Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, near Cardiff, in South Wales, in 1916, to Norwegian-born parents. He was the only boy in his father’s second family. Dahl’s father and uncle had left Norway to seek their fortunes, and Dahl’s father found it in equipping ships sailing out of the busy Cardiff docks. By the time Dahl was born, his father, who died when Dahl was four, had become wealthy. Dahl attended an Anglican public school in Llandaff before going to a prepatory school in Weston-Super-Mare, across the Severn Estuary from Cardiff, and then to the Repton School in Yorkshire. Dahl hated the public school atmosphere and the separation from his family; he was prevented from becoming a prefect at the Repton School because of his lack of seriousness about school discipline.
After he was graduated from the Repton School in 1932, Dahl went on a school-sponsored exploration of the interior of Newfoundland before joining the Shell Oil Company. He spent several years working in London before being sent to Dar-es-Salaam as a Shell Oil representative. In 1938, he joined the Royal Air Force, and, despite his unusual height, he was trained as a pilot. Though he was wounded once, he served as a fighter pilot in Africa, Greece, and Syria. He also served in intelligence units and was made a wing commander. His stories collected in Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying are based on these experiences.
In 1953, Dahl married actress Patricia Neal, and they had five children, one of whom died of the measles at age seven. Dahl began writing stories for children after making up bedtime tales for his own children. In the late 1960’s, Neal suffered an incapacitating illness, and Dahl helped her through a slow recovery. In 1983, they divorced, and Dahl remarried. He died in November, 1990.
Roald Dahl was born on September 13, 1916, to a Norwegian family living in Wales. When he was three, his older sister Astri suddenly became ill and died, and his father subsequently lost his will to live, dying from pneumonia shortly afterward. The elder Dahl’s last wish was to put the surviving children in English schools, which he perceived as being superior. As a result, Dahl’s mother could not return to Norway, where she could receive assistance from family.
However academically rigorous English schools might be, the young Dahl found their discipline policies monstrous and oppressive. Decades afterward he would vividly recall his terror at the continual threat of being beaten with a bamboo or wooden cane. This weapon could create vicious welts on its victim’s back and buttocks and leave painful bruises for weeks. Although some of the canings Dahl and his friends received may have been deserved, many of them were the result of the capricious exercise of authority by ill-tempered teachers and older students. The experience left him with a lifelong sympathy for the small and weak and an active detestation of bullies.
However, Dahl’s schooldays were not a period of unremitting horror. While at one school, he was part of a program by which the Cadbury Chocolate Company tested new formulations. At regular periods each student would receive a box containing twenty small bars of chocolate to evaluate. Dahl came to look forward to each distribution, and often imagined the laboratory in which they were created.
When Dahl finished school, he decided not to pursue a university degree because he wanted to see the world. He obtained a job with Shell Oil, which sent him to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in Africa. While he was there, World War II broke out and he volunteered for the Royal Air Force (RAF). After learning how to fly, he was sent north to another airbase. However, the directions he was given were faulty, and he ran out of fuel before reaching the runway. Injured in the crash landing, he barely escaped his plane before it caught fire.
While he was recuperating from his injuries and it became increasingly clear that he would never again be fit enough to fly, the RAF sent him to Washington, D.C., to serve as an attaché in its embassy. There he was interviewed about his experiences, only to run out of time to answer all of the reporter’s questions. He offered to send the reporter some notes to fill in what he had omitted, but the paper he delivered was practically a finished story. The reporter then suggested that he might have a career in writing.
Dahl proved an adept writer, and after some early realistic stories he began to delve into psychological horror in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, albeit in contemporary settings. Even after he returned to England after the war, he continued to find American publications his best markets, simply because they paid so much more than British ones. As a result, he made multiple trips to New York, and on one of them he met his future wife, actress Patricia Neal. He nearly missed the opportunity with her, for while he could be a witty conversationalist, he could also be very rude to those he found boring. The evening he met her, he was more interested in talking with another of his dinner companions, and Neal felt so slighted that when he called to ask her on a date the following night, she turned him down. Only when he persisted did she finally relent.
After they married and had children, they settled into a routine by which they summered in England but lived in New York during the rest of the year so that Neal could continue her acting career. However, that arrangement was disrupted when their infant son Theo was struck by a taxicab and nearly killed. Dahl decided New York was simply too dangerous for families and moved back to England full time. The badly injured Theo developed hydrocephalus and required a shunt, which caused troubles of its own. Dahl worked on an improved shunt in an effort to better his son’s condition.
Just as things seemed to be improving for Theo, their eldest daughter Olivia died from complications of measles. Then Neal experienced a series of strokes while expecting yet another of their children. At first she was left unable to speak, and only by rigorous therapies designed by Dahl himself did she slowly and painfully regain enough function to return to acting, even if only on a limited basis.
This series of misfortunes left the family in awkward financial straits, and to earn extra money Dahl turned to screenwriting. He wrote the screenplays to two Ian Fleming novels, the James Bond story You Only Live Twice (1967) and the children’s story Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (1968).
By the 1970’s and 1980’s, Dahl’s financial situation had become more comfortable. However, he remained a difficult person to deal with, and he often quarreled with his publishers over changes with which he disagreed. After one particularly harsh quarrel, the leading New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf dropped him from its stable of writers. However, Dahl was sufficiently well known that another publisher was willing to put up with his moods, and his intransigence was not the end of his career, as it might have been with a lesser writer.
His moods also destroyed his marriage with Neal, and he subsequently went on to marry Felicity d’Abreau Crossland, whom he had first met when she was a stylist working in the film industry. However, by this point Dahl’s health was deteriorating and recurring back and joint problems made it increasingly difficult for him to write. Finally he developed a rare form of leukemia, and on November 23, 1990, he died, leaving a wealth of unpublished manuscripts in various stages of completion.
Roald Dahl’s greatest strength lies in his mastery of the grotesque, by which he can evoke both humor and horror. Again and again in his works villains meet comeuppances at once bizarre and redolent of poetic justice. Bullies and abusers of authority come in for particular attention in Dahl’s fun-house-mirror worlds, regularly meeting absurd ends that perfectly match their vices. Yet at the same time Dahl never crosses the line to the gruesome or disgusting. The ends to which his villains come, particularly in his writing for children, are just absurd enough to be clearly divorced from reality, and thus the reader feels free to laugh.
Roald Dahl was remarkable for having achieved wide acclaim in two distinct genres: macabre tales for adults and children’s literature. The son of Norwegian immigrants who found prosperity in Wales, his childhood was darkened by his father’s early death and his unhappy experiences at various English boarding schools. Rather than attend college, he went to work for Shell Oil. An assignment in Africa delighted him and provided materials for such stories as “Poison.”
During World War II Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF), where he was a successful fighter pilot but suffered injuries that would plague him all his life. He was reassigned to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., to work as a spy. Here he met C. S. Forester, who wanted to do an article about Dahl’s experiences in the RAF. Dahl decided to write the article himself, however, and with Forester’s encouragement he sold several stories about pilots that he later collected in Over to You. A few of these stories, among them “An African Story,” veer into the fantastic and allow a glimpse of the macabre sensibilities for which Dahl later became known. He also wrote a children’s story, The Gremlins, about mischievous critters sabotaging fighter planes, which Walt Disney purchased, though the film was never made.
After the war Dahl decided to try writing for a living. When his novel Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen received mixed reviews, he returned to writing short stories. In the eighteen stories of Someone Like You Dahl portrays a variety of characters who at first appear the very picture of English gentility, a veneer through which madness and cruelty eventually seep like acids. Among the frequently reprinted tales are “Lamb to Slaughter,” in which a long-suffering housewife murders her husband and disposes of the murder weapon in an unusual way, and “Taste,” “Man from the South,” and “Dip in the Pool,” about the disastrous wagers of obsessive gamblers. The theme of dangerous risk-taking recurs in many stories.
The stories in Kiss, Kiss, as its ironic title implies, focus on problematic relationships between men and women. “The Way up to Heaven,” for example, portrays a woman with a pathological fear of being late, whose husband torments her by procrastinating whenever they have an appointment; when she realizes that he has intentionally become stuck in an elevator to delay her trip to the airport, she leaves him in it to die. In “William and Mary,” a tyrannical husband’s brain and eye are kept alive by a scientist after his death; Mary takes her husband’s remains home so he can watch her revel in her new freedom. Both collections, which were compared with the works of Saki and John Collier, won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Dahl married the American actress Patricia Neal in 1953. Although their marriage was troubled from the start, their four children kept them together until 1983 (a fifth child died of measles in childhood, and their only son developed hydrocephalus after being hit by a car). When Neal suffered a stroke in 1965, Dahl bullied her back to health, an experience frequently romanticized by biographers.
When Dahl began writing for children, his stories found an enthusiastic reception. James and the Giant Peach was an instant success, and reception of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was even greater; Dahl participated in writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Subsequent books—among them The Magic Finger, The Enormous Crocodile, and Matilda—were hugely popular, and The Witches won the Whitbread Award. Though Dahl’s young protagonists are frequently orphaned, he repeatedly shows family solidarity and love as powerful enough to carry the children through their fantastic adventures. Some reviewers thought that Dahl’s stories for children encourage disrespect for adults and depict too much cruelty and crude humor, but most critics judged them favorably, and the stories continue to be loved by young readers and adults alike.