Dahl gifted readers some of literature’s most abiding and wonderful characters, from the lovable dream-whispering, word-mangling giant, the BFG, to magical Matilda, chocolate-maker extraordinaire Willy Wonka and many more. Endlessly inventive and laugh-out- loud funny, Dahl’s stories reinvent the world for every new generation. They are rightly ranked among the greatest classics of children’s fiction, stories that celebrate kindness, bravery and hope. Oh and whizzpopping.
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Born to Norwegian parents in 1916, Dahl was brought up in Llandaff in Wales. Dahl’s own father (who Dahl remembered as a 7ft giant) died of pneumonia in 1920, leaving him and his sisters to be brought up by their mother Sofie. Dahl (known simply as ‘boy’ to his mother) wrote to Sofie throughout his life, testing out his writing talents in letters that are full of all the humour and natural storytelling talent he would come to show in his later novels. Dahl’s mother lovingly preserved every one of his letters, wrapped in bundles with green tape. The letters have been anthologised in the recently published collection Love from Boy.
Although he would later describe himself to the biographer Donald Sturrock as, "very English . . . very English indeed", Norwegian was Dahl’s first language and he and his sisters spent their summers with their mother in Norway. Here Dahl encountered Norwegian myths and legends and the echoes of those stories of trolls, giants and witches can be seen in his own fantastical creations.
Dahl was a famously mischievous boy –like many of the young characters in his books. Many of his childhood haunts and adventures made their way into his future writing, including his local sweetshop, run by the "mean and loathsome" Mrs Pratchett, where Dahl and his school-friends famously put a mouse in the gobstopper jar. This story and many like them appear in his memoirs, Boy and Going Solo.
From spy to storyteller
Dahl wasn’t a particularly keen scholar but he was a voracious reader and he particularly loved Dickens, Kipling and the adventure stories of Rider Haggard as well as English poetry and nonsense rhyme (in later life, appearing on BBC R4’s Desert Island Discs, Dahl chose to take an anthology of English verse as his book choice). Dahl’s love of creating new words and inventively descriptive names like the terrifying Miss Trunchbull, Bruce Bogtrotter or Augustus Gloop have their origins in Dickens’s own Wackford Squeers or Canon Crisparkle.
Dahl trained as an airline pilot in 1939 as war broke out, becoming a pilot officer and flying fighter aircraft. He was nearly killed in a crash in 1940 but survived and went on to serve as an intelligence officer for MI6 where he met Ian Flemming. It was his wartime years which inspired his first story ‘A Piece of Cake’ published in 1942, this was followed by a collection of stories, Over to You, published in 1946.
Over the next four decades Dahl went on to write prolifically for adults and children, including dark, macabre tales for adults, poetry, biography and writing for television - notably adapting the screenplay of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (adding in the memorably terrifying villain, The Child Catcher). He didn’t start writing for children until he was in his forties, when one of his own children’s bedtime stories became James and the Giant Peach, published in 1961.
Famously tall, reaching 6ft 6inches in adulthood, Dahl wrote his books in a shed at the bottom of his garden which he had to crouch to enter. He wrote in what he described as his “nest”, sitting in his mother’s old armchair, his feet on a battered old trunk with a supply of ready-sharpened pencils at his elbow.
Dahl was married twice and has five children, including the author Tessa and the screenwriter Lucy. His granddaughter Sophie (who inspired the character of Sophie in The BFG) described how he was a magical storyteller and an unsurprising choc-o-holic who was buried with all his favourite chocolate bars around him – “just to keep him going 'til he got to heaven.”