This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, born in Llandaff, Cardiff, on September 13th 1916. The celebration follows hot on the heels of the 2014 centenary of Dylan Thomas, and the two men can perhaps lay claim to be the best known writers born in Wales.
Although they were born only 40 miles, and two years, apart, it’s unlikely they ever met, and the development of their respective writing careers bear few similarities. Dahl’s first published work, an account of his wartime adventures with the RAF, appeared in 1942 when he was 26 years old; and the bulk of his writing took place after he’d reached his forties. At 26, Dylan Thomas had already had three collections of poetry published, and his BBC broadcasting career was about to take off, but he was tragically never to make his fortieth birthday, and we’ll never know how Thomas’s writing career might have developed.
But despite the two writers having no lifetime association, they are connected now thanks to Dahl’s love of Thomas’s work.
A holiday pilgrimage made by Dahl to Thomas’s Laugharne in the 1950s reputedly inspired Dahl to build his own writing shed, emulating the one famously used by Thomas in the sea town that was his last home. Dahl built his own shed in his garden at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and wrote in his ‘little nest’ every day for over 30 years.
When Roald Dahl was a guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme in 1979 he chose Fern Hill as one of his selections, and described Thomas as “the greatest voice there’s ever been in broadcasting” and “the greatest poet of our time”. Earlier, in a 1970 interview with Edna Edwards, he had described Thomas reading his own poetry as “the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard”.
Perhaps Dahl’s most notable tribute is his inclusion of the opening lines of Thomas’s poem In Country Sleep in his hugely popular children’s novel Matilda. When Matilda goes to visit Miss Honey’s cottage in the woods, Miss Honey says “A poet called Dylan Thomas once wrote some lines that I think of every time I walk up this path”. Matilda responds, “It’s like music,” and Miss Honey agrees, “It is music.”
Thomas wrote his poem In Country Sleep, with it’s Little Red Riding Hood allusions, for his daughter Aeronwy, whilst on holiday in Italy in 1947.
Never and never, my girl riding far and near
In the land of the hearthstone tales, and spelled asleep,
Fear or believe that the wolf in a sheepwhite hood
Loping and bleating roughly and blithely shall leap,
My dear, my dear,
Out of a lair in the flocked leaves in the dew dipped year
To eat your heart in the house in the rosy wood.*
In a fitting final act of connection, Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night was read at Roald Dahl’s funeral in 1990.
There are numerous Roald Dahl celebrations taking place throughout the rest of 2016, see the links below for more information. As Willy Wonka said “Tremendous things are in store for you! Many wonderful surprises await you!”.
Roald Dahl official website
Discover Dylan Thomas
Roald Dahl 100 Wales
Listen to Dahl on Desert Island Discs
Listen to Thomas reading from In Country Sleep
Roald Dahl’s City of the Unexpected (Cardiff)
* In Country Sleep by Dylan Thomas is available in various collections published by Orion.