Roald Dahl: the story behind the storyteller

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There are few authors who capture the imagination of childhood like Roald Dahl, but who was this man that everyone seems to know but no one seems to know anything about?

Perhaps no author brings such fond memories to mind as Roald Dahl. His name has become synonymous with the very best of tales of childhood adventure, fantasy and imagination. Everybody has their own favourite. But Dahl’s life is in itself, a truly fascinating, tragic and remarkable story, and reveals the experiences that shaped the author who had such an influence in shaping our youth.

Donald Sturrock aims to shed some light in the first ever authorized biography of Roald Dahl, “Storyteller.”  A direct descendent of Scottish braveheart William Wallace, three year old Dahl was to experience a monumental series of unfortunate events which were to write the narrative of his complex life.

Living in Wales, his older sister Astri died unexpectedly of appendicitis, and was followed mere weeks later by the death of their heartbroken father. At school, Dahl lost his nose in a car accident which was then later sown back on. After a spell at an English Boarding school he became one of the RAF’s most promising pilots at the outbreak of World War II, only to crash his aircraft over the Libyan Desert on his first day of official flying. As he lay unconscious, battered and bruised in the sweltering Libyan heat, his aircraft machine guns malfunctioned and started firing at him.

Thankfully he lived to see another day, but suffered with numb fingers and excruciating back pain for the rest of his days. Rather bizarrely, he never suffered any problem with his teeth. At age 21, Dahl had all of them pre-emptively removed and replaced because as he put it “they were more trouble than they were worth”.

Unfortunately Dahls personal tale of woe doesn’t stop there. As a parent in New York, his 4 year old son was hit 40ft out of his pram by a speeding taxi, barely surviving a shattered skull. In the following years Dahl’s 7 year old daughter died of a rare form of measles and his 39 year old wife, actress Patricia Neal, fell into a coma for three weeks after an aneurysm.  

Out of this whirlpool of tragedy emerged an exceedingly complex and multi-dimensional man. On the one hand, Dahl was a man who loved his family with a passion and wasn’t afraid of showing it. Sturrock describes a charming story where Dahl, under the cover of darkness, wrote his daughters name with weed killer in the garden, claiming in the morning, it to be the work of fairies.

In response to the seemingly ceaseless family crises in his life, Dahl responded with a vehement defiance to rally against the odds (interestingly a trait of nearly all his lead characters in his novels). After his sons accident, Dahl worked to invent a valve which kept fluid from pressing on his sons brain, an innovation which went on to be used by thousands, and one which Dahl refused any profit from.

Despite of this, or perhaps due to all this, Dahl was famously unpleasant to seminaries, teachers, and publishers, many of which would consider him a close friend. He would often pick loud fights at the dinner parties, purely for the spectacle of it. Like many of his generation, he was a stereotypical Brit who carried around prejudices and bumbled through gaffes with an almost passable, edgy charm. A simple character he was not, but as often is the case, a difficult life can produce some of the finest authors. We need only look to authors of similar ilk who aspired Dahl as boy to see this in practice. He was determined to be the next Fitzgerald or Hemmingway and no one could say he lacked life experience to draw upon.

So what of his work? Early in his career Dahl published some wickedly inventive short stories for the New Yorker and was picked up by the kingpin of editors Maxwell Perkins who wanted to be the first to publish a Dahl adult novel. However, in a typical Dahl twist, which seemed to plague his life, Perkins died days later, with the manuscript agonisingly resting on his desk. Dahl’s career as an important adult writer never took off and he decided, to the pleasure of generation to come, to focus his works on short stories and later children’s books.

And my word, thank god he did. Dahl’s children’s stories are works of magic, transcending generations and giving joy to children the world over. Dahl treads the fine line between nonsensical gibberish and logical monotony and the result is truly magical and engaging stories which have encouraged a whole generation to love reading for the first time.

Much like his sublime stories, Dahl’s last words were gorgeously poetic. Surrounded by his close family, Dahl reassured everyone, “It’s not that I am afraid of death, it’s just that I will miss you all so much”. Fitting words for a complex and remarkable man.

Barton Mathews

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