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The Life of Roald Dahl

Here is a short piece about the life of British novelist, short story writer, poet and screenwriter, Roald Dahl, author of some of the most popular children’s stories of all time.

Here is a short piece about the life of British novelist, short story writer, poet and screenwriter, Roald Dahl, author of some of the most popular children’s stories of all time.

Anniversary of his Birth

This year is the 104th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, who has been called one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century. He was born in Llandaff, South Wales to Norwegian parents on 13 September 1916, but in 1920, first his older sister Astri, then his father Harald died, leaving his mother Sofie to raise Roald and his sisters alone. Rather than returning to her family in Norway, Sofie chose to remain in Wales. Her late husband had wanted their children to receive a British education, and this no doubt influenced her decision.

The Early Life of Roald Dahl

From the age of nine, Roald attended a series of boarding schools. While they did provide him with an excellent education, his schooldays were not happy ones, and he would later write about both the cruelty of older pupils and the strict discipline of the teachers. This certainly had an influence on his later writing.

A Life of Adventure

Upon leaving school he chose not to go to university, but instead set off on a life of adventure, first joining an expedition to Newfoundland, then joining the Shell Petroleum Company in Kenya and Tanzania. With the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force and was trained as a fighter pilot, serving in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Greece. In 1940 he suffered a crash in Libya which left him with near fatal injuries to his skull, spine and hip. Although he recovered and resumed flying, his injuries continued to cause him problems, and in 1942 he returned to the UK and was then transferred to Washington, D.C. as an assistant air attaché. It was there that he started his writing career with his first short story in the Saturday Evening Post called Shot Down Over Libya.

Early Writing

In the following years he continued to write often macabre stories for adults, and even wrote the screenplay for a James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. But it was with his children’s books, starting in 1961 with James and the Giant Peach, that he found real worldwide fame and success. This was the first in an incredible series of classic children’s stories which would continue right up until his death in 1990. Many of the stories are told from the point of the view of child characters who triumph over malevolent adults, and often feature dark themes that were very different from typical children’s stories of the time… and children loved them! Books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
The BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Matilda have become classics, translated into fifty eight languages and loved by children for over fifty years now.

An Incredible Life

Fighter ace, diplomat, intelligence officer, author and screenwriter – Roald Dahl had an incredible life, filled with adventure. But it’s for the even richer world of his imagination that he will be best remembered, and for the timeless characters he created who continue to give pleasure to millions of children and adults worldwide.

  • Have you read any of Roald Dahl’s stories? Or have you seen any of the films based on his work?
  • If you have, what did you like about them? Or what did you not like?
  • If you’ve neither read the books nor seen any of the films, would you like to after reading this article?
© British Council
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Exploring English: Language and Culture

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