“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
My Roald Dahl collage featuring some of his most popular characters (as drawn by the amazing Quentin Blake). Surrounding Mr. Dahl and his pups are: at the top left The BFG & Sophie, The Enormous Crocodile, Mr. Fox, James (inside the Peach,) the Grand High Witch, Willy Wonka, Danny (Champion of the World) and Matilda.
[I gave a little inward squeak of delight when I saw that it was Roald Dahl’s birthday today. I can’t think of a better way to spend a few hours than to reminisce with my old friends Charlie, Matilda, Sophie, James and the rest. What joy!]
Roald Dahl was born on this day in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales, in 1916. Today is the 96th anniversary of this birth.
Although Dahl grew up in Wales his parents were from Norway and the family spoke Norwegian at home. His older sister, Astrid, and his father,Harald, died within weeks of each other when Roald was a toddler. Sophie, his mother, was pressured to bring the family home and live with relatives, but she knew Harald had wanted the children to have a proper English education. So she split the difference. Summers were spent visiting relatives across the North Sea. Roald and his sisters enjoyed long, sun drenched days on the water and beaches of the Norwegian coast and the family visited with their grandparents in Oslo.
It was a lovely break for the dreary days at English public school that Dahl described as being filled with “rules, rules and still more rules to be obeyed.” His biography Boy: Tales Childhood
details his exploits, dramas, and adventures growing up… like the time he mixed goat droppings into his older sister’s fiance’s pipe tobacco or the when he and his friend were given Cadbury chocolate samples to taste test at school.
After school Roald wanted adventure…
Though not a good student, his mother nevertheless offered him the option of attending Oxford or Cambridge University …. His reply, …was, “No, thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China.”…Dahl took a position with the Shell Oil Company in Tanganyika (now Tanzania)
He worked for Shell in Mombasa, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika and had a famous encounter with a black mamba and some lions. At the outbreak of WWII Dahl joined the British Royal Air Force as a pilot — not an easy thing for him to do as he was 6’6″ and the open cockpit of his De Havilland Tiger Moth was built for men who were considerably smaller. His head stuck up above the windshield.
In September 1940 while flying the last leg of a trip across the top of Africa he found himself running out fuel and was lost. He couldn’t find the target airstrip near Mersa Matruh, Egypt, and had to make a desert landing. He cracked his skull, broke his nose, and was temporarily blinded in the crash. When he woke up he found out that the coordinates he’d been given for the airstrip had been all wrong. HQ had sent him by mistake into a no man’s land between Allied and Axis forces.
He flew other missions — bravely flying with the 80th Squadron in the Greek Campaign. He described the “Battle of Athens” as “an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side.” [Going Solo, Scholastic] After that he was sent back to Egypt and flew sorties over the Mediterranean against Vichy France, but he’d begun to have severe headaches — a result of the earlier crash. When the headaches got so bad that he began to black out he was grounded. He writes about his adventures in Africa and in the War in his second, equally wonderful biography, Going Solo.
Dahl was sent to Washington DC as an assistant air attaché. While in Washington he stepped briefly into the role of a spy. He passed information to MI6 and worked on propoganda to promote the British agenda within the US. It was in DC that he began to write. The Saturday Evening Post published his first piece, “A Piece of Cake” (which it retitled to the more sensational, if less accurate “Shot Down Over Libya,”) in 1942. He also wrote his first book, a novel for adults about the mythical creatures gremlins. Walt Disney optioned the story for a potential animated film.
The Gremlins is the story of Gus, a British World War II fighter pilot, who during the Battle of Britain turned to look out on the wing of his plane only to see an amazing sight: a little man, no more than six inches tall with horns growing from his head, drilling a hole in the plane’s wing. [Amazon.com]
Although the film was never made a companion book was released on a limited run. The book was re-released in 2006. (The classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is an homage to the story.)
- Dahl in 1954 [Image Courtesy Wikipedia]
He began to write for children when his own family came along. ( He was married to actress Patricia Neal and had five children with her.)
…Dahl 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 seriously 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… [Roald Dahl Biography]
His other childrens’ books include: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1964; The Fantastic Mr. Fox 1970, Danny, the Champion of the World 1975; The BFG 1982; The Witches 1983; Matilda 1988 and others. He also wrote books of verse for children including the hilarious Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts. Most of his books have nasty adults who mistreat children, those adults do not fare well in the end. The justification that “Beastly people must be punished,” made Dahl very popular with children of all ages.
He wrote fiction for adults as well, though it is much more difficult to find. Roald Dahl: Collected Stories
is a good place to start and it contains dozens of the writer’s short stories. As does The Best of Roald Dahl
“Dahl has the mastery of plot and characters possessed by great writers of the past, along with the wildness and wryness of his own. One of his trademarks is writing beautifully about the ugly, even the horrible.” [– The Los Angeles Times on the back of The Best of Roald Dahl]
He also wrote screen plays. He wrote a full script for The Gremlins for Disney, as well as the screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)– that creepy child catcher who trolls the streets of Vulgaria with his candy festooned wagon is 100% Dahl– and the 1971 version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. For the small screen he penned 6 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and several other suspense shows.
Dahl died at the age of 74 from Leukemia.
[Image courtesy: Wikipedia]