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When Unexpected Things Happen

The testing life of Roald Dahl

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage us to consider how we deal with setbacks in life (SEAL theme: Motivation).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.

  • Optional: You may wish to show a picture of Roald Dahl and will need the means to do this during the assembly. An example can be found at:


Leader: 13 September 2016 is Roald Dahl Day and this year, it is extra special because Roald Dahl was born exactly 100 years ago. There are events taking place up and down the country to commemorate his birth. There are exhibitions, trails to follow, storytelling to listen to and even the chance of a special themed afternoon tea at The Shard in London.

But what makes Roald Dahl’s stories and novels so special?

Reader 1: On the one hand, theyre real. It’s possible to identify with the situations that are described in his usual bizarre way. They may be extreme, but we can all recognize the emotions and pressures.

Reader 2: Thats true for both children and adults. Whatever your age, theres something for you in his writing, either reminiscing about your own childhood or living out how children today respond to the way adults behave.

Reader 1: Theyre also rather rude. Dahl doesnt hang back from describing what isnt exactly polite.

Reader 2: Finally, his books are funny. Sometimes, they make us laugh out loud. At other times, they provoke a wry smile as we recognize something about ourselves.

Leader: The thing about Dahls books that strikes me is that his stories often contain elements that are unexpected - its often impossible to predict whats going to happen next. In fact, one of his collections of short stories for adults is calledTales of the Unexpected.

Even more unexpected is that Dahl wrote his stories out of a life that was full of tragedy. It all started in his childhood. His father died when he was only four years old, so he grew up without a close male role model. His schooling was traumatic, partly because he had a strong streak of nonconformity in him. He never liked rules and was a practical joker, so he was often punished, sometimes physically.

Dahl left full-time education as soon as he could. He began to travel in North America and Africa. During the Second World War, he became a fighter pilot, but a crash landing of his plane led to Dahl suffering severe injuries to his skull, spine and hip. He was hospitalized for a long time.

Illness and accident dogged his family. His young son was badly injured when a taxi collided with his pram. His eldest daughter died from a bad reaction to a dose of measles. His wife, the famous actress Patricia Neal, suffered multiple brain haemorrhages and nearly died.

So how, in a life full of tragedy and difficulty, did Roald Dahl manage to write the funny, life-affirming, optimistic stories that he did?

First, he refused to be self-pitying. He didnt wallow in his misfortune or seek peoples sympathy, and he refused to be pessimistic. He was always looking for what might be possible rather than allowing himself to be weighed down by the difficulties that surrounded him. If he encountered a problem, he sought a way to overcome it.

Reader 1: When, following his accident, Dahls young son suffered a brain condition called hydrocephalus, Dahl explored ways to relieve the symptoms. He enlisted the help of an engineer to invent a special valve that would drain excess fluid from his head.

Reader 2: Following his daughters death, Dahl fought passionately for research into ways to prevent the common illness of measles from developing into something worse.

Leader: When his wife became disabled as a result of her brain injuries, Dahl devised a detailed recovery programme that enabled her to return to acting.

Time for reflection

Leader: How do we react when the going gets tough? Some people retreat into self-pity. They perceive themselves as victims, feeling that the world is against them. They constantly ask for help and become terribly self-centred. Others cant see any future to look forward to. They feel as if a dark cloud is hovering over them and nothing will ever be better. Many people become passive, waiting for the next piece of bad news. Roald Dahl would not have identified with any of this. He was constantly working to create the unexpected.

We may not be sure from where Roald Dahl took his inspiration and motivation. Nevertheless, there are similarities between his attitude to life and Jesus’ attitude to life. Jesus created an environment in which the unexpected happened. There were no lost causes for Jesus, not even death itself. He encouraged hope and a positive approach to whatever life might throw at the people he met. The hopeless became hopeful, the lost found direction, the sick were healed and the rejected found community.

We can never predict misfortune. That is something else that is unexpected. But both Jesus and Roald Dahl point to the fact that we need not be slaves to the bad things that happen in life. Let us keep our eyes open to see anyone who is going through a hard time and let us be the ones who help to turn things around.

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the hope that nothing need overcome us.
Please help us to be positive and active when faced by lifes difficulties.
Help us to be the people who help others to overcome their difficulties and fears.

Publication date: September 2016   (Vol.18 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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