Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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2.2. Roald Dahl as a writer

The year of 1942 was the starting year of Roald Dahl’s career as a writer. The very first piece of writing were his own memories from the war written for F.C.Forester who wrote it up for The Saturday Evening Post. Dahl’s experience was published anonymously under the title “Shot down over Libya” (later on revised and retitled as “A Piece of Cake” and published in the collection of stories Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying). The picture book The Gremlins (1943) was the first Dahl’s book for children written for the Walt Disney studio to be made into a film. The aim was not completed but the book was successfully published. After that Roald Dahl abandoned the writings for children and began to produce macabre stories for adults. In his writings Dahl “took advice from Ernest Hemingway who claimed that ‘never use the colon or semicolon’ and ‘when it starts going well, quit’” (“Roald Dahl”). The story “Shot down over Libya” published in The Saturday Evening Post was followed by other 16 stories published in the same magazine and in The New Yorker, Harpers and The Atlantic Monthly as well. These stories of fiction were published in the collection Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (1946). Several more collections of Dahl’s stories were published. Among them there was Someone Like You (1953), Kiss, Kiss (published in 1959 in the USA and in 1960 in the UK) and Switch Bitch (1974). Some of his stories were televised under the title Tales of the Unexpected. The collection with the same title was published in 1991.

Dahl is the author of two novels for adult readers Sometime Never (1948) and My Uncle Oswald (1979). He did continue in short story writings for adult readers until the 1960s when he became father himself. His writings for children came into being as the bedtime stories which Dahl had made up for his daughters Olivia and Tessa. One of them was James and the Giant Peach published in the USA in 1961 and in the UK in 1967. The second book published in the USA in 1964 and later on, in 1967 in the UK was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The other books for children followed, including Danny the Champion of the World (1975), The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (1977), The BFG (1982), short for Big Friendly Giant, The Twits (1980), The Witches (1983), Matilda (1988), Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) which is the first autobiographical book of Roald Dahl and Going Solo (1986), the continuation of the autobiography.

Almost all of Dahl’s stories for children were turned into a film. There were two films based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. First of them, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, appeared in 1971. Then the film Charlie and the Chocolate factory directed by Tim Burton in 2005, featuring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, followed. Another film based on Dahl’s story was Danny the Champion of the World (1989) starring Jeremy Irons and his son Samuel Irons in the title roles. The BFG was remade into an animated film in 1989. The story of The Witches was turned into a film in 1990 and Matilda in 1996 directed by Danny DeVito.

3. Influential Events

3.1. School Years

From the several external factors which made Roald Dahl write the stories “generally macabre in the nature” (qtd. in Royer) his own unhappy school years at Llandaff Cathedral School, St. Peter’s and Repton seem to be one of the most influential. It is obvious that those school years marked Dahl (and his writings as well) by its cruelty and sadism for the rest of his life and made him create the worst attitude towards authorities who tortured small boys for the violation of the school rules and discipline. The evidence of the personal suffering of young Dahl which was transferred to his writings is stated in the essay Boy Going Solo when claiming that “a key theme in Dahl's novels and short stories is the use of violence and cruelty by authority figures on the weak. This is a direct reflection of his experiences as a child attending boarding schools in England” (Liles).

Mainly caning of pupils at Llandaff Cathedral School, St. Peter’s and Repton, even if it was a regular practices at school of those times, is widely discussed issue in Dahl’s writings, predominantly included in his autobiographical account from his own childhood years published under the title Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984). As David Rees puts it “many pages of Boy are devoted to unpleasantly detailed accounts of adult man caning children – an obsessive theme in Dahl’s work” (144). The theme of caning “also figures in Lucky Break (an autobiographical piece in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More) and in Danny the Champion of the world” (Rees 144).

The very first caning mentioned in Boy is that one at Llandaff Cathedral School which was a cruel punishment for an adventure of five small nine-year-old boys which is described in the chapter titled “The Great Mouse Plot”. The proprietor of a sweet-shop Mrs Pratchett asked revenge for putting a dead mouse into one of her sweet glasses. The whole act of caning, which is done by the Headmaster of the school, is depicted in detail in the chapter titled “Mrs Prachett’s Revenge”. One of dreadful moments of that chapter is when Dahl himself claimed that “boys got the cane now and again, but we had never heard of anyone being made to watch” (54). In the process of caning of a first boy in a row Dahl stated that “the violence was bad enough, and being made to watch it was even worse” and “the watching and waiting were probably even greater torture than the event itself” (55-56). After that incident small Roald Dahl was taken away from that school by his mother who was irritated by caning practices.

The second school attended by young Roald was the boarding prep school St. Peter’s. Nine-year-old Roald had to “contend with the twitching Latin Master Captain Hardcastle, the all-powerful Matron – a dead ringer for Miss Trunchball who ‘disliked small boys very much indeed’ and the cane-wielding Headmaster” (“Roald Dahl”). To return to the theme of caning, nine-and-half-year-old Roald endured the second violent punishment of that kind at St. Peter’s. Dahl himself described his fear of caning in the chapter of Boy (one of those where years at St. Peter’s prep school are depicted) titled “Captain Hardcastle”:

I was frightened of that cane. There is no small boy in the world who

wouldn’t be. It wasn’t only instrument for beating you. It was a weapon for

wounding. It lacerated the skin. It caused severe black and scarlet bruising that

took three weeks to disappear, and all the time during those three weeks, you

could feel your heart beating along the wounds. (Dahl 130)

The small boy enduring a caning torture for trivial little things had to be confused, mainly when he had never been beaten at home by his own parents. As stated in the definition of morbidity, such external factors influence the psyche of an individual to a great extent. As written in the article of Book and Magazine Collector St. Peter’s was a “subject to all the usual injustices and cruelties of British public schools” (Nudd). Roald Dahl himself called years at St. Peter’s “the greatest torture in the world” (qtd. in Howard).

The third school which influenced further life and thinking of Roald Dahl was the Public school of Repton. When he was thirteen he had to deal with prefects - older students - always called Boazers, who “could thrash juniors for a hundred and one other piddling little misdemeanours” (Dahl 151). Other caning (this time young Roald was not the victim) is depicted again in detail in the chapter titled “The Headmaster”. The chapter is one of the most impressive in Boy. There are few of things described which made young Roald Dahl feel extremely puzzled. One of them is that the Headmaster, in full name Geoffrey Francis Fisher or Baron Fisher of Lambeth, was a clargyman responsible for the violent caning at Repton school. Pradoxically, thanks to his organisation skills during World War II, when he “organized multidenominational reconstruction committee, headed war-damaged committee” and “he also associated himself with the Sword of the Spirit movement, seeking cooperation between Roman Catholic Church and other churches” (“Geoffrey Francis Fisher”), he became archbishop of Canterbury in 1945. Moreover “Fisher conducted the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II” (“Geoffrey Francis Fisher”). In this chapter Dahl offered his own point of view concerning the Headmaster of Repton, who was “an ordinary clergyman at that time” (157):

I would…listen to him preaching about Lamb of God and about Mercy and

Forgivness and…my young mind would become totally confused. I knew very

well that only the night before this preacher had shown neither Forgivness nor

Mercy in flogging some small boy who had broken the rules… (Dahl 157)

There is again the feeling of confusion of the small boy who was in the middle of drastic torture at boarding school and could not do anything more than to conform himself and to obey the rules. Though the mind of a child is flexible and can easily deal with various situations it finds unexplained things difficult to cope with. Truly, beating at boarding schools was not explained enough because it could not be. First, the process of beating itself was considered to be the best way to pacify inventive minds of small boys. Second, the parents of beaten boys were not aware much of those practices at boarding schools. Thus, this kind of physical torture might be considered as one of the main factors influencing the development of the morbid thinking of an individual.

Adult Roald Dahl provides us again with his personal attitude towards beating at British schools as such:

By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon

school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through

my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were

allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I

couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it…It left another more physical

impression upon me as well. Even today, whenever I have to sit for any length of

time on a hard bench or chair, I begin to feel my heart beating along

the old lines that the cane made on my bottom some fifty-five years ago.

(Dahl 156)

All those memories rest in a mind of an individual and have a great impact on his further life. It is obvious that Dahl tries to do with these school has-beens in his writings, mainly in books for children in which he himself can return back to his own childhood and rewrite those unpleasant memories. The rewriting can facilitate the process of dealing with bad events and can serve as a kind of cleanup of one’s mind from unwanted experiences. As Nicholas Tucker stated: “The ability to write about childhood can itself act as a process of therapy and understanding where past experience is concerned” (156). As well as Tucker, an English writer of Korean origin Heinz Insu Fenkl claims that “serious storytelling not only has the potential to heal, it can and does heal” (1). Furthermore, Peter Hunt puts it in his article “What the Authors Tell Us” that “children’s writers display down-to-earth concern with the complex situation in which they find themselves” (Hunt 555). That is the reason why Dahl focuses on his past experiences in his stories. He found himself in a difficult situation which should be rewritten and changed to comfort feelings of injustice. Moreover, the theory of depiction of experiences in the writings for children is supported by the argument of C. S. Lewis who claims that “children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say” (qtd. in Hunt 558).

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