Exploring the roots of Norwegian fairytales in some of Roald Dahl's stories.
Roald’s Norwegian heritage is not something he often referenced in his books, but it was certainly an important influence. From the very beginning his Norwegian link was strong: He was named after Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian polar explorer who was the first explorer to reach the South Pole. In the UK we’ve all been pronouncing his name slightly wrong, ‘Roald’ is said more like “Roo-arl” rather than “rolled”.
He was born in Llandaff just outside Cardiff to Norwegian parents. His birth certificate was written in Norwegian, and he was christened in the Norwegian church in Cardiff in 1916.
Roald’s mother, Sofie Magdalen Dahl, was by all accounts an utterly fantabulous storyteller. Roald describes her in his book Memories of Food at Gipsy House, writing that she told him and his siblings “stories about Norwegian trolls and all the other mythical Norwegian creatures that lived in the dark pine forests”. She left Roald her own book of fairytales, written in Norwegian, which had all sorts of strange and wonderful fables in, about giants and witches and gnomes.
Above: the book of Norwegian fairytales that belonged to Roald's mother.
Sofie probably inspired Grandmamma in The Witches, a Norwegian storyteller who tells the Boy all about the horrid witches. As Roald writes in chapter one of the book:
The Norwegians know all about witches, for Norway, with its black forests and icy mountains, is where the first witches come from.
Roald even gives The Grand High Witch a Norwegian accent, to show that this unpleasant woman is from the original birthplace of all witches. Here Roald is describing the accent, writing out words for The Grand High Witch to say.
Above: Roald Dahl's notes on the accent of the Grand High Witch. Copyright the Roald Dahl Story Company.
What with having a Norwegian mother, and these constant trips to Norway, Roald and his siblings were all fluent in both Norwegian and English – just like the Boy in The Witches.
Despite living in Wales, and sending her children to school in England, Sofie would still take her family on blissful summer holidays to Norway. Roald and his siblings loved these holidays, and the Archive here at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is full of family pictures of them having a brilliant time hiking through forests and swimming in fjords. This part of his life is something that Roald mentions a lot in his first autobiographical novel Boy: Tales of Childhood.
Above: photos from Roald Dahl's childhood holidays in Norway, copyright the Roald Dahl Story Company.
Aside from Boy, The Witches is the only novel which references Roald’s Norwegian childhood. Early drafts of The Witches go into far more detail about the Boy’s antics in Norway, with characters named after Roald’s father (Harald) and his aunts (Tante Ellen and Tante Astrid). In the first draft, The Boy lives in Norway with his parents but moves to England to go to boarding school. Aspects of this first draft were definitely autobiographical, with whole sections lifted out and forming parts of Boy.
Roald’s Norwegian childhood and heritage may not be something that he wrote about a lot, but he was certainly very influenced by the tales he was told. In fact, The BFG was partly influenced by Roald’s desire to write a story based around traditional characters from folklore, and the BFG as a character was his take on the monstrous giant stories that are popular in Scandinavian legend. But of course, Roald made his giant extremely friendly.
Giants and witches, fairytales and forests, and a whole lot of family experience form a significant part of some of Roald’s most-loved books, like The BFG, The Witches and Revolting Rhymes.
Visit the Museum during autumn and winter 2019, and you can take a peek at some of our Norwegian treasures from the archive. See Sophie's own traditional Norwegian costume, the first written description of the BFG and Roald's own book of fairytales he was given my his mother.