Roald Dahl created some of the most iconic, beautifully strange worlds in children’s literature — just think “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or “James and the Giant Peach.” In this exclusive Q+A, his granddaughter, filmmaker Chloe Dahl, shares how nature inspired Roald Dahl’s expansive imagination and why creativity is so important.
How did your grandfather fall in love with nature?
My grandfather had a love of nature from a very young age, perhaps even before he was born.
In his memoir “Boy,” he recalled how his own father, Harald, took his then-pregnant mother, Sofie, on “beautiful walks” through the Welsh countryside. He wrote, “his theory was that if the eye of a pregnant woman was constantly observing the beauty of nature, this beauty would somehow become transmitted to the mind of the unborn baby within her womb and that baby would grow up to be a lover of beautiful things.”
My grandfather’s love of the countryside was only enhanced during his childhood. This is depicted both in “Boy” and in “My Ear.” He was at-home when he was in nature, both literally and metaphorically. From his hometown in Wales to the idyllic summers he spent with his grandparents in Norway, magic surrounded him — but only because he knew where to find it.
In the fall, his thoughts would shift to conkers, a game that delighted him, played using the seeds of horse chestnut trees. At one point he wrote a letter to The Times of London bemoaning the fact that children were not playing conkers with same fervor as he and his friends once did.
Much of his adult life was spent in the sweeping Buckinghamshire countryside, where he would lead his own children, including my mother Lucy, on nighttime expeditions into the woods to observe nocturnal animals.
He also had a sharp eye and an expansive knowledge of birds, and enjoyed collecting birds’ eggs (this was before it was forbidden, of course). He never poached the lot, he treated each egg with a delicate touch and the utmost respect. He went so far as to use “a teaspoon so as not to leave the human finger smell behind on the other eggs.”
Did Roald Dahl follow environmental issues, like habitat loss, extinction, or global warming?
In certain ways, my grandfather was an innate environmentalist. Perhaps you could even say he was a little ahead of his time. You’d have to look no further than his lyrical descriptions of the African landscape in “Going Solo.”
He had a deep appreciation for nature, but lived during a time when society, as a whole, wasn’t nearly as concerned about environmental consequences and extinction as we are now. He died in 1990 before many of those issues became as socially, politically and conversationally relevant as they are now.
In his early story “The Gremlins,” humans are the bad guys, destroying tiny beings’ woodland homes — themes that reappear through to his last children’s book, “The Minpins.” What drove that lifelong message?
You’re right, there is a thematic thread that weaves so many of his stories together. These themes are most evidently seen through “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Danny, the Champion of the World.”
In “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” my grandfather sees the world through the eyes of a fox and his loyal gang of woodland creatures as they a battle against the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. In “Danny,” he allows us to see the villain, a puffed-up landowner named Victor Hazell, through the eyes of Danny and his dad in their fight for justice.
Those stories not only illustrate my grandfathers understanding of the countryside and his deep affection for it, but they also demonstrate how to resist those who destroy it through their own greed and thoughtlessness.
“The Gremlins” was written out of his experience as an RAF fighter-pilot in World War II. Whilst he found thrill in the adventures of flying, he was also intensely aware of the destruction being unleashed by humans, and consequently, himself.
“Billy and the Minpins,” his last book, has a more mellow tone. It is more focused on finding wonder and magic in nature — summed up so perfectly in the last lines of the tale: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
My grandfather saw nature and its natural places as a glorious landscape, within which children could (and should) have their own adventures. In “My Year,” again written late in his life, he bemoaned the thought that kids were moving away from the adventures that only nature can supply.
“Boys should want to climb trees” he said. “They should want to build tree-houses. They should want to pick apples.”
And frankly, girls should too!
As a one-time employee of Shell Oil, did Roald Dahl follow debates about fossil fuels?
Not as intently as he would have if he were alive today, as the issue has gained far more momentum than it had during his final years and before his death in 1990.
He joined up as a probationary member of staff with the Asiatic Petroleum Company, later to become part of Royal Dutch Shell. But from the get-go, he only dreamed of traveling abroad and, inspired by the stories of Rider Haggard and Isak Dinesen, especially to East Africa. So initially he was a trainee, then a salesman and then he got the Africa gig he so desired.
It’s important to note however, that, first and foremost, my grandfather was an explorer, an inventor and a creator and that his time with Shell Oil was a tool he used to travel the world and visit exotic places.
Roald Dahl was driven by creativity — why is creativity important?
Like it or not, creativity is the backbone for everything we do and every decision we make in life. My grandfather would always say, “to every problem there is a solution,” and 99.9% of the time this is true.
Creativity is the ability to think outside the box, to seek the unknown in the known, and to pull excitement from the monotonous. Creativity is (and should be) of fundamental importance to us all, young and old, rich and poor. It can be an outlet or a vehicle and it ultimately defined my grandfather’s life, work and being.
He was constantly finding creative solutions for the everyday problems, from inventing a medical shunt, to constructing a mushroom picker. So many of his books revolve around child heroes changing the world through their own creative powers. That’s why we created our first ever Roald Dahl’s maginormous Challenge — we are hoping to tap into (and celebrate) the very powerful creativity we know to be innate in every young person.
Is nature emerging from the ideas in the Imaginormous Challenge? What has amazed us is the incredible variety of hugely imaginative ideas we have seen so far. This year, for the first time since Charlie Bucket won the prize of a lifetime, we let kids across the U.S. know that Mr. Wonka was looking for five new lucky golden ticket winners!
All the children (aged 5 to 12) had to do was submit their most imaginative and creative story ideas in 100 words or fewer to www.imaginormouschallenge.com.
While winners get to see the new Broadway musical “Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and win a family trip for four to the U.K. sponsored by Norwegian Air, the challenge also grants the five Golden Ticket winners a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “wonka-fy” their story ideas in one of the following five ways:
Theatrical Creation: “Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on Broadway will turn one winning story idea into a theatrical creation.
A Hollywood Pitch: One winner and his or her family will fly out to Hollywood and pitch their story idea to a major Hollywood Executive at Warner Bros. Animation.
An Immersive Minecraft World: A team of Minecraft builders will transform and reimagine the winning story idea into a playable Minecraft experience.
Become an Author: The New York Times-bestselling, award-winning author Adam Gidwitz (A Tale Dark and Grimm, The Inquisitors Tale, The Empire Strikes Back: So You Want to be a Jedi?), will work with one story winner to turn their idea into their very own short story book.
A Candy Creation: Following in Willy Wonka’s footsteps and with the help of Dylan’s Candy Bar, one winner’s idea will be turned into a magical, edible creation — a 3D-printed piece of candy!
The challenge has produced some amazing ideas so far. We asked children to find inspiration in the things they see and the people they meet, along with anything and everything that interests and surrounds them. We have certainly seen the natural world featured a number of times, with many entrants being inspired by the seaside, the park and some of their other favorite outdoor environments.
We’ve also seen a number of entries inspired by animals. We’ve even seen children dreaming up new and fantastical ones, such as a bunnysaurus and a rainbow cow.
The entries we have received to date have left us in awe — you can see that there are no limits to what a child’s imagination can create.
Note: Roald Dahl’s Imaginormous Challenge only runs until May 31, 2017, so ideas must be submitted to the site by that date to be considered for the prizes. Learn more by watching this Imaginormous video.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.