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Dahl, Roald

Entry updated 10 April 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(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; he also wrote as by Pegasus. Though his enormous success as an author of children's stories has 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, though the first of his collections, Over to You: 10 Stories of Flyers and Flying (coll 1946), contains only one title of interest, "They Shall Not Grow Old" (March 1945 Ladies Home Journal), which combines time dilation (see Relativity; Time Distortion) and Posthumous Fantasy in a celebration of the fate of pilots shot down in combat during World War Two, in which Dahl served. Deadpan, reader-friendly and slightly tricksy, this tale is predictive of later work, assembled in Someone Like You (coll 1953; cut 1954), 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.

These stories, composed over nearly half a century, sometimes make use of elements from the SF Megatext, like the horrific Brain in a Box featured in "William and Mary" and the unpleasant metamorphosis of human into bee in "Royal Jelly" (both first published in Kiss Kiss), both clearly too displeasing for magazine publication; 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 published book was a children's fantasy, The Gremlins (short story format December 1942 Cosmopolitan as by Pegasus; 1943 chap), a heavily illustrated tale about World War Two that became famous because Walt Disney (see the Walt Disney Company), for whom it was written, 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 [for Disney and Kelly here and Posthumous Fantasy below see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], creator of the arguably gremlin-like Pogo, was also involved both in the abortive film and in illustrating the book itself. The book rendering of gremlins is in his style.

Dahl's only sf novel, Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen (1948), by some margin his worst book, recasts elements from The Gremlins 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 unshockable 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 Sigmund Freud and George Bernard Shaw for purposes of artificial insemination – spermpunk, in short.

If the adult work was, in the end, lacking in joy, the stories for children were, in the end, generously wicked gifts of fable, though stains of his scapegoating prejudices – some of them vile – seep into realms better meant for escape. In 1983 Dahl received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [JC/DRL]

see also: Humour; Satire.

Roald Dahl

born Llandaff, Wales: 13 September 1916

died Oxford, Oxfordshire: 23 November 1990


for adults (selected)


Tales of the Unexpected

individual titles


for children



individual titles (selected)

works as editor

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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