Astrid Lindgren’s legacy

Birgitta Steene
14 November 2007

A hundred years ago, on 14 November 1907, Astrid Lindgren was born on a small farm in south-central Sweden. When she died at age 95, she had long achieved worldwide renown as the author of books for children and the creator of such memorable characters as Pippi Longstocking, Ronia the robber's daughter, and Rusky and Jonathan Lionheart. But she was also a very influential and remarkable political voice in 20th-century Swedish society.

Birgitta Steene is professor emerita in cinema studies and Scandinavian literature at the University of Washington and has also been a professor in the film department at Stockholm University.

She is the recipient of an honoris causa doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Uppsala.

Birgitta Steene is the author of Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide (Amsterdam University Press, 2005) as well as numerous other books and articles on Scandinavian drama and film

Also by Birgitta Steene on openDemocracy:

"Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)

"The Swedish cartoon: art as provocation" (10 September 2007)

Once, while travelling by train through Germany, a Swedish friend of mine happened to be rereading Astrid Lindgren's story The Brothers Lionheart. A woman across the aisle kept glancing at the title page. After a while she said: "I see that you're reading a famous German writer. My grade school was named after her."

The reputation of few writers is capable of such assimilation into a foreign culture that their own national identity seems to dissolve. August Strindberg, another internationally known Swedish writer, illustrates the point: his many contacts with French and German culture and his impact on modern drama notwithstanding, his persona remains that of a bedevilled "northern" playwright. Henrik Ibsen too, for all his importance to Victorian England and his years of residence in Italy and Germany is still viewed as a Norwegian shaped by the gloom of those rainy fjords.

Astrid Lindgren is a different matter. Though the most provincially rooted of almost any Swedish writer in our time, she gained international acceptance like few others among her fellow artists. It is not just that her work was translated into more than a hundred different languages; she also succeeded in captivating the imagination of children all over the world to such an extent that they have come to think of Pippi Longstocking, Ronia, and Rusky Lionheart as creatures from within their own culture and mythic world.

The inner landscape

Hans Christian Andersen is the only other Scandinavian writer of children's literature to match this achievement. But Andersen was a restless traveller who mixed with the social elite. Astrid Lindgren was never a cosmopolitan; she remained forever the spunky girl from the stony farm area of Småland. In her memoir of childhood, Samuel August from Sevedsthorpe and Hanna from Hult, she conveys above all a strong sense of being an integral part of her small and particular corner of the world - and especially of the landscape that surrounded her:

"It was a landscape that enfolded my days and filled them in an intense way that's hard for an adult to believe. The rock-strewn areas full of wild strawberries, the blue anemone fields, the cowslip meadows, the blueberry thickets, the forest with the pink linnea flowers in the moss, the pastures around Näs where we knew every path and every stone, the brook with water lilies, the ditches, the creeks and the trees, all of that I remember more than the people. Stones and trees were close to us, almost like living creatures, and it was nature that protected and fed our playtime and dreams. On the grounds around us we enacted everything that our minds could imagine; all fairy tales, all adventures that we invented or read or heard about took place nowhere else but there; yes, even our songs and prayers had their given place in the landscape that surrounded us."

It was this sparsely populated world of small farms that shaped Astrid Lindgren into a being of self-confidence and feisty common sense. Her literary offspring are girls like Pippi Longstocking and Ronia, the robber's daughter. They are two strong, basically self-sufficient girls, almost anarchic in their independent spirit and craving of freedom.

Some of Lindgren's boy characters can also be found in the same group, like the prankster Emil from Lönneberga Farm with his overdose of inventiveness. But by and large, her boy figures are of a more vulnerable kind, often foster-children or orphans who lack Pippi Longstocking's go-it-alone stamina. They cope with their sad and hopeless situation by escaping into a fantasy land that is not without danger and challenge but where they find support and self-identity. In Mio, my son, a lonely boy leaves his park bench in the city and under the new name of Mio he goes into an imaginary country in search of a father-figure. Rusky, the dying boy in The Brothers Lionheart joins his brother Jonathan in the land of Nangiyala and helps liberate it from the evil dictator Tengil and the dragon Katla.

What is central in these explorations by timid boys turned young heroes is not their adventures per se but their growing conviction that the fight is necessary. Lindgren takes her young combatants, who are always prone to fear, to a point where, in the words of young Jonathan in The Brothers Lionheart, "there are just some things you have to do or else you're nothing but a small piece of filth." By such statements (and accompanying actions) Lindgren moves her children's stories into the realm of moral and political allegory. A book like The Brothers Lionheart conveys an important "message": that almost nothing is for free. The two brothers express a series of paradoxes: they kill so that others might live; they lie to protect the truth; they endorse life, but their own end is a form of double-suicide. Little wonder the book caused an intense media debate!

Indeed, strong public reaction and controversy surrounded Astrid Lindgren's work throughout her life. When the cheeky and super-strong Pippi Longstocking first appeared in 1945, many parents and pedagogues saw her flaunting of schoolteachers and policemen as too disrespectful and subversive for a child, and rejected her accordingly. Fifty years later, Pippi was still capable of provoking a storm in Sweden's public life. The newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published a call to retire Pippi and put an end to "the Pippi Cult" in Swedish child rearing: "This Pippi Worship has turned everything upside down-school, family life, normal behavior. It has ridiculed order and respect, honesty and politeness. It has glorified self-centeredness, ego-fixation, ruthlessness and escapism."

The child inside

In 1926, Astrid Lindgren moved to Stockholm where she lived the rest of her life, working first as a stenographer, then as a writer and publisher. Her debut as an author came late, at age 38. By then she was married and had a daughter, Karin. But as a young woman she had also given birth out of wedlock to a son, Lars. He was placed in a foster home in Denmark until the day, several years later, when Astrid felt she could support and care for him. This must have been a crucial and painful episode in her life, reflected perhaps in the many orphaned or fatherless children in her stories.

Astrid Lindgren lived in Stockholm for some seventy-five years, yet always remained the farm girl from the town of Vimmerby in Småland. Her stories may have been set in a realistic everyday setting (such as The Children of Noisy Village) or in a fantasy world (such as The Brothers Lionheart), yet in each case Lindgren's imaginative landscape bore a strong resemblance to her own childhood milieu. In Rasmus on the Road, the story of an insecure and abused orphan, Rasmus is forced to flee to a ghost town by the sea. The adult world has proven too hostile for him, but in his most critical moment Lindgren provides him with her own innate sense of nature's healing power:

"On this road there were no thieves or bandits, the road was peaceful, Lady's bedstraw and cow parsley bloomed there along the ditch bank and from the meadows arose the sweet and lovely smell of clover. The sun had disappeared and the air was still, as before a rain. As safe as ships at sea the gray cumulus clouds sailed across the sky, and under the sky the road went on winding, solitary and empty, as far as one could see. Over by the horizon where earth and sky met, the road seemed to turn straight into heaven."

There are many dimensions to Astrid Lindgren's authorship. In an almost archetypal way she depicts what's universal in a child's inner mental landscape. She succeeds because like her characters she always retained her curiosity about the world around her; and because she forever retained a sense of forthrightness and playful humour that created a secret understanding between her and her child readers and enabled led her to puncture all pretentiousness and artificiality in the adult world.

Three political moments

For this latter quality especially she became a forceful political voice in her society. Her ability to make an impact rested partly on the fact that she reacted with her heart but used her head to build up her argument. Most of her political statements were prompted by questions raised in the mail she received every day - the Swedish Royal Library's collection of Lindgren letters comprises some 125 metres of shelf space - or by requests from people engaged in a particular cause. However some of her best known and most far-reaching political statements were prompted by her own experience, such as the Pomperipossa tax case (1976), her "never again violence" speech (1978) and Lex Lindgren (1986). These three pieces of political writing illustrate the range of Lindgren's commitment: one concerns Swedish taxation laws, one deals with methods of child rearing, and one advocates better conditions for farm animals.

The first moment is the Pomperipossa case, so named after the witch in a well known Swedish folktale, was an open letter addressed to the Swedish minister of finance in the country of "Monismania"; it was written after Lindgren's discovery that her taxes constituted an absurd 102% of her annual income. To survive, Pomperipossa decides to seek social aid: "Look, she said to herself, I knew there was a solution after all! For this is the best society in the world, isn't it? Or...? Is it not?" However, before long Pomperipossa's request for aid was turned down by "the Treasury of Wise Men": "No, they said, if you earn 2 million crowns, then we, hallelujah!, shall have 2,002,000 crowns. At that point Pomperipossa decided to walk out into the streets and beg for enough money to buy an ever so small crowbar. Tremble, Thou Wise Men, she thought, and increase the nightly security of your safes! If you can steal without any inhibition at all, so can I!"

The tone of Lindgren's Pomperipossa story is written with sarcasm and seeming naivete; it is not cantankerous but displays what was typical of all her political arguments: a form of good humour that reveals her stylistic control of her subject without hiding her underlying anger. The finance minister's attempt to belittle "Auntie Lindgren's" accounting skill backfired and probably contributed to the governing social democrats' loss in the national election a few weeks later.

The second moment was Astrid Lindgren's acceptance speech when receiving the German booktraders' peace prize in October 1978. The address, entitled "Never Violence!" was part of an ongoing debate about physical punishment of the young - and thus directed not at political leaders involved in warring conflicts but at parents raising children. To Astrid Lindgren, "never violence" meant "never spanking". A year later, the Swedish government signed a law forbidding corporal punishment and psychological abuse of children. In terms of the world community it has proven more of an exception than a rule; a United Nations report in 2006 found that some 80% of the world's children are physically punished in their homes.

Such civil courage was part of Astrid Lindgren's personality, and many seem to have sensed in her a revolutionary mind. The international reputation won by her books meant that her social commitment could reach far beyond Swedish borders. At the same time, her engagements were always concrete: she supported individuals rather than organisations. In the Royal Library's letter collection, mail to Astrid Lindgren varies from comment on the Taliban war in Afghanistan and her opinion of Swedish snuff to a plea to prevent the demolition of a punk-rock café in south Stockholm. The last item concludes with the words:"The government wants to tear down our fantastic café to continue building their cement dream. We object and fight against that as stubbornly as we've learned from Pippi Longstocking. Come on, join us and support us!"

The third moment arrived in May 1983, when Astrid Lindgren sparked a media debate that still reverberates in animal-protection circles across Europe. Her call was typically direct and drastic: "Give back the bull to the cow!" Her purpose was to insist on open grazing for cattle and the humane transportation of slaughter animals; again, the energetic intervention led eventually to a new animal-rights law, Lex Lindgren, which was presented to Astrid on her 80th birthday by the Swedish prime minister.

As ever, the strength of her argument had rested less on her public image as a famous author and more on her ability to project her voice as that of a very ordinary, even ignorant person writing to a representative of the governing authorities. Her tone was like the child in Andersen's tale The Emperor's New Clothes: naïve and unmasking at the same time. Yet her approach was never populist or preachy. She never assumed that she spoke for others, except those without a voice of their own: children and animals.

It was the same spirit that animated her letter in 1987 to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, as he was preparing a peace conference in Moscow. She quoted a Swedish boy who had written to her: "I am afraid of the war. Are you also afraid?" Gorbachev answered her that "we in the Soviet Union will do all we can to prevent a world catastrophe." In 1991, when the Baltic states's drive for national independence was accelerating and Lithuanian protestors were met by Soviet tanks, Astrid Lindgren again wrote to the architect of perestroika and glasnost, reminding him of his earlier promise to her:

"Your earlier assurances made me feel so safe and happy and full of confidence in your good will, Mr Gorbachev. But now I have begun to wonder: what about that statement that ‘all children no matter where they live' shall not be bereft of their future. All children - that means also that Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian children shall be able to feel completely safe. So why aren't they? Why are they at his very moment scared to death of Soviet tanks and machine guns?"

"I write for the child in me", Astrid Lindgren said. It was this constant divination of the wellspring of her early experience and imaginative riches that gave her such potent creative resources. It is also why, though Astrid Lindgren is no longer with us, her books will be read as long as children are born who come to learn the joys of reading - and of life.

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