What you may not have known about Roald Dahl

16 November 2021
The author of world-famous children’s books was a complex man.
Roald Dahl illutrations article the witches 2

Witches, giants, Oompa Loompas – these were all in a days work for the renowned author Roald Dahl. His books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and The Witches have transcended generations and mediums. These tales have left audiences and readers enchanted, time and time again.

Many of his books have received the movie treatment, as is with M-Net’s screening of The Witches, starring among others the brilliant Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer. 💥

But Dahl, while a prolific author, was also a person with a marred history which we look back on. 📜

He was born during World War 1 on 13 September 1916. His Norwegian parents, Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg, lived in Wales in the UK at the time. They chose the name because four years earlier, Roald Amundsen was the first Norwegian man to reach the South Pole, according to the author’s biography on his website.

He experienced the death of close family members at a young age, having lost both his sister and father when he was 3-years-old. His mother would later send him to boarding school, first to St Peter's, Weston-super and also Repton. “The first volume of his memoirs, Boy, recalls in great detail the headmaster’s penchant for floggings so vicious they drew blood,” writes Hephzibah Anderson on the BBC website.

When Dahl had reached adulthood, the world plunged into another war. At 23-years-old he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as World War 2 ravaged many parts of the world. After recovering from a serious crash, he turned spy for British intelligence, MI6, posted in Washington, USA.

Before writing children’s books, he dabbled in short stories for adults, described as “twisted tales with grisly punch lines” by Anderson on the BBC website. These works, of moderate success, were published in magazines like the New Yorker and Playboy.


Dahl married actor Patricia Neal yet theirs was not a happy match. In fact, according to Anderson, it was Neal who used to refer to her husband as ‘Roald the Rotten’ because of his “mean, dyspeptic streak”. They divorced after being together for 30 years and he then wed Felicity Crosland.

The 1960s saw him publish James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in 1970 he penned and published Fantastic Mr Fox, and the 1980s brought forth The Twits, Revolting Rhymes, The BFG, Matilda, and The Witches.

On 23 November 1990, Dahl passed away when he was 74-years-old. “He was buried in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Great Missenden –the Buckinghamshire village where today The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre continues his extraordinary mission to amaze, thrill and inspire generations of children and their parents,” notes the biography on his website. 

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Sources: Roald Dahl website, BBC