Best-selling British author Roald Dahl is well known around the world for his macabre children's stories. Two decades after his death, a museum in his home town tells the story of the reticent writer's life and work.
Roald Dahl never really grew up, say those who knew him well
Chocolate factory owners, massive peaches, surprise endings, black humor and grotesque scenes - that was the world of Roald Dahl immortalized in books such as "James and the Giant Peach," "Fantastic Mr Fox" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
A museum in Great Missenden, where Dahl lived until his death on November 23, 1990, celebrates the writer's life and work. Located some 50 kilometers northwest of London in Buckinghamshire, the area is all rolling hills and quaint half-timbered houses.
To enter the museum in Great Missenden, visitors pass through doors resembling chocolate bars which - much to the disappointment of Dahl's young fans - are made of plastic.
Unfortunately, the chocolate doors aren't real
The museum, which was declared the best tourism project in Britain a few years ago, is financed through entry fees, book royalties and donations by the Dahl family. Some 50,000 visitors - mainly from Japan, Australia, the US, and Germany - make it to Great Missenden each year.
The museum houses numerous letters, photographs and Dahl's personal belongings including his sandals, his Royal Air Force helmet from the Second World War and his favorite worn-out leather armchair.
In addition, the collection includes films and audios documenting Dahl's life as well as a large archive containing all the writer's manuscripts.
Roald Dahl, born in 1916 in Llandaff, South Wales, to Norwegian parents, wrote 19 children's books, short stories for adults and numerous screenplays and television scripts.
Room for imagination
Children are at the centerpiece of the exhibition. The museum's aim is to encourage children to write and follow their own fantasies, according to Amelia Foster who heads the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center.
At the museum's entrance, right after the chocolate bar doors, each child is given an "Ideas Book." In it, children can write whatever comes into their mind during their visit.
Cutting out and pasting things into the book is also allowed, which is how Dahl apparently liked to work himself. He is said to have used such tools to create senseless and yet wonderfully onomatopoeic words. Dahl collected lists of rhyming words and ideas that he wanted to work into his stories - tales that fascinated children and adults alike, Foster said.
"We were very keen when we were developing the museum not to have a shrine to Dahl. In fact, there three things that Roald Dahl hated: museums, beards and speeches," Foster said. "It's very important to us not to make it too much like 'what a wonderful man' - yes, he was but it's not about that. It's about children's imagination, getting them infused."
The museum is located in Dahl's hometown, Great Missenden
A plane crash and a literary career
At the center of the museum is a shed that resembles Dahl's real writing studio. That's where he used to shut himself in each morning, sinking into his leather armchair.
For almost 40 years, Dahl penned his stories here with sharp pencils that he had sent specially from the United States, on yellow lined paper. Dahl wanted to be alone during the writing process; even children weren't allowed here. He'd tell them there were wolves in his den so that they wouldn't disturb him.
In addition to the frayed furniture, other strange objects include the end of a femur which surgeons had removed after Dahl suffered major spinal and hip injuries when he crashed his biplane in the Libyan Desert at the beginning of World War II.
In the sort of macabre gesture that would later mark his writing, Dahl preserved the femur and used it as a paperweight in his writing studio.
It was surviving that serious plane crash in Libya that eventually led to Dahl's writing career. He once told an interviewer that author C.S. Forester suggested to Dahl that he write about being shot down in the desert. The story was reportedly bought by a British newspaper and the rest is literary history.
'The adult is the enemy'
Dahl's books are a huge success, many of them international bestsellers, and have been translated into more than 40 languages. Millions of copies of his children's books have been sold.
The Roald Dahl Museum aims to expand children's imaginations
Dahl reportedly frequently said the key to his success was conspiring with children against adults.
"It may be simplistic, but it is the way. Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born it is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all," Dahl said in a 1990 interview with British newspaper The Independent.
Amanda Conquy, who was a friend of Dahl's and heads the Roald Dahl Foundation in Great Missenden, said the writer understood that children like to be startled and amazed and appreciate unsavory details.
"[Dahl] had a wicked sense of humor. I thought he was wonderful. It was only as an adult that I began to see how difficult he could be," Conquy said. "But with children he used to say about himself - and I think it was true - he never really grew up. He had the mind of a child really."
Not everyone approved of Dahl's writing, however. Several literary critics slammed his books as antisocial, brutish and anti-feminist. But Conquy insisted that Dahl's books were simply macabre, satirical and timeless. They deal with shabby, brutal and bigoted adults and they had their own morals, she said.
"I think he wanted children to feel from his books that there was hope for them. If there was good, there was hope for them."
Author: Michael Marek (sp)
Editor: Kate Bowen