(1916-1990) Welsh-born author of Norwegian parents who spent periods of his life in the USA, but lived in the UK in his later years; married to the actress Patricia Neal 1953-1983. Though his enormous success as an author of children's stories tended to dominate perceptions of his career, he was in fact long best known for his eerie, exquisitely crafted, somewhat poisonous adult tales, many of them fantasies, assembled in Someone Like You (coll 1953; exp 1961), Kiss Kiss (coll 1960), Switch Bitch (coll 1974), with further stories (most of minor interest) variously assembled; relevant titles include Tales of the Unexpected (coll 1979) and More Roald Dahl Tales of the Unexpected (coll 1980; vt More Tales of the Unexpected 1980; vt Further Tales of the Unexpected 1981), both assembled as Roald Dahl's Completely Unexpected Tales (omni 1986); Two Fables (coll 1986 chap); Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (coll 1989); and The Collected Short Stories (coll 1991), which includes some new work. Not infrequently these stories make use of borderline sf images, such as the unpleasant metamorphosis of human into bee in "Royal Jelly" (first published in Kiss Kiss); but more generally it is the threat of sf or supernatural displacement that powers them. The same can be said of the Television series Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988), which sprang from these tales and in many ways defined Dahl's reputation as a writer for adults. Dahl was a master of dis-ease; he was not a speculative writer. An earlier television presentation of a number of his stories, hosted by Dahl himself, was the less successful and soon cancelled 'Way Out (1961).
Dahl's first title was a children's fantasy, The Gremlins (1943 chap), a short story about World War Two that became famous because Walt Disney dickered for a time with making an animated film of it (there is no connection with the much later Joe Dante film Gremlins); as he drew a set of captionless two-page tales featuring the gremlins in 1943-1944 for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, it is likely that Walt Kelly [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], creator of the arguably gremlin-like Pogo, was also involved in the abortive film and in illustrating the book itself. Dahl's only sf novel, Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen (1948), by some margin his worst book, recasts the tale for an adult audience. After attempting to sabotage humanity during World War Two, the long-submerged gremlins see that we ourselves are doing the job quite adequately; they take back control of the planet after World War Three, which is quickly followed by World War Four; but then, as their existence depends on the humans who have imagined them, become extinct in a world bare of their imaginers (see End of the World), leaving any future Evolution to non-mammalian species.
The strained and sour whimsy of this "fable" might be seen – according to Dahl's critics – as passing directly into his juvenile fantasies, though it would probably be fairer to acknowledge a world of difference between adult spitefulness and the exuberant child's-eye view of grown-ups and the meting of justice unto them presented in James and the Giant Peach (1961) and all its successors, the most famous being Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), filmed as Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and remade as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005); it was assembled with its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972), as The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr Willy Wonka (omni 1987). James and the Giant Peach features friendly giant insects and a giant spider (see Great and Small) inhabiting the titular fruit, which travels on a Fantastic Voyage; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is full of bizarre confectionery-related Machines and Inventions; Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator introduces inimical Aliens; a humanoid "Big Friendly Giant" is central to The BFG (1982), filmed as The BFG (2016) directed by Steven Spielberg; and the sympathetic eponym of Matilda (1988) discovers she can use Telekinesis to discomfit a monstrous, bullying adult.
Dahl also co-scripted the 1968 film adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car (1964) by Ian Fleming and wrote the screenplay for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), the latter bearing little resemblance to Fleming's novel of the same title. One late novel for adults followed, the raunchy, quasi-historical, borderline-Steampunk My Uncle Oswald (1979), which inter alia plays with the notion of "tapping" geniuses such as Freud and Shaw for purposes of artificial insemination – spermpunk, in short.
But if the adult work was, in the end, miserly; the stories for children were, in the end, generously wicked gifts of fable. In 1983 Dahl received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [JC/DRL]
see also: Humour; Satire.
born Llandaff, Wales: 13 September 1916
died Oxford, Oxfordshire: 23 November 1990
for adults (selected)
Tales of the Unexpected
- Over to You (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1946) [coll: hb/Roger Furse]
- Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1948) [hb/uncredited]
- Someone Like You (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1953) [coll: hb/Charles E Skaggs]
- Kiss Kiss (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1960) [coll: hb/Charles E Skaggs]
- Switch Bitch (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1974) [coll: hb/Charles Shields]
- My Uncle Oswald (London: Michael Joseph, 1979) [hb/]
- Two Fables (London: Viking International, 1986) [coll: chap: trade hb/Bet Ayer: limited edition/nonpictorial]
- Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (London: Michael Joseph, 1989) [coll: hb/]
- The Collected Short Stories (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991) [coll: hb/]
- Collected Stories (New York: Alfred A Knopf/Everyman, 2006) [coll: contents differ from The Collected Stories above: hb/]
individual titles (selected)
- The Gremlins (New York: Random House, 1943) [story: graph: Walt Disney: hb/Walt Kelly?]
- James and the Giant Peach (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1961) [hb/Lane Smith]
- The Magic Finger (London: Harper and Row, 1966) [chap: hb/William Pène du Bois]
- Fantastic Mr Fox (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1970) [hb/]
- Danny, the Champion of the World (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1972) [hb/Quentin Blake]
- The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1977) [coll: hb/Paul Bacon]
- The BFG (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982) [hb/Quentin Blake]
- The Witches (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983) [hb/Quentin Blake]
- Matilda (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988) [hb/Quentin Blake]
- Wonderful, Wicked and Whizzpopping: the Stories Characters, and Inventions of Roald Dahl (New York: Random House Puffin, 2017) with Stella Caldwell [coll: chap: hb/Quentin Blake]
works as editor
Previous versions of this entry