This Day In Literary History
On September 13th, 1916, the legendary English writer Roald Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales. He and his three sisters were the children of Norwegian immigrants who spoke Norwegian at home and English in public.
They named their son after Roald Amundsen, the famous Norwegian explorer who had become a national hero at the time. He was the first explorer to discover the South Pole and reach the North Pole.
When Roald Dahl was three years old, he lost first his seven-year-old sister Astri to appendicitis, then his father to pneumonia. His mother considered moving her children back to Norway. She changed her mind, as her husband had wanted the children to be educated in British schools, which he believed were the best.
Roald began his education at The Cathedral School in his hometown of Llandaff. When he was eight years old, he and four of his classmates planted a dead mouse in a jar of hard candies at a sweet shop.
The kids considered the proprietress, Mrs. Pratchett, to be a "mean and loathsome" old woman and wanted to teach her a lesson. Unfortunately, they were caught and caned by their headmaster.
From there, Roald transferred to St. Peter's, a boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, England. He hated the school, but he never told his mother in the weekly letters he wrote to her. He knew that the school screened students' mail and prohibited any complaints to their parents.
In 1929, Roald, then thirteen, began attending Repton School in Derbyshire. It was there that he had a life changing experience; one of his friends was savagely beaten by the school's headmaster.
When the headmaster, Geoffrey Fisher, was later ordained Archbishop of Canterbury, Roald lost what little respect he had for religion and began to doubt the existence of God.
As a teenager, Roald Dahl developed passions for photography and literature. His English teachers didn't think much of him; one of them wrote "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended."
Being tall and well-built for his age, Roald excelled at sports, playing for his school's fives and squash (English racquet sports) teams and its soccer team.
After graduating school in 1934, the 18-year-old Roald Dahl took a job with the Shell Petroleum Company, which sent him to Tanzania. He and the other Shell employees lived at the luxurious Shell House near Dar-es-Salaam, but when World War II broke out in 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force.
Roald became a fighter pilot for the RAF, flying daring combat missions over Africa. In September of 1940, after refueling in Libya, he was supposed to fly to his squadron's airstrip, located 30 miles South of Mersa Matruh, Egypt.
Unable to find the airstrip and running low on fuel, Roald was forced to make an emergency landing in a desert. Unfortunately, the undercarriage of his plane clipped a boulder and he crashed.
Despite sustaining a fractured skull and a shattered nose, Roald managed to crawl away from the flaming wreckage of his plane. He regained consciousness while being treated in Mersa Matruh and found that he was temporarily blinded.
He was taken to an RAF hospital in Alexandria for further treatment. The RAF investigated the crash and found that Roald had been given the wrong coordinates for the airstrip, which sent him instead to a no man's land between Allied and Italian lines.
Amazingly, by February of 1941, Road Dahl had completely recovered from his injuries, regained his eyesight, and was deemed fit to resume his flying duties. This time, he flew combat missions across the Mediterranean.
In April, he saw action in the Battle of Athens, where he and several other RAF pilots shot down over 20 German planes. Though he would be promoted to officer, he was ultimately relieved of duty after he'd begun suffering chronic severe headaches that sometimes caused him to black out.
Roald continued to serve during World War II. His work for the British Information Service introduced him to espionage; he acted as an information courier for British Security Coordination, a division of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service.
Ian Fleming, legendary author of the classic James Bond spy thriller novels, was a fellow agent. Dahl would later write the screenplay for the 1967 feature film adaptation of Fleming's James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.
It was during the war that Road Dahl's first published short story appeared. Inspired after meeting fellow writer C.S. Forster, Dahl wrote A Piece of Cake, a story based on his adventures as a World War II flying ace.
The story was published by the Saturday Evening Post in August of 1942. They paid Dahl $1,000 for it, which was a huge amount at the time - the equivalent of $18,000 in today's money.
Through he did write occasionally for adults, Roald Dahl was best known as a children's writer who delighted his young readers with his caustic wit, imagination, dark humor, and taste for the macabre.
The Gremlins, his first children's book, was published in 1943. It was based on RAF folklore about mischievous little creatures with a fetish for sabotaging planes.
Dahl had children of his own - five in fact - with his wife, the famous American actress Patricia Neal, whom he married in 1953. In December of 1960, his son Theo, then four months old, was severely injured when his baby carriage was hit by a taxicab.
Theo suffered from hydrocephalus (a buildup of water on the brain) for a time, so Dahl co-invented the "Wade-Dahl Till," a cerebral shunt used to drain the excess water, alleviating the patient's pain and preventing brain damage.
Two years later, in 1962, when Dahl lost his seven-year-old daughter Olivia to measles-related encephalitis, he became an early, vocal proponent of immunization.
After the war ended, Roald Dahl began writing and publishing collections of short stories, mostly for adults. In 1961, he returned to children's writing with his classic novel, James and the Giant Peach.
In it, four-year-old James finds his life turned upside down when his parents are devoured by a rhinoceros that escaped from the zoo. James is sent to live with his repulsive aunts Spiker and Sponge, who abuse him verbally and physically and imprison him in their home.
James meets a strange little man who gives him a sack containing the ingredients for a magic potion that can bring happiness and great adventure, but the boy accidentally spills these ingredients - and the water he was supposed to add to them - onto the barren peach tree outside his aunts' home.
The tree begins to blossom and it grows a giant peach the size of a house. James's evil aunts make money off the peach, but one night, James ventures inside the giant peach and befriends the insects and other creatures who live there. They had been waiting for him, so they could all escape together...
Due to its macabre nature and frightening scenes, James and the Giant Peach still raises the ire of disgruntled parents and pressure groups in America. The American Library Association ranked it #56 on their list of the 100 most banned or challenged books.
Amazingly, James and the Giant Peach was adapted by Disney as an animated feature film in 1996. As expected, the screenplay took great liberties with the story. Dahl followed it with another classic children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).
In this surreal fantasy, reclusive candy maker Willy Wonka, owner of the world's largest chocolate factory, holds a contest where five lucky children will win a tour of his factory. One of the winners turns out to be Charlie Bucket, a nice, humble boy from a very poor family.
The other winners are enormously fat little glutton Augustus Gloop, spoiled, selfish rich girl Veruca Salt, television-addicted Mike Teavee, and Violet Beauregarde, a rude little girl who's always chomping on gum.
As the children take their tour, they find Willy Wonka's chocolate factory staffed by small, pygmy like men called Oompa-Loompas. They explore the surreal workings of the factory, not knowing that Willy Wonka has a secret plan: he wants to retire and pass his factory on to one of the children.
The children's bad behavior eliminates them one by one from contention and results in a nasty twist of fate. Augustus falls into a chocolate river and is sucked into the works of a fudge making machine. Veruca is dumped into a garbage chute.
Mike is shrunk, then stretched tall by a taffy puller, and Violet is turned into a giant blueberry. Charlie Bucket, the child whom Willy Wonka liked the best, is the last one left and inherits the chocolate factory.
In 1971, a feature film adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was released, starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Originally, Roald Dahl was supposed to write the screenplay, but backed out of the project.
Dahl objected when the film's corporate sponsor, Breaker Confections, now known as The Wonka Candy Company, demanded extensive changes, including the promotion of its products within the film.
The title was changed to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl hated the film, which bombed at the box office, but has since become a beloved cult classic, thanks to its frequent showings on TV over the years. The film is also available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming services.
In 2005, a new feature film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was released, directed by legendary filmmaker Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka.
This film was a huge hit, and grossed over $400 million worldwide. Roald Dahl would publish a sequel to his novel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, in 1972.
Dahl continued to write great children's novels, including The Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970) and The Witches (1983). In 1988, Dahl published one of his most beloved novels, Matilda.
Five-year-old Matilda Wormwood is a sweet-natured, super intelligent little girl who was born into an ignorant, sleazy family. Her father is a crooked used car salesman who cheats his customers. Neither of Matilda's parents have much use for her, and they place no value on education.
After selling a lemon of a car to Agatha Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, Matilda's father arranges for her to attend the school. Matilda finds that Miss Trunchbull is a sadistic tyrant.
Trunchbull delights in meting out incredibly cruel punishments for the least offenses. However, Matilda's teacher, Miss Honey, is kindhearted. Impressed by Matilda's brilliance, Miss Honey befriends her.
When Matilda is blamed for an offense committed by a classmate, the evil Miss Trunchbull incites her to such an emotional frenzy that she unleashes telekinetic powers - the ability to move objects with her mind.
Miss Honey reveals to Matilda that Miss Trunchbull is actually her aunt. When her father died under suspicious circumstances, Miss Trunchbull took over his home and school and began abusing her the way she abuses the children.
Miss Honey is too frightened of her evil aunt to stand up to her tyranny, so Matilda uses her telekinetic powers to teach Miss Trunchbull a lesson she'll never forget.
Matilda was adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1996, produced, directed, and narrated by Danny DeVito, who also co-starred as Matilda's sleazy father, Harry Wormwood. Some disgruntled parents complained about the film's dark humor and violence.
In 2009, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a big budget rock musical adaptation of Matilda for the London stage, with music and lyrics by Australian comedian-singer-actor Tim Minchin. The popular musical made its Broadway debut in 2013 and became a hit there as well. It was adapted as a feature film in 2022.
Roald Dahl died in 1990 after a battle with myelodysplastic syndrome, a leukemia-like blood disease. He was 74 years old. His last children's novel, The Minipins, was published posthumously in 1991. His hometown in Wales renamed one of its landmarks The Roald Dahl Plass in his honor.
Quote Of The Day
"I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage." - Roald Dahl
Today's video features a rare radio interview with Roald Dahl. Enjoy!