Willy Wonka’s protégé Charlie Bucket turns 50 this year. Roald Dahl would not have approved. He considered growing up a repugnant business and adults “dangerous creatures”. Never mind that Dahl wrote some of his best work in later life—he saw himself as a champion of children in a world that didn’t much care for them.
He didn’t much care for the adult world, which he paints as a nasty, brutish place. It was a judgment born of experience. Fighter pilot, spy, Hollywood screenwriter: Dahl cut a glamorous figure but he was burdened by sorrow. His father died when he was three, his first child when she was seven. His wife only just survived a series of strokes. Dahl sought refuge in the hut at the end of his Buckinghamshire garden, where, ensconced in his mother’s old armchair with a yellow legal pad and a sharp pencil, he wrote stories that shucked off the primness of children’s literature and revelled in the messy mischief of actual childhood.
KEY DECISIONS (1) Embracing the grisly. His adult publishers called Dahl the “Master of the Macabre” and his stories for grown-ups were celebrated for their economy of bile. But he didn’t whitewash the world for children. His villains are no-holds-barred scary: the formidably butch Miss Trunchbull and her hammer throw, the hideous Grand High Witch arousing her sisters’ kiddy bloodlust. (2) Pairing up with Quentin Blake. Dahl tended to think in black and white; Blake rendered his stories in colour. His madcap drawings captured the eccentricity of Dahl’s vision so well, he ended up illustrating all but one of his books.
STRONG POINTS (1) A crude sense of humour. Willy Wonka was a gas. (To get back down after one of his Fizzy Lifting Drinks, summon a “great big long rude burp”.) So was the BFG, who gleefully performs another sort of eructation—a whizpopper—for the Queen. (2) A fascination with the human form, especially if grotesque. For Dahl, corporeal extremes were telltale signs. Aunt Sponge is tubby and gross, Aunt Spike skinny and mean; both inspire young James’s righteous hatred.
GOLDEN RULE Don’t be dull. Dahl always thought invention was more interesting than reality but he was also racked by the “unholy terror”, as he put it, of boring his readers. So he dreamt up giant flying peaches and child-slurping giants, giggling Oompa-Loompas and witches with scalloped nostrils. (A sucker for tall tales, Dahl didn’t limit his flights of fancy to fiction. Several anecdotes in his memoirs “Boy” and “Going Solo” stretch the truth to breaking point.)
FAVOURITE TRICK Sentences that spring from the mouth. “‘Oh, you horrid greedy grumptious brute!’ cried Humpy-Rumpy. ‘I hope you get caught and cooked and turned into crocodile soup.’” Trochees and alliteration, crunchy consonants and rollicking rhymes: Dahl wrote his yarns to be read aloud at bedtime. (Good luck getting to sleep.)
ROLE MODELS His mother. Sofie Magdalene was the materfamilias and a first-rate fabulist, delighting her children with fairy tales she made up or adapted from traditional Norwegian folklorists. The cool grandmother in “The Witches” is almost certainly based on her.
TYPICAL SENTENCE “I hate the pompous, And I hate all pomp. But I love the romptious, And I love a romp.” This epigraph, from a draft of Dahl’s salacious novel “My Uncle Oswald”, could have been his motto.