On this day 24 years ago, one of the most imaginative and influential children’s writers of the 20th century died of leukaemia at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Like the characters of his stories, Roald Dahl was an extraordinary persona whose life was endlessly rich and completely unpredictable. As a testament to his motley personality, here are 10 things you may not know about the most remarkable author to have worked in children’s literature.
- Roald Dahl was Welsh. Born in Llandaff, Glamorgan on 13 September 1916, he spent his childhood years attending the Cathedral School in Llandaff before later being shipping off to boarding school in England.
Dahl as a schoolboy in 1925.
- While attending the Cathedral School, Dahl became famed for his role in the famous Great Mouse Plot of 1924 at the tender age of just eight. On their way home from school, Dahl and four of his friends concocted a successful plan to plant a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers in the local sweet shop. The following day when the boys arrived in school, they were duly caned by their headmaster. This episode shows the characteristic dark humour that pervades Dahl’s fiction was extant from a surprisingly young age.
- Although his first children’s novel focused on a giant peach that becomes home to the eponymous hero, Dahl was actually nicknamed the Apple at home since he was, supposedly, the ‘apple’ of his mother’s eye,
- After shunning the intellectual pathway offered by a university education, Dahl’s literary career started after penning stories of his life as an RAF pilot during the Second World War. His first tale, appearing in the Saturday Evening Post under the title ‘Shot down over Libya: an RAF pilot’s factual account’, documented a crash-landing in the Libyan Desert which had left Dahl seriously wounded in 1940.
- During his time in the RAF, Dahl jotted down a tale about The Gremlins, a gang of goblins who were supposedly at fault for any problems in a pilot’s aircraft. The story was so successful that he wound up as a frequent guest of Eleanor and Franklin. D. Roosevelt at the White House and Walt Disney swiftly went about creating a film of Dahl’s memorable tale.
- Dahl endeavoured to save his son’s life with the invention of the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve in 1962. Dahl’s only son, Theo, tragically fell from his pram in New York and became brain damaged when his head fell under a cab his head was smashed aged just four months. Doctors said that Theo would not live for long; with the help of two friends, however, Dahl created a valve that is able to drain fluid from the brain and allowed Theo to make an incredible recovery from his terrible injuries. Since then, the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve has been used to treat thousands of children with brain injuries.
- Despite delighting readers with his unpredictable plots, linguistic inventiveness and larger-than-life characters, Dahl still received his fair share of criticism. One American critic labelled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ‘cheap, tasteless, ugly, sadistic, and for all these reasons, harmful’ (Treglown, 188) and one traditionalist headmaster even declared that Dahl’s work was fuelled with ‘incipient fascism’.
- The marvellous Oompa-Lumpas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were originally portrayed as black pygmy slaves before being revamped with long hair and rosy skin in a revised version. Released at a time when Martin Luther-King, Rosa Parks and their contemporaries were revolutionising attitudes toward race in the United States, Dahl’s original portrayal saw detractors accuse the author of racism.
- Dahl also wrote screenplays. He was a good friend of Bond creator Ian Fleming, and in fact Dahl wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice after the original script by Harold Jack Bloom failed to meet Fleming’s expectations. In addition to his renowned Bond series, Fleming also wrote the children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and it was once again Roald Dahl who created the screenplay for the film that became a smash hit.
- After controversially marrying his divorced wife’s best friend, Dahl relocated to Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where he wrote—always in pencil—in a hut at the end of his garden. At this later stage in his life, Dahl was a chain-smoking lover of fine wine as well as a complete chocaholic; in fact, Dahl kept hold of all the silver foil from the chocolate he consumed and created a humungous silver ball which sat alongside his hip bone—which had been replaced due to arthritis—in his writer’s den.
Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography