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Roald Dahl: War hero, dashing rogue, children’s writer

September 11, 2009
Roald Dahl as a young man

Roald Dahl as a young man

Apparently it doesn’t take an act of Congress or a presidential decree to name an entire month after a famous author. All that’s required is a press release from his publisher, in this case Penguin, which has been celebrating Roald Dahl Month for three years now, with few noticing outside of libraries and the children’s sections of bookstores.

I’ll admit this kind of thing would doubtless rile up my indignation (Who do they think they are?!) if it were, say, “Dan Brown Month,” or “R.L. Stine Month,” but since it’s a writer I’ve long read with pleasure and admiration, I think I’ll climb on the bandwagon instead.

Even though I’ve made my living as a literary journalist for more than two decades, I was unaware of Roald Dahl Month until last week, when I wandered into the Franklin County Public Library in downtown Rocky Mount, Va. (Yes, I visit bookstores and libraries on vacation), and spied a poster listing all kinds of related events.

Sunday, it turns out, is the 93rd birthday of the beloved Welsh writer, who died in 1990. He is well remembered as the author of such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, to name but a few. And this year’s celebration is more important, publicity-wise, with the animated film adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, directed by Wes Anderson and featuring the vocal talents of Meryl Streep, George Clooney and Bill Murray, due out Nov. 25.

In fairness to Penguin, the company has striven to do good on the way to doing well with Dahl’s backlist, providing all manner of classroom and library aids at a way-cool website,, where you can also find a detailed Dahl biography, hear a wonderful taped interview with the author (who died in 1990), and view vintage photographs from throughout Dahl’s colorful life.

The success of Dahl’s children’s books overshadows his prolific production as a writer of blackly comic horror stories for adults, several of which have been adapted for film and television, including the Quentin Tarantino segment of the 1995 film Four Rooms. He won the Edgar Award three times. He also wrote a number of nonfiction books, among them Boy: Tales of Childhood, an immensely charming account of his life to age 20.

Indeed, Dahl was an unlikely children’s writer, as reflected in the sometimes controversial tone and subject matter of his books. Needless to say, what alarms parents and librarians is also what endears him to children. As Rufus Pearce, a 26-year-old fan, told Wales Online, ““I love Roald Dahl because his books can be quite grotesque, almost macabre, whilst still being humorous and funny and the Quentin Blake illustrations make them unlike any other.”

Born Sept. 13, 1916 to Norwegian parents living in Wales, Dahl was a bona fide World War II hero, seeing much combat as an RAF pilot over Greece and North Africa, where he almost died in a crash in 1940. Midway through the war he was assigned to Washington as RAF air attache. He later claimed he was a secret agent for MI-6, assigned to promote British interests in the American war effort–a story confirmed last year in Jennet Conant’s excellent popular history, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.

I could go on about his fascinating and sometimes prickly writer:

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Dahl was handsome and dashing, and much in demand among D.C. society ladies.

Though he kept a diary from age 8, Dahl became a writer by accident. The novelist C.S. Forester, writing propaganda for the British Information Service, asked the war hero to type up notes of his crash for a story Forester planned to write. But when he received Dahl’s notes, Forester printed them without change. The story sold to The Saturday Evening Post for $900, a sum that deeply impressed Dahl and inspired him to become a professional writer.

Dahl married the American actress Patricia Neal, and after she suffered a debilitating stroke in 1965 while pregnant with their fifth child, he supervised a grueling at-home rehab schedule that eventually restored her ability to speak and walk. They were divorced in 1983, after Neal learned of his affair with a younger woman.

His granddaughter, the British model and author Sophie Dahl, was the model for “Sophie,” the child heroine of The BFG.

For what’s it’s worth, my favorite Dahl book is Danny, the Champion of the World, but then I didn’t come to read his work until I was the father of young children. Really, if you’re unfamiliar with his work, start anywhere. You’ll be glad you did.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2009 1:58 pm

    Thanks for letting me know about this! Roald Dahl is actually the reason I started writing. After reading the chapter in Matilda where she learns about limericks in Miss Honey’s class, I decided to start writing limericks of my own. I’d type them up on a typewriter in my mom’s office. I really wish I’d kept them now.

    I’ve read Matilda too many times to count in my lifetime, even as an adult. The BFG and The Twits are two of my other favorites, and I look forward to reading his work to my children once I have them.

  2. Thomas permalink
    September 11, 2009 2:05 pm

    Roald Dahl month, really!? The librarian at Broward County Main Library: Childrens Fiction, had the same reaction. I learn something new everyday. I had assumed Dahl only wrote fiction for tykes, Thank you Mr. Mabe for bringing new reading material to light. I have fond memories of reading James and the Giant Peach and The Witches while perched in a tree as a lad. After reading The Witches I found myself observing womens footwear searching for blunted shoes, a tell-tale sign of a witch.

  3. Tommy permalink
    September 11, 2009 2:36 pm

    Also did not know “The Man from Hollywood” segment of “Four Rooms” was based on a story written by Dahl. Just picked up “My Uncle Oswald”. As soon as I am finished with “American Agent” by Melvin Purvis, I will begin reading this novel about a man who is described as “making Casanova look like Winnie the Pooh”. Gotta love books! Here I am riding shotgun with G-Men on the hunt for Ma Barker and John Dillenger one minute and the next following the sex-capades of a circa 1919 Michelangelo of seduction. In a follow up to the report of my local library hosting nothing having to do with Dahl (and the librarian un-awares that this is Roald Dahl month) there is a great exhibit on Pop Phenomena: A Comic Book Exhibition on display at The Bienes Museum (located on the 6th floor of the Broward Main Library).

  4. rachel permalink
    September 11, 2009 2:58 pm

    I love Roald Dahl. I love the BFG, and Danny Champion of the World, and Fantastic Mr Fox and his Revolting Rhymes, and and and…

    Roald Dahl is like no other and bits and pieces of his stories will remain inside me forever, like Matilda’s crooked father, and The Witches square feet, and the poaching in Danny Champion of the World. I agree that Blake’s illustrations matched Dahl’s stories perfectly. I also loved Dahl’s adult stories, some of which are very, very disturbing. I also love his nonfiction. I can’t help myself. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on. One of the all time greats.

  5. rachel permalink
    September 11, 2009 3:00 pm

    However, I’m not sure I’m all too thrilled about Meryl Streep and George Clooney and Bill Murray ruing my Fantastic Mr Fox.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 11, 2009 4:44 pm

      Rachel, at least Fantastic Mr. Fox is animated, not one of those gruesome live-action things like The Cat in the Hat or the dreaded upcoming Where the Wild Things are. Yech.

  6. Oline permalink
    September 13, 2009 2:31 pm

    As a child, Dr. Seuss scared me and I didnt want to have anythiing to do with him. But Dahl was catnip to me. Go figure. A much scarier writer in some ways….but…what can I say. Great post, Chauncey

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