Roald Dahl

(1916-1990)

1916-1990

"A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men."

Birthplace

Llandaff, Wales

Education

Dahl attended Llandaff Cathedral school between the ages of seven and nine, before moving to St Peter's prep school, Weston-Super-Mare. At 13, he went to Repton public school in Derbyshire.

Other jobs

On leaving school, Dahl joined the Public School Exploring Society's expedition to Newfoundland. He then worked as a salesman for Shell in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When world war two broke out he signed up with the Royal Air Force in Nairobi and was trained in Iraq before flying Hurricane fighter planes during the war, as recounted in Going Solo.

Did you know?

Dahl scripted the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, and co-wrote the 1968 film of another Ian Fleming book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Critical verdict

The view of society revealed in Dahl's books, in particular his implied criticism of adults and his contempt for social institutions, has received mixed reactions from critics. The main charge levelled against Dahl's work it that his portrayal of life is unrealistic. However, it is arguably this very feature that appeals to his readers; the key to his success, as he frequently acknowledged, was to conspire with children against adults. The Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also became the target of much criticism, and various commentators have accused Dahl of racism on the basis that they represent African pygmies. More recently, critics have sought to puncture the Dahl myth of the subversive, anti-authoritarian figure, revealing the underlying conservatism and nostalgia of his books. Despite the change in his critical fortunes, Dahl's popularity with children and adults alike is enduring and in a recent poll he beat JK Rowling to the accolade of Britain's favourite author.

Recommended works

Dahl was prolific, but is primarily known as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and James and the Giant Peach (1961) - two of his tamer and more openly nostalgic works. Dahl's three major works for intermediate readers, The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988) indulge his penchant for the macabre and magical, fantastical and perverse to a greater degree, and his stories for grown-ups are decidedly cynical and malicious. In Lamb to the Slaughter, a pregnant woman kills her unfaithful husband by hitting him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, which she later cooks and serves to the police. In Skin, a starving man is forced to sell a picture of his wife that has been tattooed onto his back by a famous artist. And in Taste, a pretentious aesthete bets his daughter's hand in marriage that a dinner guest can't identify what he's drinking.

Influences

Some have speculated that Dahl's fascination with the macabre derived from his war injuries, received when he was shot down over Libya during the war. The English critic Michael Billington has suggested the writer's preoccupation with revenge and sadomasochistic relationships arose from the lashings and other forms of sanctioned brutality he experienced while a pupil at Repton. Another influence, highlighted in Jeremy Treglown's biography, were Dahl's editors, whom he relied on not simply for guidance on the fine points of style but also with larger matters of structure and character. Treglown concluded that "some of Dahl's best known, most successful books were effectively co-authored with his publisher".

Now read on

Other macabre storytellers include Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock and Neil Gaiman.

Adaptations

The 1971 classic Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder as Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie, has a cult following. It features some extremely surreal moments, including the luminous orange, dancing Oompa-Loompas, and at times is so dark that it veers towards horror. Tim Burton is directing a remake, featuring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, due to be released in late 2005. Burton also produced an animated adaptation of James and the Giant Peach in 1996. Gavin Millar's 2000 film of Danny the Champion of the World, starring Jeremy Irons, his son, Samuel, as Danny, and Robbie Coltrane as the loathsome landowner Victor Hazell, garnered excellent reviews.

Recommended biography

Jeremy Treglown's Roald Dahl: A Biography (1994) shows Dahl as a man of many contradictions: a Tory who loved to subvert authority, a misanthrope who found optimism in adversity, a shameless self-promoter who enjoyed giving money to worthy causes. "He was famously a war hero, a connoisseur, a philanthropist, a devoted family man who had to confront an appalling succession of tragedies," Treglown says. "He was also, as will be seen, a fantasist, an anti-Semite, a bully and a self-publicizing troublemaker."

Useful links and work online

Background
· Official site
· Official fan site

The GuardianTramp

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