Roald Dahl

The content below is from Episode 111 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • My mom did the recommendation segment for this week’s episode. Tune in to the audio version of the podcast to hear what Dee Lantz Carbaugh suggests you spend your time on.


  • Roald Dahl is a name you should know.
    • Maybe you don’t know him for the extraordinary life he lived or perhaps you won’t know him at all, the name may not ring a bell. But search deep in your memory. His name is likely one your mother or father read aloud just before reading one of the greatest stories your childhood ears ever heard.
    • Some of the stories that have “by Roald Dahl” on the cover include James and the Giant PeachCharlie and the Chocolate FactoryMatildaThe WitchesFantastic Mr FoxThe BFGThe TwitsThe Giraffe and the Pelly and Me and George’s Marvellous Medicine, not to mention he wrote adult tales as well, like Tales of the Unexpected. His books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide.
    • But the story of Roald Dahl goes beyond his authored works. His famous stories, like all authors, are but the byproduct of his colorful life.
      • He had a rather impressive service record during World War 2. He was a 6’4″ heavyweight boxing champion. And the man lived through more tragedies than one might ever imagine from a children’s author.
image from NPR
  • Background
    • Roald Dahl was born on September 13th of the year 1916, right in the middle of World War 1.
    • He was born in Wales to immigrant parents from Norway. Most of his life was spent in England.
    • Roald Dahl’s dad was a successful shipbroker from Saprsborg Noway. He came to the United Kingdom and settled down in Cardiff in the 1880’s with his wife Marie Beaurin-Gresser, a Frenchwoman. Harald and Marie had 2 kids (Ellen and Louis). But then Marie died in 1907.
    • Roald’s father Harald remarried to another Norwegian immigrant in 1911. Her name was Sofie Magdalene Dahl. They gave birth to Roald in 1916 and named him after the famous Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
    • At a very young age Roald became very acquainted with death.
      • From
      • In February 1920 Roald Dahl’s older sister Astri dies from an infection following a burst appendix, aged seven.
    • It was a sudden rupture of the appendix. Roald was present when it happened. He watched his sister die.
      • Weeks later, Roald’s father Harald dies of pneumonia at the age of 57. Roald describes his death in Boy, saying: “[Astri’s] sudden death left him literally speechless for days afterward. He was so overwhelmed with grief that when he himself went down with pneumonia a month or so afterward, he did not much care whether he lived or died.”
      • This tragic series of events leaves Roald’s mother, Sofie Magdalene, with five children in her care: Roald and his two sisters, Alfhild and Else, plus Harald’s children by his first marriage, Ellen and Louis. At the time of her husband’s death, she was also pregnant with Roald’s younger sister, Asta, born in the autumn of 1920. 
      • So at the age of 35, Sofie is left to face the prospect of bringing up six children on her own, and at some considerable distance from Norway, the country of her own birth.
    • When his father Harald died he left a fortune to his family. Although raising 6 children alone is no small feat, Sofie inherited £158,917 in 1920. That amounts to £6,526,073 or $8,186,795 United States Dollars today.
  • The schoolboy days
    • With all that casheesh, Sofie thought it best to give her children the best possible education. Roald was sent to the Cathedral School Llandaff in Whales.
    • There he got into all sorts of trouble. When he was 8 years old, he and some buddies got caned by the headmaster for putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstopper candy at the local candy store. Apparently, the store was owned by a “mean and loathsome” old lady named Mrs. Pratchett. This event, at least among his compatriots, would be known as the Great Mouse Plot of 1924.
      • Gobstoppers were a favorite candy for UK kids between WW1 and WW2. Roald loved them so much he made them a pivotal part of his story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and called them Everlasting Gobstoppers.
    • Roald was then sent to St. Peter’s Boarding School in the English town of Weston-super-Mare. Although he considered it his first great adventure, he wasn’t a fan.
    • The place just made him homesick to the point where he wrote to his mother every week.
      • Roald wrote to his mom but never told her how unhappy he was. It wasn’t until after her death that Roald realized she had kept every single one of his letters. BBC Radio 4 broadcasted an abridged version of them in 2016.
    • Then when he was 13 years old Roald was sent to Repton School in Derbyshire. This is where he got to understand the potential cruelty of his fellow humans.
    • At Repton the older boys preyed on the younger, treated them as their personal servants and lesser than themselves. The hazing went past servitude as the weak were frequently beaten at Repton.
      • This behavior seemed to have been learned from the adults at Repton. Roald watched as a friend of his was violently beaten by the headmaster to the point of injury. In his autobiography  Boy: Tales of Childhood, he wrote “All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely… I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.” Roald said the violence he witnessed caused him to “have doubts about religion and even about God”.
      • Roald also wrote “Four years is a long time to be in prison…It becomes twice as long when it is taken out of your life just when you are at your most bubbly best and the fields are all covered with daffodils and primroses… It seemed as if we were groping through an almost limitless black tunnel at the end of which there glimmered a small bright light, and if we ever reached it, we would be 18 years old.”
    • While in school, Roald’s teachers didn’t believe him to be a particularly talented writer. One of his teachers said, “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”
    • He seemed to be more of a jock in school. He would grow to be 1.98m or 6’4″ as an adult, so he had a competitive edge in sports.
      • He played cricket, football (soccer), golf, and was captain of the squash team.
      • But he always had a passion for literature and photography.
    • Another inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate factory was that the Cadbury Chocolate factory would send boxes of new chocolate test kits to his school. I find it rather cute that a chocolate company sent test chocolates to school students. Roald loved chocolate and would daydream about inventing a new chocolate bar that would impress Mr. Cadbury. In addition to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, chocolate was a reoccurring theme in Roald Dahl’s stories.
      • The example that comes to mind is Brucie from Matilda and how he was forced to eat an entire chocolate cake.
    • For his summer vacations throughout his childhood and teen years, Roald would visit his mom’s family in Norway. Ever the prankster, he once replaced his half-sister’s fiance’s pipe tobacco for goat poop… he wrote about it with pride in his autobiography.
  • Service Record
    • Roald served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during WWII.
    • He was a fighter pilot (one of the most dangerous ways to serve.
      • Bomber Command aircrews suffered a high casualty rate: of a total of 125,000 airmen, 57,205 were killed (a 46 percent death rate), and a further 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war. Therefore, a total of 75,446 airmen (60 percent of operational airmen) were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
    • He joined up in November of 1939. He and 16 other men went into flight training and only 3 survived the war. By August of 1940, he was deemed ready to join a squadron and face the enemy in aerial combat. He was assigned to the #80 squadron flying Gloster Gladiators (the last biplane fighter aircraft used by the RAF).
    • In September of 1940, with little training, Roald was ordered to fly his Gladiator by an area of Egypt. During the final leg of the flight, he couldn’t find the airstrip he was ordered to land on. He was low on fuel and night was coming fast. He decided to land in the middle of the desert. The bottom or undercarriage of the plane hit a sizeable boulder and the plane crashed.
      • Roald’s skull was fractured and his nose was all smashed up. His injuries had left him temporarily blinded, but he still managed to drag himself away from the fiery crash before he passed out. This story would be Roald’s first published piece of literature.
    • After the crash, Roald’s unconscious body was taken to a medical post where he woke up but was still blind. He was taken to the Royal Navy hospital in Alexandria. That’s where he fell in and out of love with a nurse named Mary Welland.
      • An investigation was undertaken about Roald’s crash. Turns out he was given the wrong coordinates. Instead of the airstrip, he was supposed to land on, Roald was sent to an empty patch of desert on the edge of Axis forces. He was lucky to have survived the ordeal.
      • In 1941 Dahl was back in the cockpit fighting alongside the highest-scoring British flying ace of World War II Pat Pattle and Roald’s buddy David Coke. Twelve Hurricane fighters flew into the battle and 5 were shot down, including the talented Pattle.
      • Greek observers on the ground counted 22 German aircraft downed, but because of the confusion of the aerial engagement, none of the pilots knew which aircraft they had shot down. Dahl described it as “an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side.”
    • That’s when Roald started to get headaches and started blacking out. The RAF wasn’t a fan of one of their pilots passing out mid-flight so they sent Roald home.
    • He tried his hand at training pilots for a while, but that didn’t stick. He met Under-Secretary of State of Air Major Harold Balfour. The Major took a liking to Roald and gave him the title of Assistant Air Attache at the British Embassy in Washington D.C.
    • Roald had come from the UK during WW2 where the Nazis had been starving the nation for years. The Brits had lived off nothing but rations for some time so when he made it to DC he was astonished by all the food and wealth he saw. He liked it at first. The Attache job was like a vacation. But after a week or so he started to feel guilty taking on such a cushiony job during the world’s greatest war.
      • “I’d just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America,” Roald later explained.
    • While stationed in DC, Roald was tasked with persuading the US politicians and generals into joining the Allies in the fight. While most of America was deadset on staying isolated from Europe’s war, Roald was trying to convince them otherwise. That’s when Pearl Harbor happened and did his job for him.
    • During his time in America, Roald met British novelist C.S. Forester. Forester was tasked with typing up Allied propaganda to help the war effort. American magazine The Saturday Evening Post asked Forester to write about Roald’s time in the RAF. Forester reached out to Roald for simple notes about his service, something he could base his story on.
      • To Forester’s surprise, Roald’s “simple notes” turned out to be a compelling story and Forester decided to send it in to be published with no edits. The Saturday Evening Post published the story with only 1 alteration. Instead of titling it “A Piece of Cake” as Roald wanted, they called it “Shot Down Over Libya,” … even though his plane was never shot down. It was published in August of 1942.
    • It’s worth mentioning that Roald worked with Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond series.
    • Before the war was over, Roald also would do some spy work. He worked with Canadian spymaster William Stephenson (code name Intrepid). Under Intrepid’s guidance, Roald gave valuable intelligence to Winston Churchill himself.
      • “My job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR, and tell Winston what was in the old boy’s mind,” -Roald said.
    • Roald also helped MI6 until his espionage skills were no longer needed and he was promoted to rank of Wing Commander.
    • His performance was noticed by military higher-ups and he became an intelligence officer and eventually an acting wing-commander.
      •  When the smoke of the war cleared, Roald’s record of five aerial victories, qualifying him as a flying ace, has been confirmed by post-war research and cross-referenced in Axis records. It is most likely that he scored more than those victories during 20 April 1941, when 22 German aircraft were shot down
  • Life after the War
    • After the war Roald did what everyone else on Earth did, he got busy living and busy making babies.
    • He married an American actress by the name Patricia Neal on 2 July 1953 at Trinity Church in New York City. Their marriage lasted for 30 years and they had five children:
    • Then came the tradgedies again. In December of 1960 infant Theo Dahl was horribly injured. His baby carriage was hit by a taxi in NYC. He suffered from a condition called hydrocephalus which is excess fluid in the skull.
      • In response to this, Roald got to work trying to prevent similar incidents in the future. He helped develop the “Wade-Dahl-Till” or WDT. It was a medical device, a shunt that helped alleviate the pressure caused by the condition. It helped the lives of about 3,000 children around the world.
    • Then in November of 1962, not even 2 years later, Roald’s 7 year old daughter Olivia died from the measles.
    • The death left the author in a state of turmoil and darkness. An excerpt from a letter Dahl later wrote reads:
      • Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course, I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.
      • “Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.
      • “I feel all sleepy,” she said.
      • In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.
    • Roald became an advocate of vaccines and dedicated his 1982 book The BFG to Olivia.
    • Olivia’s death shook Roald’s faith at least in organized religion. When he asked a church official about his daughter and her dog he was told that his daughter was in paradise, but her dog would never be with her there.
    • He said “I wanted to ask him how he could be so absolutely sure that other creatures did not get the same special treatment as us. I sat there wondering if this great and famous churchman really knew what he was talking about and whether he knew anything at all about God or heaven, and if he didn’t, then who in the world did?”
    • Then in 1965, Patricia, his wife, had 3 burst cerebral aneurysms while she was pregnant with Lucy, their 5th child.
      • Roald didn’t shirk his duties as a husband. For months he helped Patricia rehabilitate, re-learning to walk and talk. This didn’t keep Patricia down, she returned to her acting career. They even made a movie about her called The Patricia Neal Story (1981).
    • Then in 1972, Roald met Feclicity d’Abreu Crosland while she was working as a set designer on a commercial for Maxim coffee with Patricia (Roald’s then wife). It wasn’t long until they began an affair together. In 1983 Roald got a divorce from Patricia and promptly married Felicity.
    • In addition to the awards he received during his military service, Roald was given all sorts of awards from UK’s royal family. His country recognized his contributions to literature and humanity as a whole.
  • The Writer
    • It was in the 1940’s Roald’s writing started to take off.
    • His first published work was the requested anecdote from C.S.Forester about his time in the RAF. Dahl ironically named it “A Piece of Cake.” Dahl’s story of his time in the war was bought by the Saturday Evening Post for $1,000 and published as “Shot Down Over Libya.”
    • The first children’s book he wrote was published in 1943 and called The Gremlins. It was about folklore surrounding airmen in the RAF. Pilots used to blame gremlins for all aircraft malfunctions. During his time in the US, Roald sent a copy to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who enjoyed reading it to her grandchildren. Apparently, Walt Disney bought the rights to make a movie out of The Gremlins, but it was never made. -shame, that would have been a fun one I think.
    • While he is most known for his phenomenal children’s stories, he also wrote books for adults. They were full of dark humor and plot twists.
    • Roald’s last book Esio Trot was released in January of 1990. It was very different from most of his other works. All his life he wrote about cruel adult tyrants while the children in his stories were magical and often the protagonists. Esio Trot was about a lonely old man who had a crush on a woman he loved, but only from afar. In 2015 the story was made into a BBC comedy TV movie featuring Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench.
  • Criticisms
    • Today, Roald Dahl’s legacy is met with an asterisk.
    • There are quotes from his early life that lead people of today to think he was anti-Semitic, racist, and misogynistic.
    • Instead of remarking on these quotes myself, I will read his family’s words:
      • In 2020, Dahl’s family published a statement on the official Roald Dahl website apologizing for his antisemitism. The statement says “The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologize for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations. We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
image from the Wall Street Journal
  • Roald Dahl died exactly 3 years before I was born on November 23rd of 1990.
    • He was laid to rest in the Church of St Peter and St Paul cemetery in Great Missenden Buckinghamshire, England. He was buried with some very good burgundy, chocolates, HB pencils, a power saw, and his snooker cues. To this day, children still leave toys and flowers by his grave.
    • During his life, he held a lasting commitment to donating to the fields of neurology, hematology, and literacy. After his death, those charitable donations were continued by his widow and the Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.  The charity provides care and support to seriously ill children and young people throughout the UK.

A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does.” -Roald Dahl

Nother interesting quote from Roald Dahl that my friend Brian told me about on the Who’d a Thunk It? facebook page:

In a hospital, surrounded by family, Dahl reassured everyone, sweetly, that he wasn’t afraid of death. “It’s just that I will miss you all so much,” he said—the perfect final words. Then, as everyone sat quietly around him, a nurse pricked him with a needle, and he said his actual last words: “Ow, fuck!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s