Roald Dahl Turns 100

Roald Dahl Turns 100

“Had I not had children of my own, I would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so.”

– Roald Dahl


The late Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday was this Tuesday. His centennial has been celebrated with new editions of his classic works; a re-release of the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, also honoring the recently deceased lead actor, Gene Wilder; and a recent movie adaptation of The BFG from director Steven Spielberg. reported that Dahl will be be posthumously awarded a Blue Peter Award. The BBC children’s television show Blue Peter grants these awards to outstanding works of children’s literature.

Dahl’s daughter, Lucy Dahl, will accept the award on his behalf during a television special airing this Thursday.

Below is an excerpt from Dahl’s entry in Volume 312 of Twentieth Century Literary Criticism:

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Roald Dahl is best known as the author of eccentric, imaginative children’s books, including James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988). He began writing books for young readers late in his career, after he was already an established writer of short stories and novels for adults. In terms of sales, he remains one of the most successful children’s authors of all time, with several of his works adapted into major motion pictures, but he was a controversial writer. His works are characterized by what some critics have called a dark sensibility because they often feature children either in danger or causing harm to others, adults who are neglectful or abusive, and plots that involve punishment, torture, or revenge.

Critics have praised Dahl’s unusual characters and intricate but twisted plotlines, as well as his playful use of language. His children’s works frequently showcase the young protagonists’ resourcefulness, intelligence, and integrity but also vindicate their rebellion against institutions and adults. As a result of the violent qualities of Dahl’s novels and their
negative presentation of adult authority figures, they have been censured by some commentators. Others, however, have compared his narratives to those of the short-story master O. Henry, the fairy tale writers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the children’s author A. A. Milne. Dahl received several major prizes, including the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1983; he was also named the British Book Awards’ Children’s Author of the Year in 1990.


Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, on 13 September 1916 to Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg Dahl. His parents emigrated from Norway, but their connection to their homeland remained strong. Sofie spoke Norwegian at home, read Norse legends and Norwegian folk stories to her four children, and led long family trips to Norway every year to visit relatives. In 1920,when Roald was four years old, his elder sister, Astri, died of appendicitis, and just a few weeks later, his father died of pneumonia while on a fishing trip in the Antarctic. His mother remained in Wales, respecting her husband’s wish that the children be educated in English schools. Dahl first attended St. Peter’s boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, but he had little respect for his teachers and recoiled at the practice of severe corporal punishment. From 1929 to 1932, he was a student at the prestigious Repton School in Derby; his experience there was not much better, however, and he came to harbor a deep, lifelong disdain for and distrust of institutions, authority figures, and rules. He excelled in sports but did not do well academically, so when his mother offered to pay for his education in Oxford or Cambridge, he declined.

Following graduation, Dahl secured a position as an Eastern staff trainee for the Shell Oil Company. After two years’ training in England, he was dispatched to Dar es Salaam in present-day Tanzania, where his job was to promote Shell products. When Great Britain entered World War II (1939-45), Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) but, as he was flying to join his squadron in the Western Desert, his plane crashed. His injuries, which caused him pain throughout his life, necessitated five months of treatment in a hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. Invalided out of active duty in 1941, Dahl was next posted to the British Embassy in Washington, DC, as an assistant air attaché, and possibly, as some biographers have suggested, as a casual spy for the British government. In his spare time, he wrote an account of “gremlins,” imaginary demons that the RAF personnel jokingly blamed for anything that might go wrong with their aircraft. A coworker at the embassy brought this work to the attention of Hollywood producer Walt Disney, who bought the rights and published The Gremlins (1943). Dahl began to publish short stories of his wartime adventures in such periodicals as the Saturday Evening Post and the New Yorker; these were later collected in Over to You (1946). He also completed a novel, Some Time Never (1948), but, discouraged by unfavorable reviews, he returned to writing short stories.

In 1953, Dahl married American actress Patricia Neal; the couple had three children in the next seven years and two more in later years. After the publication of two additional collections of short stories, Dahl decided to try writing a children’s novel. He reworked some stories that he had been telling his children into James and the Giant Peach. Encouraged by the novel’s reception, he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Tragedy plagued the family, however; the couple’s son, Theo, had been thrown from his baby carriage when a taxi cab smashed into it in 1960 and had barely survived; their daughter Olivia died from complications related to measles in 1962; and Patricia suffered several massive strokes in 1965. In order to keep the family afloat financially, Dahl began to write screenplays in addition to publishing five more books for children in the 1970s. He continued to produce approximately one work per year, publishing mainly children’s books but also two more adult works, the short-story collection Switch Bitch (1974) and the novel My Uncle Oswald (1979). During this period, he wrote some of his most acclaimed works, including The Witches, which won the Whitbread Award, and Matilda, as well as two autobiographies—one for adults and one for children. Dahl and Neal divorced in 1983, and he married Felicity Crosland soon afterward. He died of a form of leukemia on 23 November 1990.

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For additional information about Dahl, see CLC, Volumes 1, 6, 18, and 79, and TCLC, Volume 173.

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