This obituary was written by William H. Honan and was printed in the November 24, 1990 edition of The New York Times.
Roald Dahl, the best-selling British writer of macabre children’s stories as well as books for adults and films, died Friday at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England. He was 74 years old and lived in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, between Oxford and London.
He had been admitted to the hospital on Nov. 12 with an undisclosed infection, said his agent, Murray Pollinger.
Mr. Dahl wrote 19 children’s books, nine collections of short stories, and numerous screenplays and television scripts. He adapted one of his best-known children’s stories, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” for the screen under the title “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Adults as the Enemy
The key to his success, he frequently said, was to conspire with children against adults.
“It’s the path to their affections,” he said in an interview earlier this year with the London newspaper The Independent. “It may be simplistic, but it is the way. Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.”
Roald Dahl was born in 1916 in Llandaff, South Wales, to Norwegian parents. He was educated at Repton, a private school in Derbyshire, England, and joined the Royal Air Force when World War II broke out. After training as a fighter pilot, he fought in Libya, Greece and Syria.
When he crash-landed his biplane in the Libyan desert, he suffered a fractured skull, spinal injuries and a smashed hip. His injuries required a hip replacement and two spinal operations, the last in 1947.
In the sort of macabre gesture that would later characterize his writing, he preserved the end of a femur that surgeons had removed and used it as a paperweight in his writing studio.
Stories for His Own Children
It was the writer C. S. Forester, Mr. Dahl once explained to an interviewer, who started him on a literary career. Forester suggested that he write about being shot down in the desert. “Within 10 days,” Mr. Dahl said, “I got a check for $1,000 from The Saturday Evening Post.”
In 1953, Mr. Dahl married the actress Patricia Neal. Ms. Neal, who won an Academy Award in 1963, suffered a series of brain hemorrhages in 1965, and later credited Mr. Dahl with helping her through her slow, much-publicized recovery. He began writing stories for their children in 1960. The couple were divorced in 1983, and Mr. Dahl remarried.
Many of his books became international best sellers, and Mr. Dahl, a tall, angular figure who often sported a wry grin, became inundated with letters from children from around the world.
Apart from children’s books, his preoccupation with greed, revenge and the dark side of human nature found expression in adult books like “Someone Like You,” “Kiss Kiss” and “Switch Bitch.”
Besides “Willy Wonka,” his screenplays included “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and a James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.”
Ideas From the Mundane
Mr. Dahl did not like to talk about the source of his inspiration. “My ideas occur basically at my desk,” he used to say. Or he would talk about superficial promptings like meeting the writer Ian Fleming at a dinner party, joking about the toughness of the lamb served. Later he wrote the story “Lamb to the Slaughter,” about a woman who clubs her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasts the lamb and serves it to the detectives who have come to search for the murder weapon. The story later was made into a television play by Alfred Hitchcock.
Mr. Dahl’s reticence led some critics and interviewers to speculate that his fascination with the macabre derived from his war injuries. The English critic Michael Billington guessed that the writer’s preoccupation with revenge and sadomasochistic relationships arose from the lashing and other forms of sanctioned brutality Mr. Dahl experienced while a pupil at an English private school. Mr. Dahl described such treatment in clinical detail in his story “Lucky Break.”
Livestock in the Afternoon
Settled into a writing career, he lived on a farm where he raised livestock and bred greyhounds. His routine was to write from 10 A.M. until noon, spend the afternoon tending his animals and return to his writing again from 4 to 6 P.M.
His writing was far from effortless. He commonly spent six months working on a single short story.
In 1982, when the British Parliament was in an uproar over the fact that a prowler had sneaked into Buckingham Palace and sat on Queen Elizabeth’s bed for 10 minutes before being discovered, one of Mr. Dahl’s books was suspected of being the inspiration.
He had recently sent his publishers “The B.F.G.,” a children’s book about a Big Friendly Giant who kidnaps a girl from an orphanage and deposits her in the Queen’s bedroom “with the Queen herself asleep in there behind the curtain not more than five yards away.”
But Mr. Dahl was soon absolved of responsibility when it was determined that his book had been circulated only within the publishing industry. The perpetrator of the actual break-in could not have been prompted by the book, one editor said, “unless he’s a reader for the Book-of-the-Month Club.”
However unjustified, the suspicion was characteristic of some of the negative reaction to Mr. Dahl’s work. Not a few critics denounced his books as ugly, antisocial, brutish and antifeminist.
Mr. Dahl scoffed at them, remarking: “I never get any protests from children. All you get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like.”
He is survived by his second wife, Felicity Ann Crosland, and three children from his marriage to Miss Neal: a son, Theo, and two daughters, Tessa and Ophelia. A third daughter, Olivia, died in 1962.