Find out about some of the creatures from Roald Dahl’s books and real-life animal encounters ahead of the Museum’s Awesome Animals Day
Animals feature in nearly all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, ranging from Fantastic Mr Fox and the heroic hippo in The Enormous Crocodile, to the wicked wolf from Revolting Rhymes and the Muggle-Wump monkeys from The Twits. As well as writing about them, Roald Dahl had some exciting animal experiences during his lifetime. Here we reveal a few, looking specifically at the animals you might encounter on Awesome Animals Day...
Following the New Year’s Day showing of Esio Trot, the star of the Roadshow will of course be the tortoise (or Esio Trot, as he prefers to be known). Roald Dahl kept his own tortoises at his house in Great Missenden while his children were growing up. They evidently lived up to their reputation for longevity, as in a letter to a class of schoolchildren in 1979, Roald Dahl wrote, “We have two tortoises which are both asleep and won’t wake up until early summer. We have had them so long I have forgotten their names.”
Another awesome animal you might meet at the Museum is the sensational snake. Snakes were a common sight for Roald Dahl as a young man while working in East Africa and later during his RAF training in Iraq. He described some of his adventures in Going Solo, but others he only wrote about in letters to his mother. In 1940 Roald Dahl wrote to her from Habbaniya, Iraq, describing a humorous incident involving “a large snake in the swimming bath last week. About 100 people swam quicker than they had ever done before, and the whole bath was empty of airmen in about 5 secs”. Snakes also made their way into Roald Dahl's fiction - do you remember the "dreadly dungerous vindscreen viper" in The BFG? It's the venomous snake from Giant Country that bites the Fleshlumpeater whilst he's being captured (or at least that's what the BFG tells him...).
Lizards will also be leaping into action on Awesome Animals Day. In contrast to snakes, Roald Dahl had some much more pleasant experiences with lizards, and enjoyed observing them in their natural habitat in Africa. In 1939 he wrote about the antics of two lizards on his sitting room wall in Dar-es-Salaam in a letter to his mother. He vividly describes the lizard “fixing his unfortunate victim - often a small moth - with a very hypnotic eye. The moth, terrified, stays stock still, then suddenly, so quickly that you can hardly see the movement at all, he darts his neck forward, shoots out a long tongue; and that’s the end of the moth”. This letter is included in Roald Dahl’s recollections in Going Solo, in which he also describes encounters with other wild and wonderful animals.
Finally, you will also have the chance to handle some incredible insects. The most obvious connection between Roald Dahl and insects is of course James and the Giant Peach. However, you may not know that the first draft manuscript includes some characters that didn’t make it into the published book. As well as the seven bugs we already know, James is also joined on his adventure by an earwig and a hairy-green caterpillar! From the positive portrayal of the insect characters in the book, we can presume that Roald Dahl’s opinion of insects is best reflected in this extract from James and the Giant Peach: “They were not nearly as terrible as they looked. In fact, they weren’t terrible at all. They seemed extremely kind and helpful…”
So why not come along to the Museum on the 7 February 2015 and create your own animal experiences!