Looking back at my childhood days, I realize what an important role British novelist Roald Dahl played in it. He transformed, what would have otherwise been a mundane existence, into something magical. As the world celebrates the late author’s 100th birth anniversary, let us reflect upon Dahl, the raconteur and man.
Born in 1916 to Norwegian parents in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales, Dahl was raised by a single mother since age three, following his father’s untimely death. This was only weeks after Dahl’s then seven-year-old sister Astri had died due to a burst appendix. Having witnessed death at such close proximity, that too at a tender age, Dahl’s literature frequently features children who are orphaned, lonely or troubled.
After a successful stint with the Royal Air Force during World War II, Dahl returned to a full-time career in writing, churning out children’s short stories, novellas, poems, and even adult literature.
Like many writers, much of Dahl’s literature draws on real life experience. As his granddaughter Sophie recalls in a tribute to her grandfather in The Guardian, Dahl grew up at a time when chocolate was hard to come by. Instead, as a boy, he saw around him shops filled with hard-boiled sweets, gobstoppers, lemon sherbets, bootlaces and candy. These “scrumdiddlyumptious” treats are almost an inseparable part of Dahl’s children’s tales. Further, Dahl’s unpleasant experience at Repton School, Derbyshire (which he attended from 1929) find place in stories like Matilda (1988), featuring cruel administrators like Ms. Trunchbull. The draconian principal of Matilda’s eponymous heroine’s school, Ms. Trunchbull has almost become synonymous with cruelty.
Dahl was not just any wordsmith; he was an inventor – a magician who could whip up words that bordered on alliteration, portmanteaus, anagrams, onomatopoeia, and other literary devices. On his centennial birth anniversary, the Oxford University Press has compiled a book of words invented by Dahl. Dr. Susan Rennie, professor, University of Glasgow, has curated a glossary of Dahl’s words, called The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. Dahl’s words transcended the boundaries of language, which probably explains the writer’s enormous appeal to children and adults alike. Words like “bundongle” (something that only contains air), or “fizzwiggler” (a cruel, loathsome person) are highly evocative, and often serve to describe people, their situations and surroundings far better than the words they are derived from. Needless to say, these words also add to the dark humour, which Dahl was known for.
Despite the diverse nature of his stories and characters, nearly all of Dahl’s literary figures are bound by a common trait: being courageous, and creatively so, in the face of adversity. Be it James Henry Trotter from James and the Giant Peach (1961) or Sophie from The BFG (1982)or even Danny, the eponymous hero of Danny, the Champion of the World (1975), all these characters show remarkable courage through hardship, and emerge victorious in the end. Dahl’s ability to celebrate, and never underplay the human condition, won him love and appreciation the world over. Dahl always sided with children, who were oppressed by villainous adults. But these tales, which are peppered with the adversities that Dahl himself faced during his lifetime, are never told without a generous dose of satire.
The raconteur also wrote volumes of limericks and nonsense rhymes. Many of these compilations, like Revolting Rhymes (1982), feature a bond between animals and children. Dahl was a great lover of nature, and as recalled by his granddaughter Sophie, he spent several hours pottering about his garden.
While Dahl is best remembered for his children’s stories, he also wrote many a compelling read for adults. Some of his noted adult works include the collections Kiss Kiss (1960) and Switch Bitch (1974), and the novel My Uncle Oswald (1979).
Many of Dahl’s tales have also been adapted for the screen, the most recent one being Steven Spielberg’s 2016 film The BFG.
Among the many honours that Dahl received during his lifetime are the 1983 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, and the British Book Awards’ Children’s Author of the Year in 1990. In 2002, the Oval Basin plaza, a modern landmark in Cardiff Bay, was renamed “Roald Dahl Plass”. “Plass” means “place” or “square” in Norwegian, and is a reference to the writer’s roots. This year, the writer’s birthplace Llandaff, will be celebrating his centennial year, through a series of events titled Roald Dahl 100.
For more on the writer’s life, watch a 1990’s interview with Roald Dahl.