Born to Norwegian parents, how Norwegian did Roald Dahl consider himself to be and how much did his cultural heritage influence his stories?
Museum Archive Assistant, Annie Price, explores the archive for clues...
Named after Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian polar explorer and one of his father’s own heroes, Roald Dahl started out in life very Norwegian indeed – albeit having been born in Llandaff, Cardiff in Wales. The registration of his birth, now safely stored in the Museum Archive, was recorded by the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission, and he was christened at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff in 1916. After the church had fallen into disrepair, Roald Dahl explained in an article published in The Norseman in 1989, how he hoped that, once restored, it would then remain “as a small Norwegian jewel in the heart of the Cardiff docklands and will become...a permanent memorial to the many Norwegian people who lived there years ago”.
In Boy: Tales of Childhood, Roald Dahl describes his happy early childhood growing up in a household where Norwegian was the spoken language. However, in an interview recorded in 1979, Dahl explained that by the time he was six years old, after the death of his father Harald Dahl and the departure of the Norwegian nanny, Birgit Svenson, the Dahl family had started speaking English at home.
Some very keen fans of The Witches may find the name of Roald Dahl’s nanny, Birgit, familiar; she bears the same name as the child transformed into a chicken after a nasty run-in with a witch in the second chapter! Another child in the same passage of the book was named Harald, Roald Dahl’s own father’s name.
The Grandmother in The Witches shares many character traits with perhaps the most important Norwegian family member in Roald Dahl’s life: his mother, Sofie Magdalene Dahl. Significantly, both were described by Roald Dahl as wonderful storytellers. As he recounts in a chapter about his mother in Memories with Food At Gipsy House (re-titled Roald Dahl’s Cookbook in later editions), during his early childhood his mother “told us stories about Norwegian trolls and all the other mythical Norwegian creatures that lived in the dark pine forests”. It is likely that these folkloric tales of witches, giants, and trolls were one source of inspiration for many of his own stories.
When Roald Dahl was a child, the highlight of each year was his summer holidays in Norway. In an interview recorded in 1989, he described these holidays with his mother and siblings as "absolutely marvellous, I mean, idyllic times". One item in the archive which encapsulates his love for his Norwegian holidays is a scrapbook, created when he was around 13 or 14 years old, of his journey from England to Norway and back again. Lovingly put together, it includes photographs and postcards from places such as Drøbak, Oslo, and Tjøme, as well as sketches of maps and interesting facts about each area. Correspondence from the 1970s confirms that Roald Dahl continued the tradition of family holidays to Norway with his own children.
In the final year of Roald Dahl’s life, he and his wife Liccy wrote Memories with Food At Gipsy House, in which many Norwegian foods feature. It includes recipes for ‘Blomkål med reker (cauliflower and shrimps)’, ‘Norwegian Fish Pudding’, and the magnificent ‘Kransekake’, a many tiered cake eaten at celebrations which, according to Roald Dahl, “is a totally Norwegian food, which every Norwegian man, woman and child knows as well as the British know baked beans and sausages”.
Once during an interview for BBC Radio 4 in 1986, Roald Dahl was asked whether he thought there was anything in his blood that explained the magical stories he wrote. His answer was a resounding “NO”; he thought himself to be “very English indeed”. His younger sister Else, however, was of the opinion that, with regard to his more ‘peculiar’ stories, “quite a lot of the Norwegian stories are a bit like that... and I think probably some of that comes out in him”. His older sister Alfhild thought it “a pity he doesn’t recognise a bit more how strong the Scandinavian is in us as a family. I accept it as being very strong”.
So, although he did not consider himself to be very Norwegian, it is clear that Roald Dahl felt a lifelong affinity with Norway, best expressed in this line from Boy: “going to Norway every summer was like going home”. Roald Dahl lived to see many of his books translated into Norwegian, and he remains a much-loved children’s author in Norway today.
Roald Dahl’s Norwegian holiday scrapbook along with other Dahl family Norwegian memorabilia from the Archive, is currently on display in the Museum.