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'There's something fishy about Wales': Dahl, identity, language

Alston, Ann; Worthington, Heather


Heather Worthington


Damian Walford Davies


In the book bearing his name, the BFG tells Sophie that ‘there is something fishy about Wales’. Even allowing for Dahl’s well-known delight in wordplay, it seems that there is more to this throwaway line than just a joke for children. Taking its cue from Dahl’s play on ‘Wales’ and ‘whales’ in the context of the piscine, my essay examines the ways in which Wales in Dahl’s fiction might be associated with the word ‘fishy’ both in its colloquial sense of ‘questionable’ and in its more literal sense, betokening slipperiness, otherness, that which is submerged and apprehended only in flashes. In this latter context, the BFG’s comment can be read as configuring Wales as a space of tall tales, elusive origins, and a marker of memory, or of its lack. Dahl, who spent his childhood years in Llandaff, rarely mentions Wales explicitly in his writing. But I suggest that Wales is ever present in Dahl’s work: in his word play, his concern with those who are oppressed, his interest in the marginalised and in his love of the lively, the different, and the elusive. In his quasi-autobiographical Boy, Dahl, speaking of his upbringing in Wales, declares ’So much, then, for my memories’, suggesting that with the exception of the few he records in the account of his childhood, they are lost, but this does not seem necessarily to be the case. Rather, they are, like the slippery and elusive fish, difficult to capture or comprehend, but present and significant nonetheless. The most dramatic memory of Dahl’s Welsh childhood seems to have been the episode featuring the unpleasant Mrs Pratchett’s Llandaff sweet shop, the dead mouse that the young Dahl used as the instrument of his revenge and the subsequent painful punishment inflicted upon him, and it is arguably his perception of the unjustness of that punishment that ignited Dahl’s lifelong urge to empower the vulnerable. In a colonial context, Dahl’s championing of the oppressed against the oppressor in his fiction for children can be mapped against the appropriation and consumption of the small nation by the larger.

But, like the fish mentioned earlier, Dahl too is elusive and slippery. Siding with the powerless can of itself be empowering, subverting the apparent altruism of the position. It is clear in The BFG that Dahl inhabits the persona of the protagonist and that as a consequence of what is effectively his kidnapping of Sophie, the BFG and implicitly Dahl ultimately benefit hugely. In the act of protecting and apparently empowering the child, the adult figure gains power that was previously inaccessible and this is a recurring theme in many other of Dahl’s books for children, for example Matilda, where Miss Honey’s championing of the eponymous protagonist results in Miss Honey coming into possession of money, house and position while Matilda returns to the disempowered role of child. As Eleanor Cameron and David Rees amongst others have suggested, Dahl is perhaps not as pleasant and likeable as he, and his publicists, make him out to be. As his biographers have discovered, the ‘real’ Dahl is hard to find. The memories he recounts in Boy are selective and the ‘I’ of the narrative slips between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, making Dahl’s identity and sense of self impossible to capture fully. Forever split between his Norwegian ancestry, his Welsh childhood and his very English adolescence, furnished with a gloss of colonial imperialism by war and with his Englishness enhanced by his experiences in Africa and later America, Dahl was a man of many parts. Rereading The BFG with this in mind offers an alternative and less friendly narrative, more akin perhaps to his short stories for adults and one in which his Anglocentric colonialism is paramount.


Alston, A., & Worthington, H. (2016). 'There's something fishy about Wales': Dahl, identity, language. In D. Walford Davies (Ed.), Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected, 115-128. University of Wales Press

Publication Date Jan 1, 2016
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Pages 115-128
Book Title Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected
ISBN 9781783169405
Keywords Dahl, Wales, BFG, language, identity, children's literature
Publisher URL