When you think of Wales the first things that may spring to mind are singing, rugby, farming and Catherine Zeta Jones. What most people don’t know is that Wales is home to many talented authors, both past and present.
One of the most renowned British children’s authors of the 20th century is Roald Dahl and you may be surprised to find out that he was born in Wales. He was born in Llandaff near Cardiff and after serving in the Royal Air Force in World War Two, and becoming a flying ace, Dahl rose to writing fame in the 1940s, becoming one of the world’s bestselling authors. Despite writing for both adults and children Dahl’s children’s stories are his most famous and well-loved. Dahl created a new kind of children’s literature by stepping away from sentimental stories with happy endings for all the characters. Instead he wrote books with a distinctly dark sense of humour and very memorable ‘baddies’ who always get their comeuppance. The stories are usually told from a child’s point of view and feature fantastical creatures and scenarios such as witches in The Witches, giants in The BFG and a girl who can perform magic in Matilda. Dahl drew on experiences from his own life as inspiration for his books and this is most clearly seen in his adult villains who hate and mistreat children in his stories, reflecting the abuse Dahl himself suffered at the hands of his teachers at boarding school. Dahl’s inclusion of grotesque scenes and gruesome violence appealed greatly to children, especially boys, and these scenarios often involved food and carried a message against gluttony. In The Twits (one of my favourites) Mr Twit always has food stuck in his beard, which grows longer and scruffier, almost covering his entire face, the more evil thoughts he has, such as rotten sardines and stilton cheese. Even more revolting is how Mr Twit picks out the food from his beard and eats it as a snack. It is enough to make your stomach churn. Dahl created some extremely fat characters in his books who almost always come to a sticky end. One of the best examples of this is Augustus Gloop who ignores Willy Wonka’s warnings in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and drinks from the chocolate river into which he subsequently falls and is almost turned into fudge. Many of Dahl’s books have been made into films over the years, most of them over 30 years after the stories were originally written showing the longevity of his work and the world-wide love that people still have for his books. However, Quentin Blake’s fantastic illustrations in all of Roald Dahl’s novels still capture children’s imaginations and combined with Dahl’s spectacular, timeless stories mean his novels will remain on bookshelves for years to come.
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet and writer who wrote films, short stories and plays along with his famous poetry. He wrote exclusively in English and gained great acclaim due to public readings of his work. He became particularly famous and popular in America due to his echoing voice and sing-song Welsh accent which became as famous as his work. His best-known work is Under Milk Wood, a play for voices designed for radio performances. The play was first recorded in 1953 at The Poetry Centre in New York – the only recording with Thomas performing some of the parts, namely First Voice and Reverend Eli Jenkins. The first British broadcast was on the Third Programme on BBC Radio on the 25th January 1954, two months after Thomas’ death. The distinguished all-Welsh cast including Richard Burton, a renowned Shakespearean actor who also appeared in many well-known films such as Where Eagles Dare and Cleopatra, ensured Thomas’ play became very famous. The play is narrated by First Voice who invites the audience to listen into the dreams and private thoughts of the inhabitants of the fictional village Llareggub as they watch the characters sleeping. Thomas’ sense of humour is shown in the name of the fictional village in the play which is ‘bugger all’ backwards as well as the names of some of the characters such as Organ Morgan, the church organist who is obsessed with music, Dai Bread, the village baker, and Nogood Boyo who has sordid fantasies about the baker’s wife. The play has been performed many times since its publication, with a film adaptation in 1972, and is a firm favourite with amateur dramatic groups and school drama classes thanks to the minimal set and costume requirements. The play’s fame is depicted by the statue of Captain Cat, another principal character, in Swansea’s Maritime Quarter.
A more contemporary Welsh author is Celia Lucas who wrote a series of novels about a group of felines called the Steel Town Cats. Lucas’ inspiration were the mass redundancies in Britain in the 1980s due to the closure of the British Steel works as her first novel The Steel Town Cats depicted the cats’ redundancies as ‘mousers’ who worked in the steel works. One of the main characters is a cat called Marmaduke Purrcat who speaks English as well as the cats’ language ‘miawpurrese’ who features as the main character in Lucas’ second novel The Adventures of Marmaduke Purrcat. Lucas won an award for Steel Town Cats at the prestigious Welsh children’s literature awards Tir na n-Og in 1988 for Best English-Language Book. Lucas’ depiction of talking animals is similar to Roald Dahl’s novels and both author’s characters clearly catch children’s imagination as their work continues to be read and celebrated years after they were first published – even former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is reputedly a fan.
Despite English not being the first language of Wales, its authors have won world-wide acclaim with their English-language work over the years. All three authors’ works have remained firm favourites with audiences and readers across Britain showing the quality of their writing. With a wide selection of literature coming out of this country Wales remains firmly on the literary map.