Roald Dahl at 100: “Dahl was complex and flawed like the rest of us, but one with a gigantic literary legacy”

Alistair Hodge, Senior Lecturer and MA Publishing Programme Leader, talks about Roald Dahl, one of the world’s greatest storytellers, who would have turned 100 on September 13, 2016.

British historian and journalist Kathryn Hughes sums it up neatly:

“No matter how you spin it … Roald Dahl was an absolute sod. Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met."

Dahl was renowned for shooting off his mouth offensively. As he once did to a Dutch reporter in reaction to Israel’s brutal 1982 intervention in Lebanon. His daughter Lucy said: “Dad never could keep his mouth shut. He gossiped like a girl.”

Dahl could also be demanding, petulant and difficult. Insisting, for example, that his manuscripts be collected from his home by Rolls-Royce.

You get the gist. At a personal level, I do not really warm to Roald Dahl. Of course, he had many admirable points, including his ‘vitality, courage and passion for life’.

Anyone who chose to type so many warm and thoughtful replies to fans and anyone who could come out with lines such as ‘if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely’, couldn’t be all bad.

And he certainly wasn’t all bad.

Roald Dahl’s writings are among the most successful of the last century. His children’s tales have been translated into 58 languages and consumed avidly around the globe – 200 million of them to date.

He was multi-talented. Not just an author but a sportsman, a fighter ace, a wartime hero and, at 6 feet 6 inches, a giant of a man.

Roald Dahl was born 100 years ago, on 13 September 1916, in a Cardiff suburb to Norwegian parents. Did he somehow absorb during holidays there the Scandinavian tradition of epic, dark storytelling?

In his youth, Dahl encountered tragedy, cruelty and misfortune on a regular basis. This may help to explain some of the cruel darkness of his writing.  including his 16 Tales of the Unexpected, and some of his best-loved children’s literature.

Indeed, Michael Rosen, former children’s Laureate, regards some of the sadism in his books as a ‘reframing of his own experience’.

When he was four, Dahl’s older sister, Astri, died – followed just weeks later by his father. His schooldays at Repton in Derbyshire were profoundly unhappy. There, Dahl, an ‘indolent and illiterate member of the class [school report, 1932]’, saw and underwent physical and psychological abuse.

As an airman during the Second World War, he was injured. Then, worse was to follow, in the cruellest of symmetries, his beloved daughter Olivia died, like Astri, aged just seven. This final tragedy left Dahl ‘destroyed’, according to his wife.

Not until 20 years after Olivia’s death does he appear to have begun to come to terms with it.  when he dedicated one of his best-loved children’s books, The BFG, to her memory.

There is no doubting the continuing appeal, charm and success of Roald Dahl as a writer. Children love the splendid anarchy; the topsy-turvy worlds in which child heroes throw off the shackles of their tyrannical elders. And adults love his macabre unexpected tales both in their written and broadcast forms. None of it can be described as high literature, but it is appealing. And Dahl always knew it would be.

When he asked British companies to publish his first children’s book, James and the Giant Peach, he was told the writing was far too ‘dark, brutal and vulgar’ for a British audience. So, in response, Dahl stumped up a subvention equivalent to half the publication costs in return for a large stake in its on-going sales, a shrewd assessment of his own literary merit, and a sound business decision.

Perhaps the last word should go to Dahl’s illustrator, Quentin Blake:

“He [Dahl] was mischievous. A grown-up being mischievous. He addresses you, a child, as somebody who knows about the world. He was a grown-up – and he was bigger than most – who is on your side. That must have something to do with it.”

Gigantesque himself, Dahl was complex and flawed like the rest of us, but one with a gigantic literary legacy. Children are likely still be reading his works a hundred years from now.