September 13, 1916, was the day Harald and Sofie D Essay
ahl, two Norwegian immigrants living in Wales, had their first son, a boy they named Roald. Even before birth Roald was supposed to be endowed with great sense of beauty, courtesy of his father. Harald Dahl, a thriving ship broker in Cardiff, possessed a great aesthetic sense; wishing to instill this in his children, Harald encouraged his wife to go for long walks along the most beautiful trails in the Welsh countryside, hoping the magnificence of nature would seep through to the brain of the unborn child (Dahl, Boy 18-19).
The death of Harald Dahl when Roald was four had a devastating effect on the boy. Although he was very young, Dahl said that the loss of his father was the end of his happy childhood days (Treglown 5), and that in his adulthood he often searched for a paternal figure to compensate for the deficit of a father in his youth (20). Sofie Dahl, although grief-stricken by the death of her husband, was determined to provide a steady foundation for her children, refusing to relocate from Wales back home to Norway with her parents (Howard 1). She did steep the children in Scandinavian customs, though, teaching them the language of Norway, and instilling them with a love for all things Norwegian instead of those English. Mark West contends that this contributed to the detached attitude Dahl had for England and the feelings of isolation he experienced throughout his life (2). Regardless of the impact his Norwegian upbringing would have on his future, Dahl wrote in Boy that the most idyllic days of his youth were spent during the summers he, his mother, and his sisters would visit Sofie’s parents, Betsepapa and Betsemama, in Norway (53-74). “The summer holidays! Those magic words! The mere mention of them used to send shivers of joy rippling over my skin” (Dahl, Boy 53). Although these annual forays to Norway were enjoyable for Dahl and his siblings, and they helped to alleviate Sofie’s grief, she always regretted that her son would not have a father. She could do little to ameliorate the situation except carry out her husband’s dying wish: he wanted his children to attend English public schools, which he thought were the best in the world (Howard 1). Consequently, at the age of six, while the annual journeys to Norway did not cease, Dahl embarked upon a new phase of his life: formal schooling.
The commencement of this “awful process” of the boy’s civilization began at Elmtree House, a school located in Llandaff, the small village the Dahls moved to after Harald’s death. The institution was Welsh, not English, though; Sofie Dahl felt that she wasn’t quite ready yet to move to England with a brood of small children (Howard 1). After a year at Elmtree House, Dahl’s mother decided the time had come for him to go to a “proper boy’s school,” (Dahl, Boy 27) and enrolled him in Llandaff Cathedral School, a preparatory school under the auspices of Llandaff cathedral, at the age of seven.
Dahl’s days at Llandaff would have been rather unremarkable if not for the presence of a candy shop on his route to and from school (Dahl, Boy 28-29). Each day he and four of his friends would stop at the shop on their way home, and in Boy he describes how central it was to their lives: “To us, it was what a bar is to a drunk, or a church is to a Bishop” (33). Unfortunately, their happy candy days ended when Dahl was nine with the Great Mouse Plot, a practical joke which, he boasts in Boy, came from his mind and his mind alone (35). It involved the boys putting a dead mouse into a jar of Gobstoppers to frighten Mrs. Pratchett, the irascible candy shop owner. She reported the perpetrators to Mr. Coombes, the Llandaff headmaster, and he gave each four solid whacks on the rear with a cane, with the ghastly Mrs. Pratchett egging him on (46-51). This incident, Dahl’s first negative experience with adults, prompted Sofie Dahl to withdraw him from Llandaff at the end of the summer semester and enroll him in St. Peter’s, a boarding school for boys in England.
At St. Peter’s Dahl was plagued with a profound homesickness, his stint there being the first time he spent an extended period away from his family. He devised a scheme of faking appendicitis, which had recently afflicted one of his sisters, to win a ticket home, but the family doctor caught on to his game, and the boy was sent back to St. Peter’s to finish the term (Dahl, Boy 93-98). He not only completed the semester, but also spent the better of four more years at the boarding school in England.
The remainder of his time there was marked mostly by hardship and abuse, meted out primarily by the headmaster, the matron who monitored his dormitory floor, and the other faculty at the school. One particular incident demonstrating the cruelty of the administration concerned a false accusation brought against Dahl by his Latin master, Captain Hardcastle, an accusation which resulted in a caning by the headmaster and a bitter lesson in injustice (Dahl, Boy 108-122). One bright spot during this stage of his schooling, however, were the Saturday visits by a teacher named Mrs. O’Connor who sparked Dahl’s lifelong interest in literature when he was about thirteen (West 4).
It was near that time, though, that Dahl graduated from St. Peter’s and began his final stage of formal schooling at Repton, a reputable public school for boys in the Midlands. Here the administration was even more heartless than that at St. Peter’s, but the boy managed to foster some strong friendships to lighten the dark atmosphere. One of these was Michael Arnold, an anti-American budding intellectual whom Jeremy Treglown describes as an “individualist, attention-seeking, conservative, and anarchic” young man whose particular form of rebellion caught Dahl’s attention (29-30). It was this same friend who provided Dahl with a detailed account of the flogging method of the Repton headmaster (which Dahl himself never experienced). He would, between whacks with the cane, smoke his pipe and lecture his victim on sin, and afterward provide a sponge and basin of water to the recreant for mopping up his own blood (Dahl, Boy 144-146).
One of the most unusual and most pleasant diversions at Repton was the taste-testing sessions held there by the world-renowned Cadbury chocolate company. A representative of the corporation would provide the boys with boxes of new kinds of chocolate and ask them to rate the different varieties. This was the beginning of what Dahl described as a lifelong addiction to chocolate (West 5).
At the age of eighteen, Dahl put his chocolate days, and all of his childhood, behind him, and after graduation from Repton took a job with the Shell Oil company, which eventually led to a stint in the Royal Air Force. After writing a story for the Saturday Evening Post about being shot down in the desert during World War II, he began to write short stories for a living. After publishing several compilations, critics began to accuse him of plot repetition; in response to this, and also some interesting bedtimes stories he made up for his daughters, he began to write children’s literature (West 15). He later acknowledged the role of his own children in his creative process: “Had I not had children of my own, I would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so” (Howard 6).
In 1961 Dahl published his first story for children, James and the Giant Peach. It received instant praise, but did have a few detractors, one being Ethel L. Heins, a children’s librarian. In her review she touched upon an issue that was to pervade many of Dahl’s other stories: the treatment of adults. Heins saw the characterization of the aunts in James as “grotesque” (West 66). They are portrayed as being rather harsh:
I am sorry to say that they were both really horrible people. They were selfish and lazy and cruel, and right from the beginning they started beating poor James for almost no reason at all. (Dahl, James 2)
After considering his experiences with the merciless headmasters of the different schools he attended, Dahl’s mistrust of adults becomes evident in a close examination of his stories. In fact, a convention of a mistreated child escaping from oppressive adults to achieve happiness is obvious in most of his tales for children (West 61).
Another theme introduced in James which can be seen throughout the Dahl books, and that was also criticized, is that of the loner prevailing over the group. As a child, after the death of his father, Dahl was what Treglown describes as “both the center of attention and very lonely” due to his status as his mother’s only son (15-16). His tales are written with the mindset of an outsider, one who mistrusts authority and social processes (West 1-2); this is vaguely reminiscent not only of his fear of school administration, but also of the rebellion he and Michael Arnold shared at Repton.
Like James, critics also attacked Dahl’s 1964 release, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not as subversive, but as catering to the sadistic streak innate in all children.Eleanor Cameron, an American author for children, levied these claims particularly, accusing him of trying for laughs at the misfortune of Charlie’s companions in the chocolate factory (West 72). Dahl responded by asking his critics to understand that he could fully comprehend how cruel children could be (73). Treglown suggests that Dahl knew of this cruelty because in school he was the tormented as well as the tormentor; he would often harass his classmates because of their height, their names, their academic failures–the same things for which they teased him (27).
Charlie also has another similarity to James: the introduction of a theme that was to become prevalent in Dahl’s later books, that of a child’s essential relationship with a mentor or single parent. In Charlie it is Charlie’s relationship with his Grandpa Joe. They, like the other children and mentors in Dahl’s books, are openly affectionate and display a great rapport (West 78):
In the evenings, when Charlie, his beloved grandson, was in the room, he seemed in some marvelous way to grow quite young again. All his tiredness fell away from him, and he became so eager and excited as a young boy. (Dahl, Charlie 13)
The mentor in Dahl’s life as a child was his mother, to whom he was very close, and according to Treglown, of whom he wrote, “She was undoubtedly the absolute primary influence on my life . . . She was the matriarch, the materfamilias, and her children radiated round her like planets round a sun” (16).
Aside from the origin of the relationships in Charlie, the story had some other very obvious beginnings: Dahl’s Cadbury tastings at Repton. In Boy he describes his fantasies during these tastings: he imagines a long white laboratory with people standing around tables, monitoring pots full of boiling chocolate, and of him discovering the most perfect-tasting chocolate that will sell like mad (148-149).
Between 1966 and 1982, Dahl indulged himself in these childhood fantasies and continued exploring his established themes with books such as The Magic Finger, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Danny, the Champion of the World, and The BFG. With The Witches in 1983, Dahl drew upon his past in Norway for inspiration, something unprecedented in his stories. The legends about witches he heard from his mother and grandmother as a child were the primary source for the descriptions of the evil women in the story, and his own experiences in the Norway were the basis for the descriptions of the narrator (Treglown 18). The semi-autobiographical nature of the tale is fairly obvious in the beginning:
My father and my mother were . . . Norwegian, but because my father had a business in England, I had been born there and . . . had started going to an English school. Twice a year, at Christmas and in the summer, we went back to Norway to visit my grandmother. (Dahl, Witches 12)
Besides the autobiographical elements, this story holds three of Dahl’s stock themes. The relationship between the narrator and his grandmother satisfies the child/mentor requirement; the boy prevailing over the witches by himself fulfills the other two.
Matilda, which came out in 1988 and was the last book Dahl wrote, also adhered closely to these themes. It does not drastically differ from The Witches, in fact, although Dahl chooses to manifest himself in a larger role, the role of Matilda, the repressed intellectual. She shares his love of practical jokes early in life (Dahl, Boy 127-132), and has a horrible headmaster who abuses her charges. The Trunchbull is said to represent the matron of Dahl’s dormitory at St. Peter’s, a cruel and insensitive woman who often punished the boys unusually and unmercifully (Dahl, Boy 85-92):
She was above all a most formidable female . . . Looking at her, you got the feeling that this was someone who could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half . . . She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes . . . She looked, in short, like a rather eccentric and bloodthirsty follower of the stag-hounds than the headmistress of a nice school for children. (Dahl, Matilda, 82-83)
Dahl leaves little doubt in telling his readers that description of the Trunchbull perfectly described the characteristics of the matron.
On November 23, 1990, two years after the publication of his last book, Roald Dahl died at his home in Oxford. He left behind him a legacy of children’s literature which has influenced the reading habits of two generations of kids, and will continue to affect generations to come. In a biography by Kristine Howard, she quotes him as saying of children, “They love being spooked . . . They love chocolate and toys and money . . . They love being made to giggle” (7). By sharing with us his own childhood through his stories, we can develop not only a better understanding of how his upbringing affected him, but also a deeper comprehension of how his work affects us, as children and adults.
Dahl, Roald. Boy: Tales of Childhood. New York: Farrar, 1984.
—. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. New York: Penguin, 1964
—. James and the Giant Peach. New York: Penguin, 1961.
— . Matilda. New York: Penguin, 1988.
—. The Witches. New York: Penguin, 1983.
Honan, William H. The New York Times on the Web. “Roald Dahl, Writer, 74, Is Dead; Bestsellers Enchanted Children.” 17 Nov 98.