Roald Dahl has been a literary icon for generations. Born September 13, 1916, he is a writer who has touched the hearts of generations.
Dahl is of Norwegian origin, but he was born and raised in Cardiff, Wales in the United Kingdom. Roald grew up speaking both Norwegian and English. In 1920, when he was three, Roald experienced two tragic losses. The first was his older sister’s death due to appendicitis, which was followed soon after by his father’s death from pneumonia.
Great Britain declared war against Nazi Germany in 1939. In that same year Dahl joined the Royal Air Force and was soon fighting in the African theater of the war.
In 1941 Dahl took part in the Battle of Athens alongside Pat Pattle, who is considered the finest ace pilot in the history of the RAF. During the war Dahl wrote frequent letters to his mother. In one letter he quipped, "Why doesn’t Mussolini take up some useful hobby? He could collect birds’ eggs instead of countries." Dahl fought hard in Libya, which was under the control of fascist Italy for most of the war.
When he sold his first article, titled "Shot Down Over Libya" to the Saturday Evening Post, he was working in Washington, D.C. at the British Embassy. Dahl completed his first children’s book, titled The Gremlins and sent it for approval to his bosses, who forwarded it to British movie producer and entrepreneur Sidney Bernstein, who in turn forwarded it to Walt Disney, who loved the story and wanted to turn it into a movie. The book is about creatures called gremlins who are native to a forest that was cut down to make room for an aircraft factory. In retaliation , they sabotage British fighter planes. The book’s protagonist, a pilot named Gus, convinces the Gremlins to join forces against the Nazis. Although Walt Disney published the book, a film adaption was never made. Steven Spielberg’s 1984 classic movie Gremlins takes its title and physical appearance of Dahl's gremlins.
When the war was over Dahl had earned the rare title of flying ace, meaning that he had secured more than five aerial victories. Most historians agree that Dahl’s lowest estimate of aerial victories is five.
Dahl’s life was going well. In 1953 he married American movie star Patricia Neal. Their marriage would last 30 years and produce five children. Sadly, their first born son Theo was four months old when his baby carriage was struck by a taxi. He had Hydrocephalus (water on the brain), but in response, Dahl collaborated with hydraulics engineer Stanley Wade to create the Wade-Dahl-Till valve. This valve allowed Theo to make a full recovery.
While Dahl’s intelligence and work ethic was able to save Theo’s life, his daughter Olivia could not be saved. She died of measles encephalitis in November 1962 at age seven – the same age his sister died of appendicitis. The death of his daughter left Dahl shattered. Dahl had survived World War II, but the death of Olivia made him lose his faith in God. Dahl abandoned the church. Tragedy struck again when Patricia suffefred a series of strokes in 1965 that left her unable to speak or walk. She struggled to overcome the effects of the strokes for years and finally returned to acting years later.
Dahl threw himself into his work and in 1964 released his most famous book: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The story is practically embedded into our collective cultural consciousness. Willy Wonka is offering a tour of his mysterious chocolate factory. In order to be eligible, one must find one of five golden tickets inside the wrappers of Wonka’s chocolates. The first four tickets go to spoiled children, while the fifth goes to the humble and hardworking Charlie Bucket. The book was been adapted to film by Dahl himself for the 1971 adaptation Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It was remade in 2005 with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp as the famous candy maker.
The book’s success spread like wildfire. By 1967 American publishers had begun printing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and by 1971 the Willy Wonka Candy Company was born. Anytime you’ve ever enjoyed a box of Nerds, spent what felt like hours chewing on Laffy Taffy, used your imagination eating Pixy Stix, or nearly broken your teeth on Everlasting Gobstoppers, you have Roald Dahl to thank.
The 1996 cult film Matilda is based on a 1988 novel by none other than Mr. Dahl himself. Matilda is the story of a girl genius who is raised by morally bankrupt parents. The parents do nothing to nurture her gift, which leaves Matilda to pull pranks on her parents. She goes as far as gluing her father’s hat to his head and even bleaches his hair.
Matilda doesn’t fare much better with her headmistress. Fans of the movie might recall the infamous "chocolate cake" scene. In 2016, the latest adaptation of one of his books was brought to the big screen by Disney Pictures. The BFG is based on his novel of the same name, which was originally published in 1982 and was an expansion of a short story that appeared in Dahl's 1975 book Danny, the Champion of the World. The 1982 novel The BFG was dedicated to the author's late daughter, Olivia.
Dahl writes his child protagonists as being oftentimes more intelligent and level-headed than the adults in his stories. It’s nothing short of inspirational that a man whose childhood and experience with his own children would retain enough optimism, imagination and wonder and bring joy to millions of children around the world.
Dahl's marriage to Patricia ended in 1983 after she discovered he was having an affair with her best friend, Felicity Crossland. He married Felicity (also known as Liccy), a divorcee with three daughters, in December 1983. They remained married until his death at the age of 74 in on November 23, 1990.
Always the child at heart, Roald Dahl was buried with chocolates. Today children still leave toys and flowers at his grave in Buckinghamshire. ~Yanis Khamsi