Roald Dahl: Biography, Books & Poems

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

With tales of wondrous factories and vengeful youngsters, Roald Dahl's stories have sparked imaginations and controversies for generations. Find out more about the surprisingly dark life and work of this fascinating creative genius in this lesson!

Through the Eyes of a Child: A Brief Biography of Roald Dahl

Think back to some of the most memorable stories from your childhood. Do any of them deal with a giant peach or a fabulous chocolate factory? If so, then you (like many others) owe a great deal of your fond childhood story times to Roald Dahl, a man who lived his whole life looking through the eyes of a child.

Roald Dahl (1916-1990), renowned Norwegian-British author, airman, and all-around creative mind
Photo of Roald Dahl

Though often recognized as solely a British author, Roald Dahl was born to Norwegian immigrants in Llandaff, Wales on 13 September 1916. His parents had moved the family of eight to Britain so that the children could take advantage of what they felt were better schools. However, much like the man he was named for (famed Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen), young Roald didn't like being cooped up. While at school, the boy was often rambunctious and inattentive, often getting into trouble and causing problems for his already weary mother, who now had to raise her children alone following her husband's death in the Antarctic.

Much like your own parents might've threatened, Roald's mother sent him to boarding school (St. Peter's) when his behavior got too out-of-hand. Later, he would attend Repton, a private preparatory school, but his academic achievements or even interest would be no more astonishing than before. When offered by his mother to have his tuition to Oxford or Cambridge paid for, Dahl declined, deciding instead to pursue a life of adventure beginning with an expedition to Newfoundland as part of the Public Schools Exploring Society after his graduation from Repton in 1932.

Roald couldn't seem to quench his childlike thirst for adventure, so he got a job with the Shell Oil Company in Eastern Africa, where he worked until 1939. That year marked the start of World War II, and Dahl quickly joined the Royal Air Force stationed in Kenya. He flew in several missions throughout the Mediterranean, including one that ended with his crash in Egypt. This experience prompted him to write one of the first stories he ever published: an account of his daring survival that launched an even more amazing career.

While recovering from injuries sustained in the crash, the RAF sent Roald to Washington, D.C. as an attaché. During his time in D.C., Dahl met the famous English novelist C.S. Forester, who worked diligently to convince Roald to pursue a career in writing. He finally caved and began publishing short stories and articles in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker in the early 1940s, including his first story for children ('The Gremlins') in 1942. By 1946, he had enough to compile his first collection of short stories, Over to You.

Much of Roald's work (even that for children) is characterized by a somewhat darker sense of humor than you might expect. Many claim this stems from a long life of heartache - having lost his father and sister at an early age, as well as a young daughter following his marriage to famous American actress Patricia Neal in 1953. Roald and Patricia were married for 30 years and had four other children, including Theo, who suffered permanent brain damage after being struck by a taxi in New York City. Events like this one could've also contributed to Dahl's darker worldview, but they were also the impetus behind much of his creativity. For example, following Theo's medical complications, Dahl worked with an engineer and a neurosurgeon to create the Wade-Dahl-Till shunt, which is still used today to help treat catastrophic brain injuries.

Though never educated beyond what we would consider high school, Roald Dahl led an amazingly productive life - mostly due to his sense of wonder and imagination that never aged. His writing career spans decades, during which he produced 19 children's novels (i.e., James and the Giant Peach, The Witches), 9 short story collections, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction for both kids and adults, including screenplays such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Unfortunately, Roald Dahl only lived once, and he succumbed to a rare blood disorder in Oxford, England on 23 November 1990. To this day, his children and many others carry on his work at The Roald Dahl Foundation and other organizations established in his honor. And, of course, we can't forget the generations of readers who've been touched by works like those you'll see below and who've kept his imaginative visions alive for years to come!

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