Roald Dahl's Welsh roots

Roald Dahl is dubbed the “world’s number one storyteller” and his books are loved the world over.

However, not many people know that Dahl was actually Welsh, born and raised in Cardiff. Dahl’s father Harald, a shipbroker, moved from Norway to Wales when Cardiff was a booming, multicultural port city, fuelled by the global demand for Welsh coal and steel. Dahl’s Norwegian heritage and the fact that as an adult he mainly lived in England has meant that Wales has often overlooked one of its most famous (and successful) authors. It’s also difficult to find Wales or a sense of Welshness in Dahl’s books. Apart from his memoirs, Boy: Tales of a Childhood and Going Solo, his country of birth is absent in his creative output.

In the run-up to the centenary of his birth, many arts organisations —including Literature Wales—began to look at ways of reclaiming Dahl, and to position him firmly in the cultural map of Cardiff. With support from the Welsh government, Arts Council of Wales and Cardiff Council, there is a full programme of multi-artform events throughout Wales—and not just in the capital. Through its “Invent Your Event” scheme, Literature Wales has facilitated an outreach programme targeting marginalised and hard-to-reach groups, as well as supporting larger centenary events financially at key festivals such as Hay, the Urdd and National Eisteddfod.

Back in Cardiff, a major exhibition celebrating the unique creative partnership between Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl will open at National Museum Cardiff in July. The highlight of the year will take place over the weekend of 17th–18th September, when Cardiff will be transformed into the “City of the Unexpected”. The spectacle is being produced by Wales Millennium Centre and National Theatre Wales and directed by Nigel Jamieson, who previously worked on the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. Cardiff will literally not have seen anything quite like it.

This year there was also a need to try to articulate Dahl’s “Welshness” beyond the time and place of his birth. This summer, University of Wales Press publishes Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected, edited by Professor Damian Walford Davies. An innovative collection of essays, it explores the “complex conditioning presence of Wales in [Dahl’s] life and work”, while also recognising the challenges of constructing a uniform Welsh Dahl. The book aims to show “the new horizons that open up when Dahl is read through a Welsh lens”, and in this sense, defamiliarises the Dahl we think we know.

One of the most interesting perspectives comes from Dr Siwan Rosser, a lecturer in Welsh at Cardiff University. Her essay is entitled “Dahl-in-Welsh, Welsh Dahl: Translation, Resemblance, Difference”—and deals, rather obviously, with what happens when Dahl is translated into Welsh.

My own experience is of reading his books for the first time in Welsh with my children. Brilliantly translated by Elin Meek, they form a crucial part in any well-read Welsh-speaking child’s bookshelf. By translating Dahl’s books to Welsh, we are integrating him into the canon of Welsh-language children’s literature. In the mind of an eight-year-old child, Matilda is no less Welsh than Twm Siôn Cati of Welsh folklore.

Rily Publications, which publishes Dahl’s books in Welsh, has published two new titles for the centenary, Cerddi Ffiaidd (Revolting Rhymes) and Penillian Ach-a-fi! (Dirty Beasts). Having tested them out on a selection of small children, I can vouch that they are just as disgusting and funny as the originals.

By the time 2016 is over, I hope far fewer people will look at me in a perplexed way, saying: “I didn’t know Dahl was Welsh.”

He is, and so now you know.

Lleucu Siencyn is chief executive of Literature Wales. For further information on Dahl’s ancestry, visit Roald Dahl 100 in Wales.