Dec 13 2012 3:00pm

Turning Tragedy into the Fantastic: Roald Dahl

Turning tragedy into the fantastic: Roald DahlAuthor 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.

marian moore
1. mariesdaughter
I recall reading that he was anti-semitic also, or was that one writer's imagined bias?
Marla J.
2. Marla J.
No, he did say some anti-Semitic things.
3. Susurrin
This is where I think it is sometimes a bad thing that we wind up knowing so much personal detail about authors/directors/actors/etc. I want to enjoy a good story, not know that the guy that wrote it had a clown fetish, because after you know that it kinda skews what might otherwise be a really enjoyable story.
Amy Palmer
5. wayfaringpanda
I am SUPER excited for this - Roald Dahl remains one of my favorite authors of all time, and certainly my favorite children's authors. The man was amazing!
Marla J.
6. a1ay
Would you include Boy and Going Solo? The style seems to imply that they were written for children - and they're two of my favourites. Especially Going Solo. Wonderful descriptions of flight.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@mariesdaughter and @marla j -- Both of his biographers describe the anti-Semitic question as "complex." He had numerous Jewish friends, argued against anti-Semitism, and stated that he was anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish, but made at least one statement that is unquestionably anti-Semitic, and it is certainly possible to take his anti-Israel statements as anti-Semitic.

This is the same guy who patiently cared for his wife for years after her stroke and then cheated on her and left her for one of her friends. I think we can safely say he was complex.

@katenepveu -- Yes, the Twits is on the list and hopefullly on its way and not in the Spanish translation (I think I must have hit the wrong buttons when ordering these from the library -- I've ended up with two Spanish translations. Oh well.)

@wayfaringpanda -- I don't think I would describe him as a personal favorite of mine, but he was definitely influential and deserves attention.

@aiay -- Huh. Honestly, until this comment, I hadn't thought about including them -- I haven't read either book and from the biographies I was under the impression they were written for adults. (In checking just now online the local library has "Boy" in the juvenile section and "Going Solo" in the adult section.) Since the library does have them I can certainly check them out at least.
Marla J.
8. Marla J.
@MariCats--I've read more than a little bit about the man. Yes, the one particular comment--if it's the one I'm thinking of--was extremely anti-Semitic. And yes, I think "complex" is the right word to describe a man whose wife was told by one of their children that he was sleeping with another woman, if I remember correctly. But he seems to have been a pretty unpleasant, if extremely talented, human being. Do I feel the same about him as I did when I was a kid? No. Is it important to tell people that he could be a "complex" person? Yes. That's what I think.
Marla J.
9. Nickp
In style and vocabualary, I think "Going Solo" would be accessible to children, but some of the content is disturbing (i.e. shooting and beheading of German civilians in Africa at the beginning of WWII). I'd probably call it PG-13.

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