Turning Tragedy into the Fantastic: Roald Dahl

Author Roald Dahl lived a life almost as fabulous and unbelievable as the fiction of his books. Born in Wales to Norwegian immigrants, he lost his father and a sister when he was only three, events that would mark him for the rest of his life. After unhappily attending various boarding schools and hiking through Newfoundland, he enjoyed what his biographers would later call the only two normal years of his life, working for Shell Oil in England. Shell later sent him to work in Africa. From there, he joined the Royal Air Force, fought in World War II as a fighter pilot, became a spy in Washington, DC, and worked with Walt Disney to develop a (never completed) film about gremlins, the fantastic creatures that the RAF blamed for causing mechanical destruction. Many of his wartime activities remain classified.

His work with Walt Disney brought him in touch with the Hollywood elite, which in turn led to a marriage to Hollywood star and Academy Award winner Patricia Neal. Their 30 year marriage experienced multiple tragedies: a car accident involving their son Theo, which left the toddler with hydrocephalus; the death of their daughter Olivia from measles; and Patricia Neal’s series of strokes, which left her in a coma for several weeks. Dahl supervised and helped her rehabilitation, but after her recovery, the marriage ended, with Dahl marrying her friend Felicity Crossland. And these are just the highlights: his official and unofficial biographies are loaded with anecdote and drama.

So it is perhaps not surprising that this life led to some of the most imaginative and dramatic works of children’s literature of the 20th century. As in Dahl’s own life, his characters found their lives changing in mere seconds, by chance, or accident, or magic: if his books can be summed up at all, it is in this phrase: “Expect the unexpected.” In Dahl’s books, evil is generally punished, and good generally rewarded, but not always evenly: Veruca Salt, arguably the worst of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is also the only child to walk away physically unchanged. (Covered in garbage, sure, but compared to the fate of the rest of the bad children in that book, this is mild.) And although good characters generally find themselves rewarded with good things at the end of the book, bad things—terrible things—can often happen to perfectly good people as well.

Dahl’s books also often reflect some of the anxieties of the 20th century—sometimes blatantly, as when the Americans are convinced that the giant peach of James and the Giant Peach is a giant bomb that will destroy New York, or in the conversations with the President of the United States in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, or subtly, as in the concerns with unemployment, labor issues and immigration in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at Dahl’s major works of children’s literature, starting with James and the Giant Peach.

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