By the time Roald Dahl published his first story, his position was already that of a mediator. After a few years of service as a fighter pilot in the RAF, he was discharged due to aftermath injuries from a severe plane crash, and was sent to Washington DC to serve as Assistant Air Attaché. As such, he was expected to convince the USA to help the British in their war effort. He became acquainted with the British writer C. S. Forester, who asked him to recount his accident in Lybia in order to write a story about it. But as it turned out, Forester deemed Roald Dahl’s account so well-written that he decided not to change a single word of it, thus launching Roald Dahl’s career as a writer. It was first published in The Saturday Evening Post,and later again in his collection of pilot stories Over To You.I
As Dahl would later set straight in his autobiographical Going Solo, although much in his first story accounted for what had truly happened to him as a pilot, it was nevertheless adapted for the sake of enthralling readers with a good piece of fiction (97). As a matter of fact, if to a certain extent all of his pilot stories reflect the writer’s actual experiences in the RAF, they also read as fiction, most obviously when the narratives veer off into fantastic and magical realistic modes.II Overall, the collection stands out from Roald Dahl’s other work in the sense that his rather caustic sense of humor and knack for unexpected twists-in-the-tale are here mingled with a serious attempt to transmit the traumatic experiences of fighter pilots and civilians in times of war. The narrative voices in the stories thus become the conveyors of memory, communicating historical and autobiographical elements albeit translated into fiction. Thus, the in-betweenness of these stories brings to the front the problematical status of these narratives, standing at a crossroads between history and fiction.
This paper will focus on the manifold crossings in Roald Dahl’s pilot stories, whether from the point of view of subject matter, modality, tones, narrative strategies and modes, or textuality. I will first look into the elements which participate in conveying a sense of the past, passing on the experience of fighter pilots and civilians in World War II. I would then like to study the role of the reader as he is invited to cross the diegetic barrier and look for intertextual and metatexual clues so as to make sense of many problematic aspects of the stories. Finally I will venture a few interpretations for the crossings between life and death, heaven and hell, dream and reality, and between realism, fantastic and magical realism.
CONVEYING A SENSE OF PILOTS’ EXPERIENCES IN THE WAR
As Roald Dahl explains in Going Solo, the short story called “A Piece of Cake” is deeply rooted in a true episode from the writer’s life (97-121). Similarly to what Roald Dahl recounts in his autobiographical piece, the nameless first-person narrator is taken to an Alexandria hospital after crashing into the Libyan Desert. He falls in love with the voice of the nurse tending him while he recovers from severe injuries including a skull fracture, a bashed-in nose and temporary blindness. The parallels between the two versions of the story come close to word for word echoes in some passages, such as the moment right after the crash:
Obviously I was unconscious for some moments, but I must have recovered my senses very quickly because I can remember hearing a mighty whoosh as the petrol tank in the port wing exploded, followed almost at once by another mighty whoosh as the starboard tank went up in flames. I could see nothing at all, and felt no pain. All I wanted was to go gently off to sleep (Dahl GS 101).
Then there was a small gap of not remembering. […] I have an idea that it was very short, a second perhaps, and next I heard a crumph on the right as the starboard wing tank caught fire, then another crumph on the left as the port tank did the same. To me that was not significant, and for a while I sat still, feeling comfortable, but a little drowsy. I couldn’t see with my eyes (Dahl CSS 223)
There are however major differences. The short story suggests the pilot was shot down in action by the enemy–and even more so in the first version, dramatically entitled “Shot Down over Libya”–whereas in fact, Roald Dahl’s plane crashed as he ran out of fuel after his Commanding Officer had given him the wrong coordinates to find his squadron. Besides, in the fictional version, the homodiegetic narrator recounts how his fellow pilot, Peter, stood by him, from the refuelling at Fouka to the crash and until his rescue, when in reality Roald Dahl was alone throughout. The autobiographical account is moreover linear and straightforward, giving ample details about his injuries, his stay in the hospital, and his recovery. Comparatively, the short story is much harder to follow. It suggests more than it tells and makes use of grotesque humor; it shifts in and out of the intradiegetic reality, following the character’s hectic stream of consciousness as he dreams, passes out, comes back to his senses, dozes off again, endures nightmares, and wakes up again, without providing any clear-cut delineation between these wavering states of consciousness or between imaginary dialogues and dialogues that take place on the first level of the diegesis.
Nevertheless, the autobiographical illusion is sustained throughout the story by the pervading clause “I remember”, repeated nineteen times in the first half of the story, before the typographical blank introduced nearly in the middle of the narrative. Moreover, Peter’s character enhances the verisimilitude effect, as another character with the same name appears in the stories “Katina” and “Beware of the Dog”, just like the character named Fin, cast in “Katina” and “They Shall Not Grow Old”, or The Stag in “Madame Rosette” and “They Shall not Grow Old”. Bridging the gaps between the separate stories in the collection, these characters thus convey a sense of unity, offering the illusion that all the stories recount the adventures of a single squadron. “Katina” does even more so because of an epigraph claiming the story as “Some brief notes about the last days of RAF fighters in the first Greek campaign.” (259) Out of the ten stories in the collection, six are told partly or entirely by first-person narrators and pilots, or as it seems, by one and the same first-person narrator and pilot which it might seem rather tempting to potentially equate with the writer. Only once is the homodiegetic narrator given a name, in “Death of an Old Old Man” where he is briefly referred to as Charlie.
In addition, the precise and accurate retelling of the pilots’ actions and of their environment lend much veracity to the stories, with detailed accounts and descriptions of aerodromes, pilot equipment, flight controls, aerodynamics, air battles, and ground movement such as only a true professional could give. Even the imagery sometimes reflects a pilot’s train of thoughts, such as the simile describing the Italians’ morale going “up and down like a sensitive altimeter”, right then “at forty thousand because the Axis was on top of the world.” (223)
Some of the stories cast light on the civilian tragedies brought about by the war. The focus in “Only This” zooms in from the English country side to a woman half asleep in her cottage, listlessly dreading yet another air battle as she hears the foreboding noise of plane engines. She is also desperately waiting to hear about her only son, whom we obliquely understand to be a pilot. Additionally, the ellipsis concerning the husband suggests he might have been killed at war, whether in that same war or in a previous one. In any case, the missing husband and father make the woman’s situation even more pathetic: “The emptiness when [her son] was not there and the knowing all the time that something might happen; the deep conscious knowing that there was nothing else to live for except this; that if something did happen, then you too would be dead. […] There would be no use in living” (313) The characterization here at play draws on the reader’s empathy all the more since the woman is never identified with any specific features or attributes other than that of a mother. She is not named, but is referred to as “the woman” and “she” throughout. She thus offers a close up on one individual, representative of all mothers and wives forced into the same unbearable, passive watch, “For those women whose men are with the planes, the moment is not an easy one to bear.” (312) Her situation furthermore represents that of an entire population, as the references change from singular to plural, and as the focus zooms out to encompass all other civilians and soldiers around:
Men drinking beer in the pubs had stopped their talking in order to listen. Families in their houses had turned off the radio and gone out into their gardens, where they stood looking up into the sky. Soldiers arguing in their tents had stopped their shouting, and men and women walking home at night from the factories has stood still on the road, listening to the noise. (312)
Similarly, the woman’s son bears no name and is only described in terms of being a pilot, so that he also becomes an archetype.
In “Katina,” the pathos comes from the nine-year old orphan girl rescued by the squadron after her entire family has been killed in an air raid, and who will herself perish, ruthlessly ground-strafed by a German pilot. As with many characters in the collection, the war has made her cross over from the world of youthful innocence to a bitter knowledge of life’s cruelty, which has therein aged her prematurely, “The hatred which was on the face of the child was the fierce burning hatred of an old woman who has hatred in her heart; it was an old woman’s hatred and it was strange to see it.” (268) The crushing effect of the war is also embodied by the old man in “Yesterday Was Beautiful,” whom the pilot protagonist comes across just after the old man’s house and daughter have been bombed by the Germans. He is described “like a blind man who looks towards something but does not see”, and when he speaks, he seems “to be talking in his sleep”. His voice has “no expression whatsoever” (280-281), and in fact he does not reveal his identity to the pilot. He talks about himself in the third person as if he were somebody else, as if the morning’s tragedy had cast him out of himself. Similarly dehumanized by grief, his wife has crossed over to a ruthless lack of human sympathy. Craving for vengeance for her losses, she entrusts the main character with the mission to “‘kill them all’”. She orders him to “‘Go and kill every man and every woman and baby.’” (283)
Throughout the collection, the lack of specific characterization makes for characters with such vague contours that they read as types more than individuals, thus facilitating the reader’s identification process and heightening the feelings of loss, suffering and pathos which reverberate in the collection. As the title of the last story suggests, most characters involved in these war stories are, in the end, simply “Someone Like You.”
METATEXTUAL, INTERTEXTUAL, AND ALLEGORICAL CROSSINGS
The collection title, Over to You, obviously reads as a metatextual comment, handing the stories over to the reader. As it is, the first story relies on the reader’s deciphering, as the title “Death of an Old Old Man” contains the acronym DOOM, implicitly foreshadowing the tragic ending. Moreover, in spite of the repetition of the epithet “old” in the title, the reader must conclude that the protagonist for whom the bell tolls cannot be much older than in his twenties: “If I die now I lose fifty years of life” (201). In addition, while the narrative opened in the first person, it suddenly shifts on the fourth page to a heterodiegetic narrator. The protagonist is no longer Charlie, speaking of his gruesome fear of dying in the first person; he is reduced to “the pilot”, “he”, and “this man.” The change in narrative strategies coincides with the pilot’s reification, as he no longer functions like a human being but more like a war machine, “There was no thought in his head now save for the thought of battle. He was no longer frightened or thinking of being frightened. […This] man had seen the enemy and had forgotten that he was frightened. […] Suddenly, in an instant he had become cool and precise”. (203) His metamorphosis makes him blend entirely with his aircraft:
[…] and the Spitfire was no longer a Spitfire but a part of his own body; the muscles of his arms and legs were in the wings and in the tail of the machine so that when he banked and turned and dived and climbed he was not moving his hands and legs, but only the wings and the tail and the body of the aeroplane; for the body of the Spitfire was the body of the pilot, and there was no difference between the one and the other. (204-205)
Significantly, whereas the first part of the story was replete with modals conveying a sense of the character’s will and subjectivity, the pilot’s reification coincides with an almost total disappearance of modal verbs from the text, as if the pilot’s survival could only come at the cost of self-effacement, or an erasure of consciousness.
As for the story “They Shall Not Grow Old”, the title itself acts as a guide towards an intertextual reading, pointing to the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For The Fallen”, written in memory of the soldiers who died during World War One:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
This palimpsestuous connection between Dahl’s story and Binyon’s poem draws a bridge between the two world wars, so that the commemorating of the casualties from one war cannot be dissociated from those from the other.
Along the same lines, “Only This” takes on universal significance. Apart from the mention of pubs and the woman’s cottage which sets the scene somewhere in the United Kingdom, there is no specific mention of place or time. Together with the archetypal quality of the characters, the story can in the end carry the reader to a higher plane of interpretation, as an allegory for the absurdity of the war. The composition and rhythm of the story moreover underline the tragic fate of the protagonist. The eventless first half of the story creates tension and conveys a sense of painful passivity and helplessness which is transcended in the second part of the story as the woman seems to be dreaming about joining her son on board his plane. At that moment, the narrative pace quickens and a multitude of action verbs serve as a counterpoise to the previous impression of stasis. In a wish-fulfilling movement, the story carries the reader along the woman’s stream of consciousness and the second half of the story takes place on board the son’s plane. Beyond the actual transition between the realistic scene and the moment when the woman’s fear and longing carry her into a potentially imaginary episode (313), the narrative bears no markers of the unreality of the scene. Moreover, the action becomes so attention gripping that one might suspend disbelief as if this episode were on the same diegetic level as the frame narrative. The grotesque description of the son here again symbolizes the dehumanizing effect of the war upon pilots: “He was sitting at the controls with gloves on his hands, dressed in a great bulky flying suit which made his body look huge and shapeless and twice its normal size. He was looking straight ahead at the instruments on the panel, concentrating upon what he was doing and thinking of nothing except flying the machine.” (314) The pace soon picks up as the plane gets hit from the ground and the episode turns into an urgent, apocalyptic horror scene as the aircraft is set on fire. The pilot desperately tries to keep his plane level while the crew bails out, then loses consciousness. The mother vainly tries to fight against their tragic fate but eventually gives up and both go down as the plane nose dives : “Then came the spin and the fierce rushing drive downwards and she was thrown forward into the fire so that the last she knew was the bright yellow of the flames and the smell of the burning.” (315) As the nightmare passage comes to an end with a rather realistic use of synaesthesia, one might expect to be relieved by an anticlimactic return to the slow frame narrative–a promise of catharsis contained in the title “Only This”. The misleading title indeed suggests the reader may rest assured that the long horror scene is but a mere dream from which the woman shall soon wake up. However, the uncanny borders on the fantastic as the narrative ends with a double twist-in-the tale. It first reveals in a cathartic moment indeed that the earlier pervading noise of the bombers this time announced not another air battle, but the end of the war and the return of surviving pilots. Yet, the momentary feeling of relief is quickly overshadowed by a sense of tragedy and meaninglessness because of the unexpectedly cold clausula: “But the woman who sat by the window never moved. She had been dead for some time.” (316)
The story “Katina” also depicts the revolting senselessness of the war massacre. The text relies on kinesics to show the child’s struggle to make sense of the common appearance of an enemy pilot: “This kid of nine was standing there looking at the German and she could not speak; she could not even move. She clutched the skirt of her dress in her hands and stared at the man’s face. ‘There’s a mistake somewhere,’ she seemed to be saying. ‘There must be a mistake. This one has pink cheeks and fair hair and blue eyes. This cannot possibly be one of them. This is an ordinary boy.’ (270)
In the end, whether in “Only This” or in many other stories in the collection, the narratives carry the reader into uncanny, fantastic and magical realistic realms in a way suggesting that such literary modes might be the only possible ways out of a reality otherwise too horrific and meaningless to withstand.
HORROR FLIGHTS AND FLIGHTS OF FANCY
Roald Dahl’s pilot stories may be seen as vehicles embarking the reader on journeys in between life and death, heaven and hell, magic and realism, sanity and madness, or history and fiction. Paying close attention to the use of humor and modality, to the shifts in tones, in narrative modes, and in literary genres underlying the many thresholds and frontiers which the stories in Over to You invite the reader to go across, it seems that fiction here provides a necessary escape from the horrors and losses experienced in the war.
The ending of “Death of an Old Old Man” draws on magical realism to win the upper hand over defeat and death. As the pilot is being drowned by the enemy and gasps for his last breath, the tone of the text surprisingly shifts from dysphoric tension to euphoria and calm: “There was no noise or shouting or anything else, but only the bright bubbles moving upward in the water, and suddenly, as he watched them, his mind became clear and calm like a sunny day.” (208) Simultaneously, the heterodiegetic narrator is gradually supplanted again by a homodiegetic voice, after a transitional use of first indirect speech, and then free indirect speech (208), and the language once again makes use of a plethora of modal verbs. As the returning first-person narrator disturbingly dissociates from the character’s body and watches the scene from above, the tone gradually grows more detached and amused:
Nothing will worry me now, nothing nothing nothing; not even that man splashing in the water of the pond over there. He seems very puffed and out of breath. He seems to be dragging something out of the pond, something heavy. […] How funny; it’s a body. It’s a body of a man. As a matter of fact, I think it’s me. Yes, it’s me. I know it is because of that smudge of yellow paint on the front of my flying suit. (208)
After six pages filled with tension and fighting leading the doomed protagonist to his death, the text hinges on grotesque humor which serves a cathartic function:
He’s going to leave my body behind, lying on the grass beside the pond. He’s walking quickly away across the field towards the gate. How wet and excited he looks. He ought to relax a bit. He ought to relax like me. He can’t be enjoying himself that way. I think I will tell him.
“Why don’t you relax a bit?”
Goodness how he jumped when I spoke to him. And his face; just look at his face. I’ve never seen a man look so frightened as that. He’s starting to run. (209)
The impossible ending thus transcends the fear of death pervading the story, as well as the horror experienced by the pilot.
Lastly, the story reclaims man’s capacity for wonder and, eventually, celebrates the resilience of human consciousness through a poetical last paragraph, in a way quite reminiscent of Rimbaud’s seminal “Dormeur du Val”, and significantly again replete with modals: “I think I’ll stay here for a bit. I think I’ll go along the hedges and find some primroses, and if I am lucky I may find some violets. Then I will go to sleep. I will go to sleep in the sun.” (209) In this euphoric, lyrical ending, the magic realist text serves as ferryman, accompanying the dead across the Styx, and here carrying the reader into a vision evoking heaven and eternal bliss.
Peter’s character in “Katina” also crosses the line back from the dead in a fantastic passage when, after his death, the homodiegetic narrator hears Peter coming to sleep in their shared tent as usual. The hesitation on the reader’s part is brought about in a way that might remind one of Maupassant’s Horlà, as the narrator recalls: “In the morning I looked at the bed and saw it had been slept in. But I did not show it to anyone, not even to Fin.” (271)
As for Fin’s journey to and back from the dead in “They Shall Not Grow Old”, the intertextuality with Binyon’s poem is weaved into the fiction in a way casting a magic realist light onto the story. The latter opens with Fin having gone missing and his fellow pilots drawing the inevitable conclusion of his death. Two days later however, Fin magically reappears, not knowing that he has been away for so long, claiming he has never landed since he first left the airfield, and having no idea how to explain away the time gap. The mystery is all the greater since he has left with fuel enough for no more than two hours. Later on, as the pilot Paddy gets shot down in action, Fin experiences a sudden flash allowing him to account for his absence. According to the long, embedded narrative delivered in Fin’s voice, he first lost total control of his plane as his aircraft started flying of its own volition, and was then sucked into a procession of myriad dead pilots on their way to heaven. (293-294) Laurence Binyon’s poetical imagery of redemption and eternal life, of “immortal spheres” and shining glory are literalized in Dahl’s impossible tale of a pilot’s epiphany. First, Fin recalls a blinding light which carries Biblical overtones of the light of God’s face. This episode is deeply imbued with a sense of the numinous and ecstasy: “When I opened [my eyes] everything was blue, more blue than anything I had ever seen. It was not a dark blue, nor was it a bright blue; it was a blue blue, a pure shining colour which I cannot describe.” (294) This version of a pilot’s heaven thereby corrects Binyon’s pathetic notion that “They mingle not with their laughing comrades again”, in that the pilots are here seen flying all together side by side, smiling and waving at each other. Dahl’s story furthermore takes up Binyon’s image of the fallen “Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain” as Fin recalls reaching “a vast green plain”, described as “green and smooth and beautiful” and reaching “to the far edges of the horizon where the blue of the sky came down and merged with the green of the plain.” Again Fin tells of an indescribably bright, white and shining light, “a centre of brilliance” which “spread far up into the sky and far out over the plain”. (296)
In spite of his irresistible, mystical attraction to the light, Fin however does not get to join the other pilots going onto the plain and towards the light, but on the contrary gets sent back to his former war mission against his will. Presenting death as more desirable than life, the ending of the short story seems to equate life as a war pilot with hell. Fin confesses envying Paddy’s tragic fate, and as Fin eventually does get shot down too, it is implied that he wilfully and euphorically goes to his death without putting much of a fight to jump out of his aircraft (299). The reader is thus left with a semi-suicide story in harsh times of war, but thanks to the intertextual and magical crossing into a vision of a pilot’s heaven, the narrative nevertheless evokes a last, blissful passage from life to death, and on into eternity.
In the end, Roald Dahl’s collection of pilot stories suggests that by entering the war, humankind has crossed a line turning reality into hell, thus engendering a perversion of the dream of flight at the root of aviation. Flying in this context can no longer be represented as an uplifting achievement beyond the limitations of mankind. It has become a dehumanizing experience, following which one can strive for a sense of the humane again only in death, or in dreams of escape. Almost out of necessity the horrors of a war which cannot be told about lead to magic realism, to the fantastic and absurd.
Looking at the collection from a different point of view, some of the stories have known another form of crossing as they have been adapted to the screen. “Beware of the Dog” has been adapted twice, in 36 Hours, and in Breaking Point. As for “They Shall Not Grow Old”, it has inspired a pivotal scene in Porco Rosso, an animation movie by Hayao Miyazaki. Also on a formal level, unlike any other of Dahl’s collections, these collected pilot stories read like a short story cycle, and thus stand on the brink of crossing over to the novelistic genre rather than the short story genre.
Finally, the collection goes beyond a purely literary interest and crosses over to a more scientific and professional realm. Bringing together the world of aviation with Roald Dahl’s talent for creating fascinating, grotesque and bizarre events, the collection provides wonderful material for English teachers committed to the didactics of Language with a Specific Purpose, in that as fiction with a professional substratum–as the French put it, Fiction à Substrat Professionnel, or FASP–it allows one to teach the language of aviation in a way that stimulates much interaction, expression, debate, and discussion of interpretations in English.
Binyon, Laurence. “For The Fallen” The Collected Poems of Laurence Binyon. New York: Macmillan, 1931.
Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Chanady, Amaryll. Magical Realism and the Fantastic: Resolved vs. Unresolved Antinomy. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.
Dahl, Roald. TheCollected Short Stories of Roald Dahl. London: Penguin Books, 1992.
Roald Dahl Nominee Limited Official Website, <www.roalddahl.com >
Rimbaud, Arthur. « Le Dormeur du Val. » Anthologie des poètes français du dix-neuvième siècle, Edité par Lemerre, Tome IV, 1888.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Introduction à la littérature du fantastique. Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1970.
Trousson, Raymond. « Du Fantastique et du merveilleux au réalisme magique ? » Le Réalisme Magique : Roman, Peinture et Cinéma. Editions l’Age d’Homme « Cahiers des Avants-Gardes », Brusselles : 1987.
Weisenberger, Jean, ed. Le Réalisme Magique : Roman, Peinture et Cinéma. Editions l’Age d’Homme « Cahiers des Avants-Gardes », Brusselles : 1987.
Zamora, Lois Parkinson, et Wendy B. Faris, eds. Magical Realism : Theory, History, Community. London: Duke University Press, 1995.
I See the section “The Man : Roald Dahl Biography” on the Roald Dahl Nominee Limited official website.
II In using the terms “fantastic “and “magical realism” I am referring to the studies on these genres by Tzvetan Todorov for the former, by Maggie Ann Bowers, Jean Weisenberger (ed.) and Lois Zamora and Wendy Faris for the latter, and by Amaryll Chanady, and Raymond Trousson for the difference between the two genres (see the Works Cited section at the end of this paper). The distinction between the two genres is most clearly established by Amaryll Chanady, for whom, “In contrast to the fantastic, the supernatural in magical realism does not disconcert the reader, and this is the fundamental difference between the two modes. The same phenomena that are portrayed as problematical by the author of a fantastic narrative are presented in a matter-of-fact manner by the magical realist.” (24) I cannot go into the intricacies of opting for either genre as reading grids for Roald Dahl’s pilot stories in the context of this article, but have elaborated on the question of reading Roald Dahl’s pilot stories in the light of the fantastic or of magical realism in another article, entitled “Comment lire l’impossible dans le recueil de nouvelles Over to You, de Roald Dahl” which I presented at the conference organized in Nice by the CIRCPLES in January 2011, on “Les formes et les stratégies du refus,” and which should be published in the near future.