by Jennifer Ciotta
A world renowned best-selling children’s author of books such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, BFG and Matilda, Roald Dahl dominated the children’s literary field in his day. Think of Dahl as a modern-day J.K. Rowling, yet he was heavily influenced by his Norwegian upbringing. His mother frequently told Dahl and his siblings stories of Nordic folklore, especially of tiny trolls and mythical creatures which could be found in a lush, Norwegian forest.
Born in Wales and schooled in England, Dahl suffered two significant tragedies as a child which consequently shaped his life and his writing. Firstly, his older sister, Astri, died from appendicitis when Dahl was merely three years-old. Completely distraught by his daughter’s death, Dahl’s father died of a broken heart and pneumonia yet a month later. It was at this point that young Roald became alone in his childhood, citing that he felt as though he did not possess any brothers and sisters (even though he had six), which is quite distinctive throughout his writing, since child protagonists do not have a brother or sister who is an important character in the story. For instance, in Matilda, the brother, Michael, simply sits in the room while dialogue takes places between Matilda and her parents–in fact, Matilda does not speak to Michael at all or vice-versa.
Therefore, it was Dahl’s gift of imagination which allowed him to find solace and friendship. During his days at English boarding school, he dreamed of inventing a new chocolate bar for Mr. Cadbury, who sent bars to the school. This is perhaps the earliest inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
His imagination also led to his devilish side; for instance, as a young boy, Dahl was caned by a headmaster for putting a dead mouse into a mean shop owner’s jar of candy–a very similar feat to Matilda’s friend Lavender plopping a newt into the awful headmistress’ jug of water. Thus, Dahl acquired an acute sense of right and wrong. By using his talented imagination, throughout his children’s books, the child wins, usually in a battle with an authority figure, by using her/his intelligence, sense of humor and precociousness. Dahl’s cynical wit and dark humor allows his books to be comical and light, even though the subject matter may be quite harsh. His child protagonists find the “light in the darkness” through scheming and assertive action.
However, not everyone approved of Dahl’s talent for black comedy, since his books were banned in some schools in the United States for teaching children lessons on how to be “naughty.” Parents defended their stance by saying that every time their child read a Dahl book; s/he would instantly resort to “bad behavior.”
Through their tricks and triumphs, these child characters would have some type of innate “magic” in them. The “magic” eventually radiated outward to the disturbing situation in which they were imprisoned. For example, Matilda uses telekinetic powers in order to stop a dictator’s rule, while Charlie has a pure heart of gold, rarely seen in children. This quality of “magic” extends to other characters as well, such as the creepy crawlers who James befriends inside the peach, the troll-like Oompa Loompas, or the Big Friendly Giant who does not eat children. Derived from his Scandinavian roots, Dahl uses these folklore elements in his stories to fight against evil and ensure that goodness prevails.
I had the incredible opportunity of visiting Norway, while living in Estonia. It was easy to see why Dahl was so strongly influenced by his summer trips to the Norwegian fjords to visit his grandparents.
A fjord is defined as “a long, narrow arm of the sea bordered by steep cliffs.” These natural phenomena are not commonplace in the United States, however, they are Norway’s masterpieces.
As I started out on my way from Oslo to Bergen, I was specifically told by my Norwegian friend to stay awake for my eight hour train journey. Chugging uphill, the train rose above the fjords, providing views of the ice-blue waters and glowing green vegetation below. The train cut through the lavish forest of looming Christmas trees–it was like being in a fairytale. Dahl was inspired by these images as well, creating fairytale atmospheres for his settings, such as Miss Honey’s cottage, which to Matilda “seemed so unreal and remote and fantastic and so totally away from this earth. It was like an illustration in Grimm or Hans Andersen.”
As Dahl set off on a small boat with his family every summer and sailed in the fjords, I had the same experience by taking a half-day cruise. With majestic cliffs on both sides, riding through the fjords gave way to quaint fishing villages colored with tiny, red farmhouses nestled amongst the trees.
The chrystal water lay still. It was perfection of nature, but understated, which can be found in the Norwegian personality as well. Perhaps this is why Dahl preferred to show his children love through magic instead of overwhelming emotion. In one particular instance, Dahl’s daughter recounts her father telling her of fairies. One night when she was about to go to sleep, she peered out her bedroom window to find the grass sparkling with fairy dust. In actuality, Dahl put a special kind of fertilizer on the dewy grass to make it glisten, thus creating a “fairyland” for his daughter.
This was Dahl’s way: to speak through his actions and perhaps be a bit impish at times. Through his Norwegian upbringing, he brought life to magical stories of creatures, special children and mean adults, often portrayed as almost giants. In his good-hearted, yet darkly-comedic way, Roald Dahl has remained one of the world’s best-selling authors to this day, proving that a little wickedness never hurt anyone.