the English language through speech therapy. Roald always claimed his wife’s attempts to reform words of the language in her own mind, is what inspired the gibberish spoken by the BFG in the eponymous novel.
Dahl’s work written since 1960 is perhaps his most popular. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features a family in poverty almost alien to Dahl at this point in his life, in which Mr Bucket is employed putting caps on toothpaste. Charlie only ever eats chocolate once a year and his four bedridden grandparents are cared for by the boy and his parents. The positive and insane world of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory which Charlie is privileged to visit shows the alleviation Dahl underwent through imagination, with Charlie’s life changing for the better. Lucy Dahl claimed in a recent BBC documentary that Wonka was the archetypal character of her father, with all his wackiness and positivity embodied by this one exceptional chocolatier.
Roald Dahl passed away on 23rd November, 1990 at the age of 74.
Dahl himself claimed that the greatest authors in the world have all written children’s stories, naming it as perhaps the hardest craft he could ever practise.