5 Things to Know About Author Roald Dahl

By: Kate Morgan  | 
Roald Dahl
Acclaimed children's author Roald Dahl, pictured here in 1971, was once a British intelligence officer. Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/GettyImages

There may be no 20th-century children's author as well-known as Roald Dahl. His beloved stories, including "James and the Giant Peach," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Matilda," "The Witches," and many others have sold hundreds of millions of copies worldwide and spawned numerous adaptations.

Though Dahl died more than 30 years ago, his work remains as popular as ever: a Roald Dahl book, according to the BBC, continues to sell every five seconds. But the author's been in the news recently for another reason. Earlier this year, the publisher Puffin announced that Dahl's books would be re-edited using sensitivity readers and rewritten to remove potentially offensive physical descriptions of characters. Newly minted editions will no longer contain words such as "ugly" and "fat," reported The Guardian. Other altered passages concern mental health, race and gender. While some critics decried these changes (Salman Rushdie called it "absurd censorship"), others pointed out that children's books have often been rewritten to reflect contemporary values and mores.


This isn't the first time Dahl's books — and the man himself — have courted controversy. Read on to learn more about Dahl's life and controversy.

1. Many of Dahl's Stories Were Autobiographical

Dahl had a rough upbringing. Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, he was just a toddler when he lost his older sister and his father within weeks of each other. A few years later, he was shipped off to a series of boarding schools where he was beaten and hazed. "It's not hard to see where Dahl might have drawn his own darkness from," wrote Hephzibah Anderson of the BBC.

He wrote about those experiences in an autobiography titled "Boy: Tales of Childhood," but they also inspired the macabre plots and characters in his novels, which often feature children rebelling against their violent adult oppressors.


2. He Didn't Always Plan To Be a Writer

Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway
RAF officer Dahl (left) and Ernest Hemingway (right) walk in London in 1944. Hemingway was working as a war correspondent at the time.
Bettmann/Getty Images

After finishing his schooling in 1934, Dahl sought a career that would allow him to see the world and joined the Shell Oil Company. He was sent to Tanganyika (part of modern-day Tanzania) in Africa. In 1939, with World War II ramping up, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF), began flight training in Kenya and was assigned to fly a biplane.

In 1940, Dahl was given an incorrect flight route that took him over no-man's land between the Allied and Italian fronts in northern Africa. He ran low on fuel and crashed while attempting an emergency landing in the desert. He was rescued and hospitalized with skull and facial fractures.


Though he eventually recovered and flew in several more air battles, he started to get headaches so bad they led to blackouts, and he was sent home to Britain.

3. He Was a British Spy

After returning to England, Dahl got to know Major Harold Balfour, the Under-Secretary of State for Air. Balfour made Dahl assistant air attaché, and he was sent to work at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.

After his time as a flying ace, Dahl reportedly found his work in the U.S. capitol unbearably dull. Perhaps that's why he so readily jumped into work as an intelligence officer. In other words, he worked as a spy.


For the duration of the war, Dahl communicated information to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill about rumors in Washington, D.C., and President Franklin Roosevelt. Dahl worked with the British Security Co-ordination, part of MI6. Was he any good? His charisma and charm made him a hit with politicians and heiresses (he had several affairs) which allowed him to gain access to information. But he was also a gossip himself, probably not a good trait in a spy.

At this time, he also started to write about his adventures in the RAF, which were published in leading magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. After publishing collections of stories for adults, he turned to writing for children. His first success was 1961's "James and the Giant Peach."


4. He's Always Been Rather Controversial

Arguably Dahl's most famous work, 1964's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" included some pretty problematic stuff about the origins of Oompa-Loompas. In that original edition, they were black "pygmies" from "the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle." Willy Wonka imports them to work in his chocolate factory, where they're paid not in money, but cocoa beans.

It's a depiction that conjures the African slave trade, although Dahl claimed there was no racial intent behind it. When word got out that the book was being turned into a film, the NAACP called the depiction of the Oompa-Loompas racist. In the 1971 movie adaptation, Dahl, who drafted the original screenplay, agreed to change the depiction of the Oompa-Loompas to having orange skin and green hair and coming from Loompaland. In 1973, he revised the book so future editions wouldn't have the same racist language.


That certainly wasn't the last time Dahl would court controversy. He was demonstrably antisemitic. In a 1983 interview with the New Statesman, he said, "There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. I mean, there's always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason." He also added, "I'm certainly anti-Israeli, and I've become antisemitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism. I think they should see both sides." In 2020, his family issued an apology for his antisemitic comments.

5. Tragedy Repeatedly Struck His Family

Roald Dahl, Patricia Neal famil
Dahl, his wife Patricia Neal and two of their children pose outside their farmhouse in 1964. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dahl married American actor Patricia Neal, best known for her roles in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The pair had five children. In 1960, when their third child and only son, Theo Matthew, was 4 months old, his baby carriage was hit by a New York City taxicab. The baby suffered brain damage and hydrocephalus.

Dahl worked with an engineer named Stanley Wade a neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, to invent a valve that improved the shunt that alleviated hydrocephalus. Although Theo ended up not needing the redesigned shunt, it helped 3,000 other children with a similar condition. The family's suffering didn't end there. In 1962, Dahl's oldest daughter, Olivia, died at age 7 of measles. The experience made Dahl a major supporter of immunization.


Just three years later, Neal was pregnant with the couple's fifth and final child, Lucy, when three cerebral aneurysms burst in her head, causing a major stroke that put her in a coma for several weeks.

Neal miraculously survived (as did the baby) and recovered enough to return to acting. "Dahl badgered his wife into getting well, pressing her to walk, holding things out of her reach until she managed to ask for them and arranging for hours of physical and speech therapy," wrote Aljean Harmetz of the New York Times. Neal divorced Dahl in 1983 after finding out he was having an affair with one of her best friends.

Dahl himself died in 1990 of a rare blood cancer. He is buried in Missenden, England, near his longtime home. To this day, families and children visiting his grave leave toys behind; a thank-you for his many stories.