Roald Dahl’s last and first fairy stories
The Minpins was Roald Dahl’s last story, published just after his death in 1991. Like many of his stories, it takes the theme of a child hero fighting against a fearsome monster and discovering hidden worlds. On an adventure to the scary Forest of Sin, Little Billy meets a mysterious race of tiny people – the Minpins – and helps them destroy the Gruncher – the terrifying beast that stalks the woods.
Looking at the early drafts of the story in the archive here at the Museum, it is possible to trace Roald’s ideas and inspiration for The Minpins back to his own experiences as an RAF pilot and the start of his writing career in America.
During his pilot training in 1940, Roald wrote to his mother, describing flying over the Rift Valley in Kenya and seeing "pink flamingos and giraffes and ostriches" below him.
Above: Roald Dahl's letter home to his mother.
He later used this incident to add colour to a passage in an early draft of The Minpins – Little Billy, flying on the back of a swan, glides over a cloud on which he can see a myriad of animals below him:
Little Billy, peering down in the moonlight, saw herds of antelope and buffalo, and there were elephants and giraffes and even lions down there.
Although this section was eventually removed during the editing process, it shows how Roald used his own flying experiences as inspiration for Billy’s adventures with the swan.
However, the main influence for The Minpins comes from one of his earliest published stories: The Gremlins. In 1942, following his career as a fighter pilot in Greece and North Africa, Roald Dahl was working for the RAF as an Air Attaché in Washington DC. His role was to tell the American public about his experiences as a fighter pilot, and so he began writing short stories and articles for the press. As a former RAF pilot, he was familiar with the stories and in-jokes about ‘gremlins’ – tiny, mischievous creatures who would deliberately damage the planes and were blamed for any mysterious mechanical malfunctions. Roald decided to write his own version of the story, set during the Battle of Britain. In a letter to his mother, he described it as "a kind of fairy story".
In the earliest existing draft (above), we can see that he originally imagined his gremlins as gentle forest creatures, whose little boots made of bark allowed them to stick to the branches of their trees. However, when their woodland home was destroyed to build the war-time aircraft factories, the gremlins decided to get revenge and wreak havoc on the planes. Later, the gremlins are befriended by the British pilots, and recognising kindred spirits in their shared love of flight, decide to join forces to defeat the enemy.
The story was published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1942, and was picked up by Walt Disney as an option for an animated film. Roald travelled to Hollywood to meet Disney and his artists, but due to the decreasing popularity of war films at that time, the cartoon film was never made. Roald’s story was eventually republished in 1943 as a book featuring the iconic Disney artwork, with the royalties going to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
However, the idea about a tribe of tiny, flying, suction-boot wearing people never left Roald. When, 46 years later, he started planning a new children’s book, he took the idea behind The Gremlins and combined it with his love of the natural world and his own passion for flying to create a modern fairy story: The Minpins.
The story of The Minpins has now been republished as Billy and the Minpins, with brand new illustrations by Quentin Blake.