Biography of Roald Dahl, British Novelist

The Memorable Author of Iconic Children's Novels

Close-up black and white photo of Roald Dahl
British author Roald Dahl, circa 1971.

Ronald Dumont / Getty Images

Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990) was a British writer. After serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he became a world-famous author, particularly due to his best-selling books for children.

Fast Facts: Roald Dahl

  • Known For: English author of children's novels and adult short stories
  • Born: September 13, 1916 in Cardiff, Wales
  • Parents: Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Dahl (née Hesselberg)
  • Died: November 23, 1990 in Oxford, England
  • Education: Repton School
  • Selected Works: James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), The BFG (1982), Matilda (1988)
  • Spouses: Patricia Neal (m. 1953-1983), Felicity Crosland (m. 1983)
  • Children: Olivia Twenty Dahl, Chantal Sophia "Tessa" Dahl, Theo Matthew Dahl, Ophelia Magdalena Dahl, Lucy Neal Dahl
  • Notable Quote: “Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.”

Early Life

Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1916, in the district of Llandaff. His parents were Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Dahl (née Hesselberg), both of whom were Norwegian immigrants. Harold had originally immigrated from Norway in the 1880s and lived in Cardiff with his French first wife, with whom he had two children (a daughter, Ellen, and a son, Louis) before her death in 1907. Sofie immigrated later and married Harold in 1911. They had five children, Roald and his four sisters Astri, Alfhild, Else, and Asta, all of whom they raised Lutheran. In 1920, Astri died suddenly of appendicitis, and Harold died of pneumonia only weeks later; Sofie was pregnant with Asta at the time. Instead of returning to her family in Norway, she stayed in the UK, wanting to follow her husband’s wishes to give their children an English education.

As a boy, Dahl was sent to an English public boarding school, St. Peter’s. He was intensely unhappy during his time there, but never let his mother know how he felt about it. In 1929, he moved to Repton School in Derbyshire, which he found equally unpleasant due to the culture of intense hazing and the cruelty with which older students dominated and bullied the younger ones; his hatred for corporal punishment stemmed from his school experiences. One of the cruel headmasters he loathed, Geoffrey Fisher, later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the association somewhat soured Dahl on religion.

Portrait of Roald Dahl, wearing a tie and jacket
Portrait of Roald Dahl circa 1954. Carl Van Vechten Collection/Getty Images 

Surprisingly, he was not noted as a particularly talented writer during his schoolboy days; in fact, many of his evaluations reflected precisely the opposite. He did enjoy literature, as well as sports and photography. Another of his iconic creations was sparked by his schooling experiences: the Cadbury chocolate company occasionally sent samples of new products to be tested by Repton students, and Dahl’s imagination of new chocolate creations would later turn into his famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He graduated in 1934 and took a job with the Shell Petroleum Company; he was sent as an oil supplier to Kenya and Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania).

World War II Pilot

In 1939, Dahl was first commissioned by the army to lead a platoon of indigenous troops as World War II broke out. Soon after, however, he switched to the Royal Air Force, despite having very little experience as a pilot, and underwent months of training before he was deemed fit for combat in the fall of 1940. His first mission, however, went badly awry. After being given instructions that later proved to be inaccurate, he wound up crashing in the Egyptian desert and suffering serious injuries that took him out of combat for several months. He did manage to return to combat in 1941. During this time, he had five aerial victories, which qualified him as a flying ace, but by September 1941, severe headaches and blackouts led to him being invalided home.

Dahl attempted to qualify as an RAF training officer, but instead wound up accepting the post of assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. Although unimpressed and uninterested with his diplomatic posting, he became acquainted with C.S. Forester, a British novelist who was tasked with producing Allied propaganda for American audiences. Forester asked Dahl to write down some of his war experiences to be turned into a story, but when he received Dahl’s manuscript, he instead published it as Dahl had written it. He wound up working with other authors, including David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming, to help promote British war interests, and worked in espionage as well, at one point passing information from Washington to Winston Churchill himself.

Black and white photo of Roald Dahl holding his children; his wife Patricia Neal leans on a tree
Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal with their children in 1964. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The knack for children’s stories that would make Dahl famous first appeared during the war as well. In 1943, he published The Gremlins, turning an inside joke in the RAF (“gremlins” were to blame for any aircraft problems) into a popular story that counted Eleanor Roosevelt and Walt Disney among its fans. When the war ended, Dahl had held the rank of wing commander and squadron leader. Several years after the end of the war, in 1953, he married Patricia Neal, an American actress. They had five children: four daughters and one son.

Short Stories (1942-1960)

  • "A Piece of Cake" (published as "Shot Down Over Libya," 1942)
  • The Gremlins (1943)
  • Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (1946)
  • Sometime Never: A Fable for Superman (1948)
  • Someone Like You (1953)
  • Kiss Kiss (1960)

Dahl’s writing career began in 1942 with his wartime story. Originally, he wrote it with the title “A Piece of Cake,” and it was bought by The Saturday Evening Post for the substantial sum of $1,000. In order to be more dramatic for war propaganda purposes, however, it was renamed “Shot Down Over Libya,” even though Dahl had not, in fact, been shot down, let alone over Libya. His other major contribution to the war effort was The Gremlins, his first work for children. Originally, it was optioned by Walt Disney for an animated film, but a variety of production obstacles (problems with ensuring the rights to the idea of “gremlins” were open, issues with creative control and RAF involvement) led to the project’s eventual abandonment.

As the war came to an end, he kicked off a career writing short stories, mostly for adults and mostly published originally in a variety of American magazines. In the waning years of the war, many of his short stories remained focused on the war, the war effort, and propaganda for the Allies. First published in 1944 in Harper’s Bazaar, “Beware of the Dog” became one of Dahl’s most successful war stories and eventually was loosely adapted into two different movies.

In 1946, Dahl published his first short story collection. Entitled Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, the collection includes most of his war-era short stories. They’re notably different from the more famous works he’d later write; these stories were clearly rooted in the wartime setting and were more realistic and less quirky. He also tackled his first (of what would only be two) adult novels in 1948. Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen was a work of dark speculative fiction, combining the premise of his children’s story The Gremlins with a dystopian future imagining worldwide nuclear war. It was largely a failure and has never been reprinted in English. Dahl returned to short stories, publishing two consecutive short story collections: Someone Like You in 1953 and Kiss Kiss in 1960.

Family Struggles and Children’s Stories (1960-1980)

  • James and the Giant Peach (1961)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
  • The Magic Finger (1966)
  • Twenty-Nine Kisses from Roald Dahl (1969)
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970)
  • Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972)
  • Switch Bitch (1974)
  • Danny the Champion of the World (1975)
  • The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (1978)
  • The Enormous Crocodile (1978)
  • The Best of Roald Dahl (1978)
  • My Uncle Oswald (1979)
  • Tales of the Unexpected (1979)
  • The Twits (1980)
  • More Tales of the Unexpected (1980)

The beginning of the decade included some devastating events for Dahl and his family. In 1960, his son Theo’s baby carriage was hit by a car, and Theo nearly died. He suffered from hydrocephalus, so Dahl collaborated with engineer Stanley Wade and neurosurgeon Kenneth Till to invent a valve that could be used to improve treatment. Less than two years later, Dahl's daughter, Olivia, died at age seven from measles encephalitis. As a result, Dahl became a staunch proponent of vaccinations and he also began questioning his faith—a well-known anecdote explained that Dahl was dismayed at an archbishop’s remark that Olivia’s beloved dog could not join her in heaven and began questioning whether or not the Church really was so infallible. In 1965, his wife Patricia suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms during her fifth pregnancy, requiring her to relearn basic skills like walking and talking; she did recover and eventually returned to her acting career.

Meanwhile, Dahl was becoming more and more involved in writing novels for children. James and the Giant Peach, published in 1961, became his first iconic children’s book, and the decade saw several more publications that would go on to endure for years. His 1964 novel, though, would be arguably his most famous: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book received two film adaptations, one in 1971 and one in 2005, and a sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, in 1972. In 1970, Dahl published The Fantastic Mr. Fox, another of his more famous children’s stories.

Gene Wilder and Peter Ostrum in character as Willy Wonka and Charlie
Gene Wilder and Peter Ostrum on the set of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'.  Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

During this time, Dahl continued to turn out short story collections for adults as well. Between 1960 and 1980, Dahl published eight short story collections, including two “best of” style collections. My Uncle Oswald, published in 1979, was a novel using the same character of the lecherous “Uncle Oswald” who featured in a few of his earlier short stories for adults. He also continuously published new novels for children, which soon surpassed the success of his adult works. In the 1960s, he also briefly worked as a screenwriter, most notably adapting two Ian Fleming novels into films: the James Bond caper You Only Live Twice and the children’s movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Later Stories for Both Audiences (1980-1990)

  • George's Marvelous Medicine (1981)
  • The BFG (1982)
  • The Witches (1983)
  • The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me (1985)
  • Two Fables (1986)
  • Matilda (1988)
  • Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life: The Country Stories of Roald Dahl (1989)
  • Esio Trot (1990)
  • The Vicar of Nibbleswick (1991)
  • The Minpins (1991)

By the early 1980s, Dahl’s marriage to Neal was falling apart. They divorced in 1983, and Dahl remarried that same year to Felicity d’Abreu Crosland, an ex-girlfriend. Around the same time, he caused some controversy with his remarks centered on Tony Clifton's picture book God Cried, which depicted the siege of West Beirut by Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War. His comments at the time were widely interpreted as antisemitic, although others in his circle interpreted his anti-Israel comments as non-malicious and more targeted at the conflicts with Israel.

Among his most famous later stories are 1982’s The BFG and 1988’s Matilda. The latter book was adapted into a much-beloved film in 1996, as well as an acclaimed stage musical in 2010 on the West End and 2013 on Broadway. The last book released while Dahl was still alive was Esio Trot, a surprisingly sweet children’s novel about a lonely old man trying to connect with a woman he has fallen in love with from afar.

Literary Styles and Themes

Dahl was far and away best known for his very particular and unique approach to children’s literature. Certain elements in his books are easily traced to his ugly experiences at boarding school during his youth: villainous, terrifying adults in positions of power who hate children, precocious and observant children as protagonists and narrators, school settings, and plenty of imagination. Although the boogeymen of Dahl’s childhood certainly made plenty of appearances—and, crucially, were always defeated by the children—he also tended to write token “good” adults as well.

Despite being famous for writing for children, Dahl’s sense of style is famously a unique hybrid of the whimsical and the gleefully macabre. It’s a distinctively child-centric approach, but one with a subversive undertone to its obvious warmth. The details of his antagonists’ villainy are often described in childlike but nightmarish detail, and the comic threads in stories such as Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are laced with dark or even violent moments. Gluttony is a particular target for Dahl’s sharply violent retribution, with several notably fat characters in his canon receiving disturbing or violent ends.

A crowd of children wait for Dahl's autograph
Dahl autographs books for children in 1988. Independent News and Media/Getty Images 

Dahl’s language is notable for its playful style and intentional malapropisms. His books are littered with new words of his own invention, often created by switching around letters or mix-and-matching existing sounds to make words that still made sense, even though they weren’t real words. In 2016, for the centenary of Dahl's birth, lexicographer Susan Rennie created The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary, a guide to his invented words and their “translations” or meanings.

Death

Near the end of his life, Dahl was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare cancer of the blood, typically affecting older patients, that occurs when blood cells do not “mature” into healthy blood cells. Roald Dahl died on November 23, 1990, in Oxford, England. He was buried at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire, England, in a fittingly unusual fashion: he was buried with some chocolates and wine, pencils, his favorite pool cues, and a power saw. To this day, his grave remains a popular site, where children and adults alike pay tribute by leaving flowers and toys.

Legacy

Dahl’s legacy largely dwells in the enduring power of his children’s books. Several of his most famous works have been adapted into several different media, from film and television to radio to stage. It’s not just his literary contributions that have continued to have an impact, though. After his death, his widow Felicity continued his charitable work through the Roald Dahl Marvellous Children’s Charity, which supports children with various illnesses throughout the UK. In 2008, the UK charity Booktrust and Children's Laureate Michael Rosen joined forces to create The Roald Dahl Funny Prize, awarded annually to authors of humorous children's fiction. Dahl’s particular brand of humor and his sophisticated yet approachable voice for children’s fiction have left an indelible mark.

Sources

  • Boothroyd, Jennifer. Roald Dahl: A Life of Imagination. Lerner Publications, 2008.
  • Shavick, Andrea. Roald Dahl: The Champion Storyteller. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Sturrock, Donald. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, Simon & Schuster, 2010.