Valley of the Dahls
The misanthropic stories of Roald the Rotten
Jan 15, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 17 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Roald Dahl was, by his own admission, a slow and finicky writer who went daily to his desk only to produce two or three stories per year. A large man, loquacious and gruff, he nonetheless favored tight and very tidy prose. He liked to "cut and crystallize" each piece, as he once wrote, until it could be cut and crystallized no more.
Such persistence paid off. Dahl's literary career, although somewhat slow in starting, prospered for forty years. From the early 1950s to the 1970s, Dahl's macabre and blackly comic short stories appeared regularly in leading magazines and in such collections as Someone Like You (1954) and Kiss Kiss (1959). And, starting in the 1960s, Dahl found increasing fame as a children's author with such titles as James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), The Twits (1980), and Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (1982). Late in life, Dahl liked to describe himself as a modern day pied piper who could "knock at the door of any house where there was a child" and be duly accorded a warm welcome and a cup of tea.
This was no idle boast. At the time of his death, in 1990, Dahl was easily the world's most successful children's author. Ten years later, Dahl's books continue to sell by the millions, and -- in Britain, certainly -- still tend to finish first whenever pollsters ask kids and adolescents to list their favorite books. Last March the British press widely reported that a "World Books Day" survey had named Dahl "the nation's all-time favorite author." Dahl bested not only Austen and Dickens, but J. K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, who took second place.
Thus, although Dahl is gone, the Dahl Industry rolls on. The 1990s brought inventive film adaptations of James and the Giant Peach and Matilda. And "new" books by Dahl continue to appear. Two of these, The Umbrella Man and Skin, collect many of Dahl's earliest -- and best-known -- short stories and aim them at a fresh generation of adolescent readers; Skin, indeed, advertises itself "as an introduction for teenagers to the adult writings of one of the greatest storytellers ever." A third, The Mildenhall Treasure, first ran as a feature story forty-five years ago in the Saturday Evening Post. The Mildenhall Treasure tells the tale of Gordon Butcher, a Suffolk farmer who -- while plowing a field -- unearths a vast cache of Roman silver, "the greatest treasure ever found in the British Isles." Butcher, a simple man, earns nothing from his discovery, now housed in the British Museum. (This new edition exists mostly to show off Ralph Steadman's illustrations.)
During the 1940s, moving awkwardly between fiction and journalism, Dahl focused mainly on his experiences as a Royal Air Force pilot during the Second World War. Dahl had found himself in several dog fights and was seriously injured when he crash-landed his aircraft in the Libyan desert. He suffered spinal injuries, a smashed hip, and a fractured skull. He would later suggest, half-jokingly, that his urge to write had in fact been activated by his wartime smash-up and its accompanying blow to the head. For until then he displayed no literary or intellectual ambitions. Roald Dahl hailed from sturdy, successful Scandinavian stock. His father was a Norwegian shipbroker who immigrated to Wales. Harald Dahl died of pneumonia in 1920 when Roald (the sole boy among several children) was only three. But his estate was large enough to keep his widow and family afloat. Dahl's mother, Sofie, eventually moved the family to Bexley, an affluent London suburb.