Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916 - November 23, 1990) was a Norwegian-British author most famous for his distinctively dark but often whimsical children's novels and poetry collections, though he started out as a writer of short stories for adults.
His style is exemplified by Black Comedy, and as a result even his juvenile stories contain a good deal of more-than-usually sophisticated Nightmare Fuel. The fact that said young target audience has been happily lapping all this up for decades now seems to imply that many kids actually like to be terrified (hey, it works for Doctor Who).
Trademarks include his love of nostalgia for his own childhood (with which he generally manages to avoid alienating his younger readers) and his great love of Food Porn. Almost all of the happy endings in his work revolve, in some way, around food... although many of them aren't exactly happy. He had less wonderful memories about the headmasters at his school terrorizing, humiliating and caning pupils as was common in those days, as mentioned in his autobiographical novel Boy. His not-unreasonable conclusion that all Humans Are Bastards would inspire a lot of his later stories.
His works for adults are almost universally cynical and pessimistic about human nature; his works for children take the same attitude to a whole other level, featuring arrogant, wicked and/or just plain mean adults who menace innocent youngsters (or, in a couple of memorable cases, fuzzy little animals) more or less just because they can. Sometimes these are traditional boogeymen (e.g., The Grand High Witch in The Witches, the Giants in The BFG), but more often they're simply irredeemably vile grownups. Just how irredeemable is spelled out in exquisite detail on almost every page.
It would be a case of Beauty = Goodness, except that most of his small heroes and heroines are themselves deliberately pretty average. They're also in large part Aesop-proof by virtue of their already-innate goodness, intelligence, and/or resourcefulness. They generally succeed in foiling the bad guys simply by first recognizing and then rising above the relentless nastiness and/or or stupidity around them. If you're starting to suspect that there were very few grey areas in Dahl's POV, you're right.
Dahl himself grew up to have quite the exciting life. After graduation he went to fulfill his military service in Africa, where he became an Ace Pilot for the Royal Air Force during World War II. C. S. Forester (author of the Horatio Hornblower series) asked Dahl to write down his account of his survival after a desert crash, with the understanding that Forester would edit it into a proper magazine article. Dahl did as asked — and Forester refused to change a word. In fact, he encouraged Dahl to publish it under his own name. Thus began Dahl's career as a writer. Dahl was later assigned to cover the British ground forces in Greece, where his squadron fought valiantly against long odds and he was shot down. The second crash injured his back and left him with recurring headaches that eliminated him from flight duty.
Although Dahl's flying career was ended by the crash, his military service was not. He found himself assigned as Assistant Air Attache to the British Embassy in Washington DC. While there, his natural charm and ability with words and conversation got him a second, unofficial position with the British Security Co-Ordination, an office officially meant to coordinate security i.e. counterespionage with the United States, but actually a quasi-espionage organization in itself, giving the British Government an inside view of American political activity, tracking down and discrediting pro-Nazi individuals, groups, and businesses, and working to make sure the United States maintained its commitment to assisting the British in their war effort. Dahl's part in this was to hobnob with the president and his wife, a young congressman named Lyndon Johnson, and other notables, sometimes with his penis. Yes, he was also very popular with the ladies, almost to the point of a real-life James Bond (and coincidentally, another intelligence officer he worked with on occasion was none other than Ian Fleming).
While in Hollywood during the war Dahl had also met Walt Disney and pitched him a story called The Gremlins, about creatures who sabotage army airplanes. Disney was interested in making it into a cartoon, but after a lot of preparation the idea was eventually cancelled, much to Dahl's chagrin. It was however eventually published as his first novel.
In the 1950s Dahl finally earned lasting fame as a writer of suspenseful Black Comedy magazine short stories for adults, later collected into the book and TV series Tales of the Unexpected, earning him the title of "Master of the Macabre" on both sides of the Atlantic. His short stories were also adapted to episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In his increasingly rare spare time, he wrote the screenplays for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, both adaptations of books by his good friend Ian Fleming.
Dahl's eventual emergence as a full-time children's writer began in the early 1960s, after James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory became a huge success. Other popular titles followed in quick succession, accelerating into the 1980s, when Dahl was well into his sixties/seventies: The BFG, The Witches, Matilda. Dahl initially hired a different illustrator for each book that he wrote, until that task was secured for the remainder of his career in 1978 by master of loopy sketchiness, Quentin Blake, who would also provide his own illustrations for all of Dahl's books that were not initially illustrated by him, finishing with The Minpins in 2017. Almost all of his juvenile books have been made into movies the iconic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory more than once though he so disliked Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that it was nearly 15 years before he allowed another of his books to be adapted (and he didn't like The Witches much either). Curiously, no two of these movies were made by the same person. Particularly in the U.K., stage adaptations of his work are numerous as well; in The New '10s, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have both become successful West End musicals.
Dahl's personal life was far less lucky, and considerably more complex. He was married for many years to Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal. They had five children; Olivia, the oldest, died of measles at age 7. Dahl was an utterly shameless womaniser, but when Neal suffered burst cerebral aneurysms and told that she would never walk or talk again Dahl wouldn't hear of it, and personally took control of her rehabilitation. Over the next few years he, for want of a better word, bullied her back to health.
Most controversially (and the obvious reason why he never received a knighthood or other official UK honours, other than an OBE which he turned down as he wanted his wife to be Lady Dahl) were accusations of antisemitism, not helped by statements like "Something in the Jewish character provokes animosity. Even a stinker like Hitler didn't pick on them for no reason." That being said, Dahl himself maintained that he was not anti-Semitic, but anti-Zionist and acknowledged in Going Solo that Hitler's persecution of the Jews was terrible and that the Holocaust was a horrific genocide. He maintained friendships with a number of Jews, including philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin. Amelia Foster, director of the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, states, "He was very angry at the Israelis. He had a childish reaction to what was going on in Israel. Dahl wanted to provoke, as he always provoked at dinner. His publisher was a Jew, his agent was a Jew, and thought nothing but good things from them. He asked me to be its managing director, and I'm Jewish." Isaiah Berlin himself said, "I thought he might say anything. Could have been pro-Arab or pro-Jew. There was no consistent line. He was a man who followed whims, which meant he would blow up in one direction, so to speak."
Works with a page on this wiki:
- The BFG
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator)
- Fantastic Mr. Fox
- Danny, the Champion of the World
- George's Marvelous Medicine
- James and the Giant Peach
- The Landlady (a horror short-story)
- My Uncle Oswald (adults-only novel)
- Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen, his most pessimistic work.
- The Twits
- The Witches
- Esio Trot
- Lamb to the Slaughter (a short story)
- You Only Live Twice (script)
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (script)
- The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar
Roald Dahl and his works provides examples of
- Acclaimed Flop: This is a notable trend with cinematic adaptations of Dahl's work. From Willy Wonka up to 2016's The BFG, multiple Dahl films have been made that earned a good deal of critical acclaim but were all Box Office Bombs apart from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which was a remake of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory); the one cinematic project that had Dahl's name on it that got a "mixed" reception was the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which Dahl wrote (this movie was also a financial success).
- Adults Are Useless/Children Are Innocent: The children is Dahl's books were almost always virtuous and good while the adults only served to be either kind providers or monstrously abusive. Even the ill-behaved children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are the result of their parents being complete pushovers.
- Badass Bookworm: He was his school's heavyweight boxing champion. This coupled with his towering 6'4 frame meant he was probably not the type of scholar you wanted to get on the bad side of.
- Black-and-White Morality: Dahl made no pretense over exactly who he believed were "good" and "bad" people. Even when his heroes were flawed, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, the villains would have no redeeming qualities at all.
- Black Comedy: His work is quite macabre and sadistic.
- Bleached Underpants: In addition to his well-known children's books, He Also Did plenty of material like My Uncle Oswald, which can only be described as Not Safe for Work.
- Bloodier and Gorier:
- His poems Revolting Rhymes are re-tellings of classic fairy tales, but more true to the cruelty and goriness of the original tales, though with his own sense for Black Comedy and fantasy twisting the tales. Dahl had the belief that children can take horror in stories as long as they also have comedy in them and that they are actually quite interested in those sort of stories, as long as they are told well.
- The autobiographical Boy veers into Ludicrous Gibs territory at times, particularly in Dahl's stories of having his adenoids removed and of the car accident that nearly cost him his nose, which spare none of the gory details. Not to mention the vivid descriptions of all the canings he endured.
- Child Hater: A frequent antagonist type in his stories— Miss Trunchbull, the Grand High Witch, and Aunts Sponge and Spiker are some of the more notable ones. This theme is likely inspired by the real-life examples he observed in his brutal teachers and headmasters (and Mrs. Pratchett). He even added two of them (Baroness Bomburst and the Child Catcher) into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! Of course, these child-haters are always countered by kind and caring adults who provide the necessary love for the victimized children.
- Cool and Unusual Punishment: The methods characters use to punish, torture and/or act revenge on others are often quite crafty.
- Cool Teacher: As he describes in Boy, Dahl had one such teacher at Repton, a math teacher named Corkers, who did just about everything but teach math and liked to joke with his students. A typical class period would have him leading the students in solving a crossword puzzle rather than teaching figures.
- Creator Thumbprint: He loved nostalgia for his childhood, and food. Almost all of his books revolve around food in some way, and most of the Happy Endings his heroes get are based on food in some way.
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to many children's stories, Dahl's books do have a dark edge to them. They often showcase Black Comedy and scenes that have worried parents and teachers because they fear they are too horrifying or sadistic for young readers. Yet Dahl has been popular with children for decades.
- Darwinist Desire: In My Uncle Oswald, Oswald collects the sperm of geniuses in order to sell it to women who want to have genius babies.
- Death by Despair: As related in Boy. After Dahl's older sister died of appendicitis at the age of seven, his father never recovered emotionally. Though father's death just a month later was technically due to pneumonia, Dahl believed his heartbroken father refused to fight for his life because he couldn't wait to see his daughter in heaven.
- Disappeared Dad: Dahl was only three years old when his father succumbed to pneumonia, heartbroken over the death of his seven-year-old daughter (and favorite child) from appendicitis just a month earlier.
- Disowned Adaptation: Dahl famously hated Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, due to various changes to the story and because his choice to play Wonka, Spike Milligan, was ignored. He subsequently refused to allow the sequel or any of his other books to be adapted for the big screen. He relented near the end of his life, and allowed The Witches to be made into a film. He regarded that film as "utterly appalling" because the book's Bittersweet Ending was changed to a Happy Ending, and he reportedly stood outside his local cinema with a megaphone urging people not to watch it.
- Early-Bird Cameo: In Danny, the Champion of the World Danny's father tells a story about a giant who blows dreams into children's bed rooms when they are sleeping. This is a nod to one of Dahl's later stories The BFG.
- Eat the Evidence: In "Lamb to the Slaughter", a housewife murders her callous husband by hitting him with a leg of lamb, then cooks it and serves it to the police who investigate the death.
- Fantastic Foxes: Fantastic Mr. Fox.
- Florence Nightingale Effect: In the autobiographical Going Solo, Roald Dahl recounts falling in love with a nurse who assisted him through a period of blindness after a plane crash in the North African desert during World War II. His infatuation ended once the bandages came off and he found that she was not quite as beautiful as he had imagined her to be.
- Food Porn: Nobody could describe food, especially sweets, in such a tasty way that makes your mouth water when you read it as Dahl.
- Fractured Fairy Tale:
- Revolting Rhymes, where he transforms Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- And Rhyme Stew, where he sends up Dick Whittington, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Emperor's New Clothes, Ali Baba, Hansel and Gretel and Aladdin.
- Gaslighting: The Twits is all about this — the titular dysfunctional couple do it to each other to begin with (for example, adding a small segment to the bottom of a walking stick every day to make the wife think she's shrinking), and have it spectacularly turned on them at the end (they're tricked into gluing themselves to the floor, and end up shrinking down into nothing in their efforts to get themselves unstuck).
- Genial Giraffe: The Giraffe in The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me is one of the protagonists, who uses his stretchy neck to help the animals in their window-cleaning business.
- Genre Adultery: Dahl, world famous for his children's novels, also wrote My Uncle Oswald, an erotic soft core satire. Exactly why becomes more clear when one learns that he was an inveterate womanizer. One of his jobs in World War II actually required him to seduce well-connected American women into political compliance.
- Genre Anthology: Tales of the Unexpected, a 1979 ITV series, started out exclusively adapting his short fiction, although it later widened its scope to include other authors' works.
- Gentle Giant: The BFG is about a giant who calls himself the "Big Friendly Giant", because he is the only giant who doesn't eat children.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: On multiple occasions in The Vicar of Nibbleswick, about a vicar with 'Back-to-front Dyslexia', which causes him to reverse the most important word in a sentence.Reverend Robert Lee: The road outside our little church is exceedingly narrow and as you know there is hardly room for two vehicles to pass each other. Therefore I feel it only right to ask members of the congregation not to krap all along the front of the church before the service. It is not only unsightly but it is also dangerous. If you all krap at the same time all along the side of the road you could be hit by a passing car at any time.
- Giving Someone the Pointer Finger: His book The Magic Finger is about a girl who points people who had enraged her with her finger and converts the ponted person into an animal.
- Good Parents: With the prominent exception of Matilda, all of his characters are shown to have very loving and supportive parents or guardians. Either these parents die before the story starts or cannot provide for their children, or the child eventually finds loving guardians to take care of them.
- Griping About Gremlins: His 1943 book The Gremlins was the first book about these creatures, though the urban legend had been around for many years already.
- Harmful to Minors: His works can be considered this by some, featuring very bleak situations that put children at the mercy of cruel and selfish adults as well as other violent or dark content (such as cannibalistic giants)—all aimed at kids (even if they usually escape this by the end). This is likely inspired by his own childhood, exposed to abusive violence at his school.
- Humans Are Bastards: Dahl had a rather cynical way of portraying his villains. Characters like Mrs. Trunchbull, Matilda's parents (Matilda), the parents and children whom Charlie and his grandfather have to compete with (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Henry Sugar (The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar), James's aunts (James and the Giant Peach), Captain Lancaster (Danny, the Champion of the World), Mr. and Mrs. Twit (The Twits), George's grandmother (George's Marvelous Medicine), the giants (The BFG), the witches (The Witches), ... are all despicable buffoonish beings who love to torment other people. In contrast, the good characters are almost all flawless and pure.
- Infant Immortality: Children get tortured, humiliated, beaten, but seldom die. Two notable exceptions are the novels The Witches and The BFG where children are victims of witches and cannibalistic giants, though we are spared the first-person view.
- Inspiration Nod: The story "Pig" is clearly written as an homage to Candide, including a ridiculously idealistic protagonist and a bitingly satirical tone. As a reference to this, the hero's aunt, who raised him, is named Glosspan- a Significant Anagram for Voltaire's Pangloss.
- I Should Write a Book About This: Used this ending twice in James and the Giant Peach and The BFG.
- Literal Transformative Experience: In The Magic Finger, a family of hunting enthusiasts sprout wings, shrink to the size of small birds and are forced to live in a tree in their garden, while a family of anthropomorphic ducks move into their house. The ducks eventually threaten the hunters with their own guns, but the hunters get the ducks to back down by swearing to renounce their hunting lifestyle and become vegetarian, at which point the ducks allow them back into the house and the transformation wears off. After this, the father is seen smashing the family's guns with a hammer while the mother lays flowers on a makeshift grave for the many victims of past hunts and the children scatter birdseed for a huge flock of birds.
- Never Got to Say Goodbye: As he relates in Boy, Dahl never got a chance to say goodbye to his mother before her death. He spoke with her on the phone the day before she died, but as her son was about to have spinal surgery, she revealed nothing about her condition, though she knew she was gravely ill.
- Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Dahl earned his title "Master of the Macabre" thanks to a series of mysterious, unpredictable and often bone chilling short stories for adults collected in Tales Of The Unexpected. His children's novels are also notorious for disturbing and scary scenes. Let's just say there is a good reason why he has his own Nightmare Fuel page.
- The One Thing I Don't Hate About You: He reportedly approved of Anjelica Huston being cast as the Head Witch in the film adaptation of The Witches. This was about the only thing he did approve of.
- Playing Sick: In Boy, Dahl recalls being so homesick during his first term at boarding school that he tried faking appendicitis just to be able to go home for a few days. The examining doctor wasn't fooled (the lack of physical symptoms, despite the boy's Large Ham performance in screaming with pain, was a dead giveaway), but agreed to keep Dahl's secret.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Dahl started his career as a writer for adults, but is nowadays much better known as a children's author, a demographic he only started writing for when he was already in his 50s.
- Real Life Writes the Plot:
- "Boy" and "Going Solo" are autobiographies, kind of. In his foreword Dahl explains that he skipped huge parts of his life story, because he felt that most autobiographies often had huge parts that were just boring details. That's why he chose to only write about the anecdotes from his life he never was able to forget. Granted, both books are also aimed a young reader audience, so it's possible he just wanted to give them the thrilling bits.
- Captain Lancaster from Danny, the Champion of the World was based on Captain Hardcastle, a teacher Dahl of whom he had memories and wrote about in "Boy".
- The grandmother in "The Witches" is of Norwegian origin, an obvious wink to Dahl's own Norwegian roots.
- Sadist Teacher: And how. Dahl never forgot the strict and repressive rules at his old schools and describes being beaten in his autobiographical novel "Boy". One scene from this book was almost re-used line-by-line in his novel Danny, the Champion of the World, with the appearance, behaviour and name of the teacher almost literally the same. Another book about sadist teachers is Matilda, where principal Mrs. Trunchbull leads an even more grotesque reign of terror. Captain Hardcastle in Boy is a real-life example. So much that after he falsely accused young Dahl of cheating on a homework assignment and had the boy sent to the headmaster's office to be caned, he apparently left the door to the teacher's lounge open so he could hear - and enjoy - the beating in progress. Dahl theorizes part of the reason for his brutality may have been that Hardcastle was a Shell-Shocked Veteran of World War I.
- Some Dexterity Required: "The Great Automatic Grammatizator" has an inventor build a (kind of) computer which can write stories. At first, you set the general parameters, like Settings, Genre and the main characters, during the writing process (which takes about fifteen minutes), you can pull registers for details, and have two foot pedals to add passion. The narrator compares using the machine to driving a car or flying plane and playing an organ at the same time.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: There is surprisingly a strong amount of both. Some stories could have mean-spirited world and horrible adults as well as a lot of dark content for a children's novel, but the kids, the good people, and the sense of warmth and whimsy created a fair balance of pure optimism with harsh cynicism.
- Story Within a Story: A good example would be The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar in which Dahl tells how Henry reads an account of a doctor about a man in India who can see with his mind and at one point asks this Indian man to read him a passage from Alice in Wonderland without using his eyes and only touching the pages. So this particular moment would be a story-within-a story- within-a story-within-a story.
- Toilet Humour: Dahl thanks a lot of his popularity among children for this. The most well known example is the BFG whizzpopping note after having drank his favorite drink.
- Wicked Stepmother: James in "James And The Giant Peach" is an orphan who is forced to live with his aunts, who treat him very badly.
- Would Hurt a Child: His books often feature adults who make it their jobs to sadistically abuse and taunt children. Even his autobiography about his childhood involves physically violent school teachers.