Many of Roald Dahl’s book covers today come stamped with an official-looking logo proclaiming him “The World’s No. 1 Storyteller.” The declaration is, like Dahl’s fiction itself, simultaneously thrilling and absurd and puzzling and oddly disturbing. How, one has to wonder, was the ranking determined? Was there some kind of single-elimination global storytelling showdown, in which the creator of Willy Wonka, presumably as an eighth-seeded underdog, managed to out-yarn a bracket of, say, Jack London, Salman Rushdie, Isak Dinesen, Victor Hugo, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and—in what must have been a squeaker of a final—the mighty Dickens? And even if we do accept that result, isn’t the title somehow slightly patronizing? After all, we don’t celebrate Faulkner or Conrad or Shakespeare primarily as “storytellers.” It would be like calling a master chef “The World’s No. 1 Pan-Fryer”—a great compliment, but also one that immediately raises questions about his ability to bake, braise, roast, grill, stew, poach, and flambé.
Dahl was, indeed, a great storyteller: Anyone who doubts that can pull aside a random child on the street and start reading her James and the Giant Peach or Fantastic Mr. Fox. If an adult comes up to object, you can start reading him one of the short stories: maybe “Taste” (in which a dinner-party bet among wine connoisseurs spirals out of control) or “The Sound Machine” (in which a man can hear plants screaming). If a policeman intervenes, read him “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which a woman kills her husband with a frozen lamb chop, then cooks and feeds it to the detectives who come to investigate. You could probably go on like that forever.
Dahl’s own favorite of his yarns was The BFG, a children’s book in which the eponymous hero, the Big Friendly Giant, walks around city streets at night blowing dreams through a long tube into kids’ bedroom windows. The giant keeps thousands of dreams stored in neatly labeled glass jars in his cave—with the good ones (what he calls “phizzwizards”) carefully segregated from the bad (“trogglehumpers”). “I IS ONLY AN EIGHT YEAR OLD LITTLE BOY,” runs one of the good dreams, “BUT I IS GROWING A SPLENDID BUSHY BEARD AND ALL THE OTHER BOYS IS JALOUS.” (The BFG is a self-taught writer: He learned to read from a borrowed copy of Nicholas Nickleby, whose author he identifies as “Dahl’s Chickens.”) One of the giant’s best dreams reads like a mission statement for Dahl’s career:
I HAS RITTEN A BOOK AND IT IS SO EXCITING NOBODY CAN PUT IT DOWN. AS SOON AS YOU HAS RED THE FIRST LINE YOU IS SO HOOKED ON IT YOU CANNOT STOP UNTIL THE LAST PAGE. IN ALL THE CITIES PEEPLE IS WALKING IN THE STREETS BUMPING INTO EACH OTHER BECAUSE THEIR FACES IS BURIED IN MY BOOK AND DENTISTS IS READING IT AND TRYING TO FILL TEETHS AT THE SAME TIME BUT NOBODY MINDS BECAUSE THEY IS ALL READING IT TOO IN THE DENTIST’S CHAIR.
The dream goes on like this: Drivers crash, pilots fly off course, and brain surgeons get distracted during surgery. It’s a paean to the primal magic of storytelling, but also an admission that that same magic—when it’s really strong—can start to feel sinister, like semi-benevolent mind control. Dahl inhabited this paradox more insistently than anyone. He wanted to seduce the entire world with narrative, regardless of the cost—to himself, to his family, to his publishers, to his reputation among children’s librarians (they hated him), and even to his own literary art.
It’s been twenty years since Roald Dahl died, and in honor of that morbid anniversary (and maybe, just possibly, in an effort to boost book sales) September has been named “Roald Dahl Month”—a holiday publishers are celebrating by issuing, among other books, the first-ever authorized Dahl biography, Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller. The book is, like Dahl, both lovable and annoying: The writing is often repetitious, the tone occasionally hagiographic, and it leaps around in chronology. But no matter. Dahl’s life story, it turns out, is less a normal human biography than a series of grisly and fabulous yarns that stretch back 30 or so generations. He was a direct descendant of the Scottish hero William Wallace, whose family got hunted out of Britain in 1305, after Wallace was hanged and beheaded. They ended up in Norway, where, centuries later, Dahl’s great-great-grandfather, a Norwegian pastor, escaped a church fire by stacking Bibles against a wall, climbing them, and throwing himself out a stained-glass window. Dahl’s father, as a child, had to have his arm amputated after a mishap with a drunk doctor. His uncle introduced himself to his aunt by rescuing her from a fire that killed 100 people.