12 Things You Never Knew About Roald Dahl

Illustration from The B.F.G. by Roald Dahl.

13 September is Roald Dahl Day, an annual event commemorating one of the best-loved children’s authors of all time. Books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and Matilda are part of most people’s childhoods, and remain hugely popular today.

Dahl led a remarkable life, not only writing many famous novels and short stories, but also serving as a WWII flying ace, a diplomat, an inventor, and screenwriting a James Bond film. Here, we pick out 12 fascinating facts about his life.

  1. His books have sold at least 250 million copies. This puts him on par with JRR Tolkien. He still has some catching up to do on other children’s authors, though. Both Dr Seuss and JK Rowling have sold an estimated 500 million books to date, while End Blyton tops the list with 600 million. 
  1. It’s commonly known (or assumed from his name) that Dahl’s family has Scandinavian origins -- his parents came from Norway, and he could speak the language fluently. Less well known is that he was born and raised in Wales. Dahl spent his formative years in Cardiff before attending boarding school in Weston-super-Mare.
  1. Dahl’s mischievous spirit was present from a young age. At just eight, he placed a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers belonging to the nasty owner of the local sweetshop. He got caned for the prank, but “The Great Mouse Plot of 1924”, as he called it, clearly foreshadowed some of the high jinx found in his children’s novels. A plaque now marks the site of the incident.
  1. His teenage years were spent at Repton School, Derbyshire. These were unhappy times, when the young Dahl suffered regular humiliation and punishment. Other Old Reptonians include Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Clarkson -- before and after Dahl’s time. 
  1. Dahl was something of a BFG, standing 2 metres (6 foot 6) tall.
  1. The author had a distinguished military career during the Second World War, recounted at length in his autobiographies. In 1940, he was almost killed when the aircraft he was piloting made an emergency landing in the Egyptian desert. He fractured his skull and was temporarily blinded. It took him five months to recover.
  1. Later in the war, Dahl served as a diplomat in the USA. Here he befriended CS Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower novels and The African Queen. It was Forester who encouraged Dahl to start writing, after he read the young man’s account of his plane crash. Dahl also knew Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond novels.
  1. Dahl would himself go on to dabble in 007. He wrote the screenplay for the 1967 Sean Connery film You Only Live Twice. He also converted Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the big screen.
Black and white photograph of Roald Dahl signing books for children.
Image © Rob Bogaerts, creative commons licence

  1. He despised the 1971 film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (renamed Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory), after the emphasis was placed more on Wonka than the boy. 
  1. Who would you want to play you in a film version of your life? Roald Dahl had Dirk Bogarde, in the 1981 film The Patricia Neal Story. This biopic about Dahl’s wife’s recovery from a debilitating aneurysm also starred Glenda Jackson in the lead role.  
  1. Dahl died in 1990 and is buried near his home in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. He was buried -- Viking style -- with some of his most treasured possessions, including snooker cues, burgundy wine and a power saw. That’ll puzzle archaeologists a few millennia from now.
  1. In 2016, Dahl received a Blue Peter Gold badge, the first one ever awarded after a person’s death.

See also: Our rankings of the 10 best Roald Dahl novels, 19 Roald Dahl costume ideas and Roald Dahl-inspired craft ideas.



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