Archive assistant Annie Price peeks into the archive to find out how Roald Dahl’s real life aviation adventures inspired some of his stories
There is no doubt that flying had a huge effect on Roald Dahl’s life in many ways. Firstly, he discovered a new passion, which in a letter sent to his mother during his flying training in 1939 he described as “marvellous fun”. Secondly, he sustained serious injuries during a crash landing in the Libyan Desert in 1940 that affected his health for the rest of his life. And thirdly, his experience of being a fighter pilot in the Second World War launched his writing career. One year after being discharged from the RAF due to severe headaches, Roald Dahl was posted to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. as an Assistant Air Attaché, where a chance encounter with the writer C.S. Forester led to the publication of his first short story, Shot Down Over Libya (also known as A Piece of Cake). After that the stories just kept on coming.
Interestingly, Roald Dahl considered his writing career and flying experiences to be even more closely linked. The crash landing in the Libyan Desert meant that Roald Dahl had to spend six months recuperating in hospital in Alexandria, a number of weeks of which he was bed-bound and blind. In an unpublished extract from the first draft manuscript of Going Solo, Roald Dahl explains that he whiled away the hours by “painting pictures in my mind” which “grew more and more vivid and the stories that went with them more and more fantastic.” He continues: “I never had the slightest trouble in concocting a fantastic story about any subject that came to mind and I can remember being quite surprised and intrigued by this new game that I could play. It had not always been like that. I had never before noticed that I possessed an unusual imagination. This point is of some interest because this newly discovered imagination of mine did in fact continue to flourish from then on and for the rest of my life in the form of numerous short-stories and children’s books.”
Not only did flying seemingly set Roald Dahl’s imagination in motion, but it also worked its way into his stories. Some of his early adult short stories, published together in the volume Over to You, relate to flying in wartime and are almost autobiographical. His fascination with flying can also be found in his stories for children, many of which were written years or even decades after the Second World War ended.
In James and the Giant Peach, after the peach lands in the sea and becomes surrounded by ravenous sharks, James and his friends tether 502 seagulls to the stem of peach and it rises high up into the sky. In the book Roald Dahl reflects that while “people who travel in aeroplanes never see anything”, “the peach was a soft, stealthy traveller, making no noise at all as it floated along.” The silence of the peach allows James and his friends to see the mysterious “Cloud-Men”, who appear to be able to control the weather. Interestingly, Mrs Twit in The Twits takes flight in a similar way to the peach in James and the Giant Peach, but instead of seagulls she is lifted up by balloons. She doesn’t stay in the sky long enough to witness any mysterious happenings like James, but Mr Twit does get a nasty surprise when she falls back down to earth with a bump!
Roald Dahl was a great bird enthusiast from a young age and seems to have been captivated by the idea of flying on the back of a bird. This form of flight takes on an almost idealistic quality in his last book for children, The Minpins. Towards the end of the story, the hero Little Billy goes on a series of night time adventures whilst flying around the world on the back of a swan:
Other examples of flying on birds in Roald Dahl’s stories include the Roly-Poly Bird in The Twits, who arranges to fly the monkey family to Africa “by the Roly-Poly Super Jet”, and the Pelican in The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, who flies Billy up to meet the other window cleaners by carrying him in his “special beak”.
It is clear that flying not only unlocked, but also captured Roald Dahl’s imagination. Many years after his service in the RAF had come to an end, his mind still drifted towards the exhilarating sensation of flying. These thoughts often ended up in the stories he wrote whilst sitting in his little hut in the garden, which many have likened to the inside of a cock-pit.
Find out more about Roald Dahl's time in the RAF on one of the Museum's Roald Dahl's War talks on Saturday 27 June, or take a look at the new Battle of Athens display in Solo Gallery.