September 13th is Roald Dahl Day, and in fact the 2016 version marks 100 years since the author was born. So let’s take a look at the man and his work, and what it all means.
A common thread winding through much of his work is the portrayal of adults, especially teachers, as the enemies of children. In fact, Dahl himself pegged this as a key source of his literary success, since it allowed him to connect with his young readers and make them feel understood. But there’s a bit more to his work — a certain dark edge mixed in with the fantastical storytelling.
In Dahl’s classic novel Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the eponymous head of a candy company brings in some lucky kids to sample his factory’s sweet, sweet wares. However beyond providing candy, Willy Wonka is also there to mete out punishment for misbehaving youngsters. Severe punishment. While the Oompah-Loompahs serve as obedient drones operating the often very dark machinery of Willy Wonka’s world. Some people, when they look at that novel, see a symbol of corporate greed gone wild. Others see a serial killer. But no matter what you see, it’s hard to deny the tale’s innate harshness — a harshness that winds its way through much of Dahl’s work. Where does this darkness come from? What gave Roald Dahl his edge? The answer is quite simple: Trauma.
In his essay Lucky Break, Dahl begins by offering helpful pointers on how to become a writer. He also tells his own story of being discovered (on writing his first article, the respected author C. S. Forester asked him, “did you know you were a writer?”). But the essay also describes the nightmarish suffering he experienced in his life. As a child in the 1920s, he was sent to a British boarding school, and there he lived under a true reign of terror that will be familiar to anyone with knowledge of old British schooling practices. The kids were beaten, and beaten severely, for the slightest infraction. In Lucky Break, Dahl, in excruciating detail, describes this abuse — and it was abuse, let’s not tiptoe around it. Later, during the Second World War, Dahl served in the Royal Air Force, (RAF) and while there barely survived a plane crash in North Africa. His horrific injuries, which included many broken bones (including his pelvis), caused him to be sent home, and served as the subject of his first published piece, as described above.
This suffering is what infuses the work of Roald Dahl. He had an extraordinary imagination, and a gift for original stories, but as a human being he had suffered a great deal. While some may see frightening overtones of evil and cruelty in Dahl’s work, however, it might be more fair to say that a part of Dahl was that frightened, wounded child, calling out to readers with a very simple message: be kind to children. It’s a message that calls out to parents, teachers, tutors — everybody.
That, perhaps, is his finest legacy.