Road Dahl died on November 23 1990 yet this giant of children’s literature has never been so present in our imaginations. He vies with JK Rowling and Enid Blyton for the title of world’s favourite children’s author, with one of his books estimated to be sold somewhere in the world every 10 seconds.
In the past number of years, meanwhile, four of his novels have received lavish Hollywood adaptations: James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and, just this year, The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg.
He hated, it is true, 1971’s Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. But who could question that the movie has entered the pantheon of great kids’ films? (largely due to Gene Wilder’s simultaneously mesmerising and menacing Wonka).
Now, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, a dedicated Dahl festival is to be held in Cardiff. Road Dahl’s City of the Unexpected will honour the writer’s life and career with reading and live stagings of his work, with contributions from the National Theatre of Wales and the Dahl estate.
He lives on in other ways also. Before Dahl, children’s novels were prim and moralistic: they told kids how they should feel rather than appealing to their love of the absurd and affinity for the underdog (being themselves small, helpless people in a big and scary world). Dahl changed that, his writing spiked with irreverence and sprigs of nastiness.
“Dahl’s books had teeth, but they also had heart,” says children’s writer and illustrator Oisín McGann. “He showed you how the world could be nasty and weird, but made you feel like you’d have a good time exploring it too, if you dared. And, of course, they were funny. Humour is pure gold when it comes to children’s books, and despite all the misery lit that draws attention from critics and wins literary awards, humour is the hardest thing to write.”
This barbed wit would have an enduring influence: peruse the children’s section in any bookstore and you will find books about magic underpants, unpleasant grown-ups and orphans made to suffer awful fates. Is there a more quintessentially Dahl-esque character than Harry Potter, a pasty-faced young boy packed off to live with his horrid relatives? Dahl’s fingerprints are so ubiquitous we don’t even recognise them when they are right in front of us.
“He got away with stuff that other writers couldn’t at the time, partly due to his success, partly because of how engaging his writing was, but early on he just had the sheer nerve to do it,” says McGann. “I also think he just didn’t give a hoot about normal conventions. There’s a scene in Fantastic Mr Fox where three characters, one of them a child, rave about the wonders of cider – this goes on for a full page. You’d probably struggle to get that past a children’s book editor even now.
Dahl was himself a hodgepodge of contradictions. He was, by every account, hard work – witty and generous, yes, but also prejudiced, philandering and capable of immense cruelty. Sometimes his behaviour verged on deranged – consider the alleged anti-semitism that led his Jewish editor Robert Gottlieb, to “fire” Dahl, alleging bullying behaviour towards him and his staff.
“There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” Dahl told the Spectator magazine in an infamous 1983 interview. “ I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” (He later denounced Salman Rushdie, then receiving death threats over The Satanic Verses, as a “dangerous opportunist”).
That Dahl would have a sour view on life is perhaps unsurprising. Tragedy was a constant, beginning with the death from appendicitis of his older sister Astri when she was aged seven (and he three) and, just weeks later, of his 57-year-old father. In a horrific case of history repeating, his own daughter, Olivia, was claimed by measles also at seven while, at four months, his son sustained permanent brain damage when his buggy was struck by a taxi.
As a writer of adult fiction, Dahl’s misanthropy was front and centre. His early novels and short-stories were sadistic, unpleasant and sexually degenerate (one of his most notorious stories, the Playboy-published Bitch from 1974 concluded with the character transformed into a seven -foot phallus).
These noxious pieces arrived at a steady clip through the sixties and seventies. However, by the the time he found his stride as a children’s novelist, his outlook had sweetened somewhat. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, etc., were sneery and sadistic in their way – but with a playfulness that took the edges off. Meanwhile, he was beginning what would prove a life-long creative partnership with illustrator Quentin Blake, whose manic pencil-strokes seemed to channel Dahl’s zany energy.
“It’s hard to think of Roald Dahl without also thinking of Quentin Blake, another demi-god of children’s literature, whose sketchy ink and wash drawings are the perfect match for Dahl’s texts,” says writer and illustrator Sheena Dempsey. “ A few perfectly placed lines here and there are just enough to suggest a character or a world without ever being forced or overdone. His drawings seem to casually spring from his nib, although this is of course just an illusion and his process is actually very intentional.”
Moreover, having had life kick sand in his face, Dahl knew how it felt to be the underdog – a sensibility that infuses his greatest works, such as Matilda, The Witches and The BFG — books he would publish in a late blaze of glory through the Eighties.
“Roald Dahl has been often copied but he’s never been equalled,” says Irish children’s author Judi Curtin. “Children still love him for his delightfully wicked villains and his empowered young protagonists. His books are wonderfully funny, encouraging irreverence and rule-breaking — anyone who’s spent ten minutes in the company of a nine-year-old will understand why that works!
“The reason Dahl’s work is so beloved to people is because he touches people at their heart - true relationships mixed with nonsensical fun and imagination,” agrees children’s book illustrator Tarsila Kruse.
“They’re both easy and complex reads, offering different levels of understanding and reaching the depths of feelings in children and adults.”
As to whether Dahl’s anarchic style would find an audience were it published today’s era of hyper political correctness... the consensus is that the sheer energy of his work would win through.
“Children’s publishing has definitely loosened up in a lot of ways, but it’s also become more cautious in others,” says McGann.
“Dahl would absolutely be published now, although his stories have influenced generations of writers since they first came out, me included, so I don’t think he’d stand out as much as he did back then. His stories are still sharp and fresh and, for the most part, don’t feel dated at all, and he’s got one of the most successful brands ever to come out of publishing, so I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere for a long time.”