From Matilda to Fantastic Mr Fox, Roald Dahl’s stories have captivated audiences for decades and earned him worldwide acclaim as a genius of children’s literature. But who exactly was the man behind these beloved tales?
Here are 10 facts about renowned author Roald Dahl:
1. He was born in Wales to a wealthy Norwegian family
Roald Dahl was born on 13 September 1916 in Cardiff, Wales to Norwegian parents Harald and Sofie Dahl. His father, a wealthy shipbroker, had immigrated to Wales in 1880 and his mother in 1911, following which the pair were married.
Tragedy would soon strike the family however. When Dahl was just 4 years old his father died of pneumonia, leaving behind a fortune of almost £160,000 (equivalent to £6.8 million in 2021).
2. He was named after famous explorer Roald Amundsen
In honour of their Scandinavian heritage, Dahl’s family named him after famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. On 14 December 1911, Amundsen had become the first man in history to reach the South Pole, cementing his place in the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration forever.
The Dahls honoured their Norwegian heritage in many other ways. Despite becoming one of the most beloved writers of English literature, Roald’s first language was actually Norwegian, which he spoke at home with his parents and sisters Astri, Alfhild, Else and Asta.
3. When he was a child he met his idol, Beatrix Potter
An avid reader from a young age, when Roald Dahl was 6 years old he reportedly travelled with his mother from Wales to the Lake District, intent on meeting his favourite author, Beatrix Potter, who was then in her sixties.
Upon setting foot on Potter’s farm, Dahl later said it was like stepping into one of his favourite stories. The meeting was rather less charming. According to Dahl’s friend Brough Girling, whom the author had told this anecdote, Potter asked the child what he wanted. He replied that he wished to see Beatrix Potter. She simply responded: “Well, you’ve seen her now so buzz off.”
4. His books were influenced heavily by his childhood experiences
Many of Dahl’s experiences as a child would later inspire characters and stories in his writing. Mrs Pratchett, the mean old woman who worked at his local sweet shop, would later become Miss Trunchbull, the cruel headmistress in his book Matilda. Dubbed the ‘Great Mouse Plot of 1924’, at 8 years old Dahl and his friends put a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at Pratchett’s shop. A similar prank would befall Trunchbull.
Similarly, at age 13 Dahl attended Repton School in Derbyshire. Situated near the Cadbury’s chocolate factory, on occasion new chocolate bars would be sent to the boys to test. Dahl reportedly dreamt of creating a new chocolate bar worthy of Mr Cadbury’s praise, later inspiring his third children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
5. During World War Two he was a fighter pilot ace
In November 1939, two months into the Second World War, Dahl joined the Royal Air Force (RAF). Early in his military career, he crash landed in the no-man’s-land of the Libyan between the Allied and Italian forces, fracturing his skull, smashing his nose and temporarily blinding him. He was rescued and taken to a hospital in Alexandria, and five months later was deemed fully fit to return to his flying duties.
By this time his squadron had been transferred to Greek campaign. On 20 April 1941, he took part in the Battle of Athens, a dog-fight between the RAF and German Luftwaffe in the final stages of the Battle of Greece. Flying a Hawker Hurricane, Dahl described the battle as “an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side”.
Four RAF pilots were killed in the fight, including Pat Pattle, who is often described as the highest scoring British Commonwealth ace of World War Two. With at least five aerial victories to his career, Dahl himself qualified as a flying ace.
Later that year he began experiencing headaches so bad they would cause him to black out, and Dahl was invalided home to England.
6. He was incredibly tall
Standing 6ft 6in in adulthood, Dahl was exceptionally tall, earning him the nickname “Lofty” while in the army. This was rare for an RAF pilot and today would be slightly over the accepted height limit.
7. He married a Hollywood actress
In 1952, while Dahl was living in New York he met Hollywood actress Patricia Neal. They married the following year and would go on to have five children together: Olivia, Chantal, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy.
Over 30 years of marriage, the pair would encounter a number of personal tragedies. In 1965, Neal suffered from 3 brain aneurysms while pregnant with Lucy and fell into a coma for 3 weeks. Dahl played a large (yet often demanding) role in assisting her recovery, in which she had to relearn how to walk and talk. She was able to return to her acting career however, and in 1968 she earned an Oscar nomination for her role in the film, The Subject Was Roses.
In 1972, Roald Dahl met Felicity Crosland (known affectionately as Liccy) and the pair soon began an 11-year affair. A devastating shock to Neal, in 1983 she and Dahl divorced and he married Felicity that same year.
8. Most of his books were written from his garden shed
Over his lifetime Dahl wrote a total of 49 books, mostly from the comfort of his specially-built writing shed. Located in his garden in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, he was inspired to build it after visiting one similar belonging to his favourite poet, Dylan Thomas.
A safe-haven within which to craft some of his most beloved stories, Dahl likened his shed to a little nest or a womb.
9. He also wrote a very famous screenplay
Not only was Roald Dahl a skilled novelist, he also wrote one of the most beloved screenplays of the 20th century: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
Adapted from Ian Fleming’s book of the same name, Dahl had worked alongside Fleming in the United States during the war, and also wrote the screenplay for one of his James Bond films, You Only Live Twice (1967).
10. He was buried with some of his favourite things
On 23 November 1990, Roald Dahl died aged 74 of a rare blood cancer.
According to his granddaughter, the family gave him a “sort of Viking funeral”, burying him alongside some of his favourite things: chocolates, his snooker cues, some ‘very good burgundy’, a power saw and, quite aptly, some HB pencils.