He is one of Britain's most beloved writers, the creator of more than 20 children's books including Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG. But did you know that Roald Dahl was also a medical innovator and a Second World War spy?
Here we bring you 10 surprising facts about the author Roald Dahl…
His childhood was marked by tragedy
Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, near Cardiff, on 13 September 1916. Named after the famous Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, he had two older sisters, Astri (born 1912) and Alfhild (b1914), as well as a sister and a brother, Ellen (b1903) and Louis (b1906), from his father’s first marriage.
In 1920, when Roald was just three and a half years old, tragedy struck the Dahl family. In February his older sister Astri, died from an infection following a burst appendix, aged seven, and just weeks later their father, Harald, died of pneumonia.
Roald described his father’s death in his 1984 book Boy: Tales of Childhood. “[Astri’s] sudden death left him literally speechless for days afterwards. He was so overwhelmed with grief that when he himself went down with pneumonia a month or so afterwards, he did not much care whether he lived or died.”
Harald’s death left Roald’s mother, Sofie Magdalene, responsible for five children and pregnant with another daughter, Asta, who was born in the autumn of 1920.
During the Second World War Dahl was a fighter pilot – then a spy
After leaving school in 1934 at the age of 17, Roald Dahl worked for the Shell Oil Company.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Dahl joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) and for a period piloted a Hawker Hurricane fighter. In 1940 his plane crashed in Libya’s Western Desert, and he suffered severe injuries to his head, nose and back, spending six months in hospital as a result. In summer 1941 he began experiencing debilitating headaches – aftereffects of the crash – and, deemed unable to fly, was sent home to Britain.
In April 1942, aged 25, Dahl was posted to Washington DC to join the British Embassy as assistant air attaché. In the US Dahl became a spy working in a division of MI6 alongside Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. (Dahl later adapted Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice as the screenplay for the 1967 Bond film.)
While working in the US Dahl met British novelist CS Forester, who encouraged him to write about his experiences in Libya. “I have come to you because I think you might have a good story to tell. About flying,” he reportedly told Dahl over a lunch of roast duck and vegetables.
Later that day, Dahl put pen to paper. “That, though I didn’t know it at the moment, was the moment that changed my life,” he later said. Forester passed Dahl’s copy – completely unchanged – to his editors at the Saturday Evening Post, who published it, paying Dahl a fee of $1,000.
Roald Dahl’s first story for children wasn’t James and the Giant Peach but The Gremlins
While James and the Giant Peach (1961) was Dahl’s first novel aimed at children, The Gremlins (1943) “has a very good claim to being Roald Dahl’s first piece of writing for children” according to RoaldDahl.com. Inspired by pilots’ folklore tales, the story is about creatures responsible for mechanical failures on aeroplanes, garnered during his time in the RAF.
The Gremlins was first published as a short magazine story then, marketed for children, as a book by Walt Disney, who decided to turn it into a film. It is thought that the 1984 film Gremlins, directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, is loosely inspired by Dahl’s story.
Like Charlie, Roald Dahl was himself a schoolboy chocolate-tester
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in the US in 1964, was inspired by Dahl’s time at the famous public school Repton. While boarding there, Dahl and his classmates had been guinea pigs of the chocolate-making company Cadbury: each year, Roald and his friends would be sent Cadbury’s newest creations to test. “It was then I realised that inside this great Cadbury’s chocolate factory there must be an inventing room, a secret place where fully grown men and women in white overalls spent all their time playing around with sticky boiling messes, sugar and chocs, and mixing them up and trying to invent something new and fantastic,” he wrote.
Dahl’s famous tale was adapted for the silver screen as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971. Roald’s biographer Donald Sturrock claims that, among other things, Roald “regretted that the producers had chosen neither Spike Milligan nor Peter Sellers to play the role [of Willy Wonka]”. Instead, Gene Wilder was cast.
Some of Dahl’s most popular works underwent a number of early drafts
James and the Giant Peach, Dahl’s first novel aimed at children, was reportedly almost called James and the Giant Cherry, but was changed because Dahl said a peach was “prettier, bigger and squishier than a cherry”. The first draft is also much scarier than the published book – in the original version, James meets a witch who wants to cut off his legs in exchange for magic green crystals.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory went through several early drafts. In one, Charlie Bucket visited Willy Wonka’s home and fell into a chocolate mould, while in another 10 children visited the factory (rather than the five who appeared in the published book), according to RoaldDahl.com.
In early drafts of The BFG, Roald Dahl “described the BFG as wearing big black boots and a leather apron. However, after seeing Quentin Blake’s preliminary drawings, Roald Dahl didn’t think this looked right,” says RoaldDahl.com. A few days later Dahl sent Quentin one of his own Norwegian sandals. “If you look closely at the pictures of the BFG, you’ll see that he’s wearing the same ones.”
The author said of his 1988 novel Matilda: “I had awful trouble with it… I got it wrong… the main character, the little girl kept changing”. At first, says RoaldDahl.com, “Matilda was a wicked child who plagued her poor, kind parents and caused havoc at school, ultimately redeeming herself through helping her teacher – an early version of Miss Honey – get out of financial difficulty by fixing a horse race.” The author quickly realised his mistake and rewrote what would become his last long children’s book.
Roald Dahl was a medical innovator
He is best remembered for his writing for children, but you might be surprised to learn that Dahl contributed to the invention of the modern ventricular catheter and shunt valves used in neurosurgery.
The innovation came in the wake of personal tragedy. In December 1960, while the family was living in New York City, Dahl’s four-month-old-son Theo was hit by a taxi and suffered traumatic brain injury. As a result Theo developed a medial condition called hydrocephalus – a build-up of fluid on the brain.
Together with neurosurgeon Kenneth Till and toymaker Stanley Wade, who specialised in making small hydraulic pumps that supplied fuel to model aeroplane engines, Dahl designed the Wade-Dahl-Till valve – a cerebral shunt used to drain excess fluid from the brain. The device has since been used in thousands of operations, although Theo himself recovered from his accident and did not require the valve.
Some of Roald Dahl’s best-known children’s books were written during the most troubled years of his life
The 1960s were particularly difficult years for Roald Dahl. Following Theo’s brain injury in 1960, in November 1962 Dahl’s eldest daughter, Olivia, died from measles encephalitis, aged just seven. And in February 1965 his wife, actress Patricia Neal, suffered a series of strokes while filming John Ford’s Seven Women in Los Angeles.
The strokes left Patricia in a coma for three weeks; after regaining consciousness she was semi-paralysed and unable to speak. However, with Roald’s help, she learned to walk and talk again. At the time of her stroke Patricia was three months pregnant with their fifth child (and fourth daughter), Lucy, who was born on 4 August.
Yet the 1960s was also one of Dahl’s most creative decades. In 1961 James and the Giant Peach was published in the UK by George Allen and Unwin. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory followed in 1964, with The Magic Finger hot on its heels. That same year the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, scripted by Dahl based on Ian Fleming’s novel, was released in cinemas to huge box-office success.
And during the 1980s Dahl was writing prolifically in spite of personal troubles: in 1981 he separated from Patricia Neal after 28 years of marriage. George’s Marvellous Medicine was published that same year; The BFG followed in 1982, and the 1980s also saw the release of Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984), Two Fables (1986), Going Solo (1986), Rhyme Stew (1989) and Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (1989), the last of his adult short-story collections to be published in his lifetime.
Dahl also wrote stories for adults, plus a number of screenplays
Dahl was an incredibly accomplished writer of adult short stories. Between 1946 and 1974 he published four collections of adult tales, and his comic novel for adults, My Uncle Oswald, was published in 1979. Tales of the Unexpected – a compilation of 16 previously published short stories – was published in 1979. It inspired a British television series of the same name, which aired between 1979 and 1988, adapted from Dahl’s stories.
Dahl’s long-form adult fiction was less successful. His 1948 novel Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen – a dark account of nuclear war – was poorly received. It is, however, historically significant in that it is thought to be the first novel about nuclear war to be published in the US after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Dahl penned several screenplays: the Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), also from a book by Ian Fleming, and in which he introduced the feared Childcatcher; and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Dahl also wrote the screenplay for a 1973 TV special of James and the Giant Peach, which never aired.
He invented more than 500 new words and character names
From scrumdiddlyumptious to frizzlecrump, over the course of his career Roald Dahl invented hundreds of weird and wonderful words as part of a language he called Gobblefunk.
To mark the centenary of his birth, Oxford University Press has created the Roald Dahl Dictionary, featuring almost 8,000 real and imaginary words used by the author in his many books. The dictionary reportedly took more than five years to complete.
Several Roald Dahl books were published posthumously
Roald Dahl died on 23 November 1990 at the age of 74, and was buried in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Great Missenden. Several of his books were published for the first time the following year: The Vicar of Nibbleswicke; The Minpins; Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety and Memories with Food at Gipsy House.