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Roald and Sofie: How Dahl's letters to his mother shaped his writing

19 July 2016

Roald Dahl's biographer DONALD STURROCK tells the story of the letters that the author sent to his Norwegian-born mother, Sofie Magdalene. Their correspondence spanned 40 years, with Dahl only discovering the 600 letters collected by Sofie after her death in 1967. Dahl himself said that his mother was the primary influence in his life, and Sturrock argues that, without her unique sensibility - including a love of Norwegian folk tales - Dahl could have ended up a retired oil company executive.

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was something of a literary late developer. He did not begin writing professionally until he was in his mid-twenties and did not write his first children’s book until nearly 20 years after that. Since childhood however, he had quietly been practising his craft, but in another context: writing letters to his mother, Sofie Magdalene.

These letters are remarkable. More than 600 in total, they span a 40-year period, beginning in 1925 when, as a nine-year-old, Roald was sent away to boarding school. They follow him to East Africa, where he worked for Shell Oil, through the war where he was a fighter pilot in the RAF, and then to America where he worked as a spy for British Intelligence.

[She was] undoubtedly the primary influence on my own life
Roald on Sofie

They end in 1965, two years before his mother’s death at the age of 82. Sofie Magdalene carefully kept each one. In his memoir of childhood, Boy, Roald movingly described how he discovered them after her death, each one "bound carefully in neat bundles with green tape".

His mother was a remarkable woman. Norwegian-born, she emigrated to Cardiff when she married her husband Harald Dahl, a widower, 22 years older than she was.

In 1920, both Harald and her eldest daughter died within three months of each other, leaving her as a single mother, with four young children to support. She never wavered in her determination to accomplish this duty, raising Roald and his sisters with confident panache and decisively shaping their attitudes.

"Practical and fearless", was how her youngest daughter, Asta, once described her to me. "Dauntless" was the adjective Roald used in his memoir Boy.

He admired her toughness, her lack of sentiment, her buccaneering spirit and her laissez-faire attitude towards her offspring, describing her as "undoubtedly the primary influence on my own life", and singling out her "crystal clear intellect" and her "deep interest in almost everything under the sun" as two of her most admirable qualities.

Sections of a letter from Roald to his mother, dated 4th February 1934 | © RDNL

Extract from 1934 letter

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February 4th 1934

Dear Mama

. . . We are having a great fives match this afternoon in the courts on our yard . . .

We are also planning a gigantic fire balloon, to be 18ft high, with a diameter of 12 feet, outer surface are of 3,501 square feet! It should lift at least one boy, but we are going to have it on a rope(that is if it ever comes off).

Do you think you could find a pipe of mine & give it to me on Thursday. It is one I often smoked, one you gave me in Norway (not the light coloured one) It is well smoked in & has a fairly long stem, fairly dark, with a little chip out underneath. If you can’t find it will you please bring the other one you gave me in Norway (still not the light one) It is in the rack in my bedroom, a fairly fat one with a longish stem & a short mouth piece!

Love from

Roald

P.S. Let me know fairly soon what you think about meeting on Thursday, so I can answer.

Roald Dahl and his sisters on holiday in Norway

For his part, Roald was his mother’s pride and joy, her only boy, and therefore treated with special care and attention. His siblings affectionately dubbed him "the apple of the eye". The feeling was mutual.

Roald acknowledged his mother as the source for his own interest in horticulture, cooking, wine, paintings, furniture and animals. She was always the 'mater familias', his constant reference-point and guide. While researching around the letters for the recent collection, Love from Boy, I also became aware of another way she shaped him too, for she passed on to her son a profound love of her native land.

As a boy, Norway meant everything to Roald

As a boy, Norway meant everything to Roald. In so many of his school letters, his summer holiday with his family in Drøbak or Tjøme is the only light at the end of the dark scholastic tunnel. But there were more subtle Norwegian influences as well.

Sofie Magdalene read her children fairy stories - accounts of wicked trolls and other mythical Norwegian creatures that lived in the dark pine forests. Some were cautionary tales, satirising the consequences of greed and pride. Others told of battling giants and cloud monsters, children who soared high into the sky on the backs of eagles, and outsize insects and frogs. Roald would reinvent them, in his own manner, many years later.

Theodor Kittelsen was Sofie Magdalene’s favourite and Roald’s eldest sister Alfhild believed his stories had a profound effect on her brother. Kittelsen was an illustrator as well as a storyteller. He loved landscape and countryside.

There is a darkness to his tales as well as a lack of sentimentality. His eye is sharply observant, and his sense of humour often coarse and hard-edged in a way that prefigures Dahl’s own.

Roald was inspired by these tales of Norse mystery and magic. As he grew into adulthood, he sought to return the compliment, entertaining her with his own stories and observations. Sofie Magdalene was Roald’s first audience, but she was also his unacknowledged inspiration to become a writer.

Roald Dahl and his mother, Sofie Magdalene Dahl, in the family's garden in Radyr, Wales
Roald Dahl reads to three of his children, from left, Tessa, Theo, and Ophelia, in the kitchen of his home in Buckinghamshire, September 1965 | Getty Images

More than anyone else, it was she who encouraged him to tell stories and nourished his desire to fabricate, exaggerate and entertain.

More than anyone else, it was she who encouraged him to tell stories and nourished his desire to fabricate, exaggerate and entertain

To use an analogy that Roald himself might have appreciated, in reading his letters to her, we are watching a trainee pilot preparing to fly solo.

Without her unique sensibility to guide him, Roald might have returned to work for Shell after the war and eventually retired as a senior executive to play golf, drink whisky and crack jokes.

Such timeless tales as The BFG, Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox and The Witches might never have seen the light of day.

Thankfully that did not happen. And Sofie Magdalene, who would probably have preferred her son to work in an oil company, instead became unwitting midwife to his development as a writer. And for that, we all have reason to be thankful.

Donald Sturrock wrote the authorised biography of Roald Dahl, Storyteller. Love from Boy, a collection of Dahl's letters to his mother and edited by Sturrock, recently featured as Radio 4's Book of the Week.

Roald Dahl centenary on the BBC

Tjøme, Norway

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