My childhood would have been so barren were it not for the words of Roald Dahl, and, of course, the whimsical scribbles by Quentin Blake that always accompanied them. The BFG, The Witches, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Matilda… I, like children generations before and after me, devoured these stories, more ravenous than Augustus Gloop at a certain chocolate factory. Inevitably, Dahl became my very first favorite author. Today, on what would have marked this exceptional man’s 96th birthday, a look back at the gifts he left to children’s and adult’s literature alike, through the eyes of one who read them…
When I first discovered Roald Dahl’s stories, I knew only of his illustrated children’s books. Even in that genre, his imagination was unparalleled; I pored over tales of a friendly giant, an enormous peach, a magical spell that makes tortoises grow, and a marvelous medicine. They were like nursery rhymes and fairy tales, only better–the kind where the wicked stepsisters would have their feet lopped off before being squeezed into the glass slipper, or where Little Red turns out to be a carnivorous villainess, whipping the wolf into a fur coat faster than the glint off a big bad tooth. The proper kind.
A little older, I turned to Dahl’s autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood. Excerpts like “The Great Mouse Plot of 1924” (in which Dahl and his boyhood friends place a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers belonging to the “loathsome” local sweet shop owner, Mrs. Pratchett) appealed to my youthful mischief-making, but the beatings and loneliness he described of boarding school sealed serious adults as the true villains of life. It became clear where the monsters behind Ms. Trunchbull and The Witches came from.
And still, my ideas of Roald Dahl evolved as I grew older. There were entire collections of macabre short stories I hadn’t been allowed to touch–“The Great Automatic Grammatizator,” “Man From the South,” “Royal Jelly.” All deserve to be read beneath the sheets with a flashlight and a pair of trembling hands. The messy ends of Dahl’s characters and the shocking twists he wove give Poe’s horror stories a run for their money, any day.
To his young readers, Dahl is like a childhood friend, a comrade in the denial to abandon whimsy in exchange for seriousness. Even in his own life, Roald Dahl seemed a sort of Peter Pan figure; a WWII fighter pilot turned MI6 spy, he crossed the globe like a classic adventurer, passing through exotic locations like Tanzania, Kenya, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq, of which he wrote about in another autobiography, Going Solo. As an undercover agent he rubbed elbows with fellow spy (and James Bond creator) Ian Fleming. Rumor has it they were commissioned to woo foreign diplomats’ lonely wives in search of secret information. At times, his life seems the work of pure fantasy.
In later years, Dahl took to using a colorful gypsy wagon, parked on his back lawn, as his writing space. From there he wrote more children’s fiction, like Danny, the Champion of the World and The Twits. He continued to turn out popular children’s stories right up to his death in 1990, at the age of 74. It’s from his posthumously published final work, The Minpins, that I take this passage, one of the quotes that seems to best epitomize the author’s views on fantasy and life:
Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
To have grown up with Roald Dahl is to have never truly grown up. Here’s hoping we never have to.
Happy Birthday Roald Dahl!
As an extra treat, here’s an interview Dahl gave shortly before his death. In it, he describes the riveting story of his entry into literature.