Astrid Lindgren is not so much an author as an industry – her sales figures are staggering: seventy or so books published in sixty countries in more than fifty languages. According to Patricia Crampton, provider of most of our English versions, she’s the most translated author in the world with more than thirty million copies sold.
Add to this the usual authorial spin-offs – tapes, cartoons, musicals, plays, movies and merchandising – and it’s small wonder that the Swedish Inland Revenue once taxed her annual income at 102%! Mind you, it did them little good. Her response was typical: a satirical fairy-story called ‘Pomperipossa in Monismania’ (no translation needed) at which the nation rocked with laughter. And, in the general election later that year, threw out the government. Astrid’s fault? She grins impishly and refers us to the tale of a little old lady during the Blitz. ‘She was sitting in the toilet in her house and at that very moment a bomb dropped and the house fell to pieces. When people came to dig her out, they found her laughing loudly. “Imagine,” said the old lady, “I just pulled the chain and the house fell in!”’
The story’s a perfect reflection of her humour and her modesty. Also that element of the subversive which brings instant child appeal. Right from the start, in fact, upsetting the expectations of her readership has been one of her trademarks. This, for instance:
She was nine years old and she
lived all alone.
She had neither mother nor,
Sob-stuff? Not a bit of it! ! Astrid has had her own share of misfortune, notably the early deaths of both her husband and her son, but you won’t hear about these from her. The sentence continues:
…which was really rather nice,
for in this way there was no-one
to tell her to go to bed just when
she was having most fun, and
no-one to make her take
cod-liver-oil when she felt like
Pippi Longstocking, of course. Strong enough to lift a horse, rich enough to keep a chest of gold pieces from her pirate father under her bed and sassy enough to confound any grown-up who crosses her path, Pippi appeared in Astrid’s third book, published in 1945. She made her creator famous. Ever since, it’s fair to say, a substantial proportion of Europe’s children, boys as well as girls, have hankered after freckles, red hair and a monkey called Nelson to perch on their shoulder.
How did she think of this extraordinary character? The question has cropped up so many times she has the answer down pat: ‘In 1941 my seven-year-old daughter Karin had pneumonia. Every night, when I sat by her bed, she would beg me to tell her a story. One evening, completely exhausted, I asked her what she would like to hear, and she answered, “Tell me a story about Pippi Longstocking!” (she made up the name right on the spot). I didn’t ask who Pippi Longstocking was, I just started telling a story about her. And because she had such a funny name, she turned out to be a funny little girl. Pippi was a hit with Karin, and later with her friends; I had to tell the story over and over again.
‘Then, one snowy March evening in 1944, I was taking a walk in central Stockholm… and I fell, spraining my ankle. It was quite a while before I was up and about again, and to pass the time I started writing down the Pippi stories (in shorthand – I still always write my stories first in shorthand, which I know from my secretarial days).
‘In May 1944, when Karin was ten, I wrote out the Pippi stories and gave them to her as a birthday present. Then I took a copy and sent it off to a publisher…’
As simple as that. Later, she took a job as an editor at that very same publisher, Rabén and Sögren, who soon came to realise what a phenomenon they’d taken on. Book after book of her own steadily followed. Pippi turned out to be just one of a whole repertory company of Lindgren characters – Bill Bergson, Master Detective; the Bullerby Children; Rasmus; Mardie; Little Lotta; Karlson-on-the-Roof; Emil – not to mention that mysterious little creature, the Tomten.
Perhaps this productivity isn’t altogether surprising. As a child she was already a natural storyteller. ‘I wrote,’ she says, ‘in some ways better than I do now! At school they kept telling me “you’re going to be an author when you grow up” and used to call me “the Selma Lagerlf of Vimmerby” which is the small town where I was born. Being compared with so famous a Swedish writer scared me so much I decided I’d never-never-never try.’ It was a decision she stuck to till that fall thirty years later brought the luckiest of lucky breaks. She’d re-discovered something she’d forgotten since her schooldays: ‘how much fun it is to write!’
Another re-discovery was her own childhood ‘in an old red house in the southern Swedish province of Småland’. The house, the landscape and the happiness crop up constantly in her work – a happiness always saved from sentimentality by her honesty and sharp eye for detail. Another constant is the importance of fathers even when, as with Pippi’s, they’re seldom present. ‘Maybe this is because I had the most wonderful father in the world. He was so loving – I never heard him say a harsh word to anybody. He was quite unusual for a farmer because they don’t usually show how they feel.’ Astrid’s exploration of father-daughter relationships is seen at its most acute in her last full-length book, Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter (1981) with its warmly observed Romeo-and-Juliet themes. Ronia’s problems centre less on her sweetheart Birk than on her father Matt whose narrowness and immaturity are the reverse of the qualities Astrid saw in her own father. Only when Matt is able to come to terms with his feelings is happiness possible.
Whether in her life or her books, Astrid has never been afraid to express how she feels. This includes her response to critics. It’s easy to forget today that even Pippi once had her detractors. ‘One old critic, he wrote that no normal child ever ate a whole cream-cake at a tea party. I told him that if there’s a child so strong that she can lift a horse I’m sure that she can eat like one too!’ At other times her work has been accused of promoting racism, socialism, anarchy, religion and atheism. Also that it could scare youngsters witless:
I hung there, wriggling and
feeling with my feet for
something to stand on. But there
was nothing. I was hanging over
a black, bottomless pit. There
was no-one to help. Soon I shall
fall down, I thought, and that will
be the end… ‘Help me,
someone, help me!’ I cried.
Someone came up the stairs. Was
it Pompoo? ‘Pompoo, dear
Pompoo, help me!’ I whispered.
‘Yes, take my hand. I’ll help
you,’ whispered somebody who I
thought was Pompoo. ‘Take my
hand and I’ll help you!’ I took his
hand. But it was not a hand. It
was a claw of iron.
The evil Sir Kato, with his iron claw and heart of stone, is the villain of her fantasy Mio, My Son (1954) in which a young orphan explores his true identity in an enchanted land. Some reviewers condemned Sir Kato as much too nightmarish for young readers. Astrid’s answer was brisk. ‘The child in me wanted it this way. I can’t consider other adults – they must take care of their own children. If they think it is too hard, then take the book away.’
Her trust in her sense of what children wanted, and could bear, was put to an even tougher test in The Brothers Lionheart (1973):
Jonathan knew that l was going
to die. I think everyone knew,
except for me. They knew at
school, too, because I was away
most of the time, coughing and
always being ill. For the last six
months, I haven’t been able to go
to school at all. All the ladies
Mother sews dresses for knew it,
too, and it was one of them who
was talking to Mother about it
when I happened to hear,
although I wasn’t meant to. They
thought I was asleep.
In fact, to Ruski’s dismay, Jonathan dies first trying to rescue his younger brother from a fire… and when the two are re-united in a land beyond death called Nangiyala, they’re soon involved in an epic battle between good and evil, light and darkness, at the end of which, apparently victorious over the evil tyrant Tengil and his dragon Katla, they die all over again! No wonder adults were alarmed. ‘There was a teacher,’ Astrid smiles, ‘who said in a meeting I had with psychologists, that it was too cruel for the brother to die twice. But I replied “the more you die the more you get used to it.” And when I came home that evening from the meeting there was a telephone call from the little girl who plays Emil’s sister in the Emil films and she said, “This is the best book you’ve ever written – thank you for making such a happy ending.” You see, children and adults don’t read books in the same way.’
Astrid Lindgren’s sense of the way children read, and how to write for it, has won her a world-wide following and a stack of honours from the Hans Christian Andersen Award to the Leo Tolstoy Gold Medal. More than a dozen primary schools have been named after her in Germany alone. Yet she still lives in the same Stockholm flat she’s owned for more than forty years, moving each summer to a pretty, unpretentious house in the Swedish archipelago. From her windows she can look down her garden to the sea where huge ferryboats lumber past on their way to Finland. These apart, with its deep red walls, white woodwork and tiled roof, the house might almost be the one where she grew up in Småland. Or even Pippi’s Villekulla Cottage. In a sense, for all the achievements of her life, she’s travelled no distance at all. ‘I remember my childhood and how I felt and what I thought very clearly. I wanted to be a child forever and ever. So I write my books entirely for myself – for the child who is still there in me and who knows exactly how she wants those books to be. If I like them then I think other children may like them, too. And it seems that they do.’
A selection of Astrid Lindgren’s books
Pippi Longstocking, Puffin, 0 14 03.0894 6, £1.99 pbk
The Six Bullerby Children, Magnet, 0 416 89500 X, £1.75 pbk
Karlson on the Roof, Methuen, 0 416 80240 0, £5.50; Magnet, 0 416 58010 6, £1.50 pbk
Mardie’s Adventures, Magnet, 0 416 87610 2, £1.75 pbk
Lotta Leaves Home, Magnet, 0 416 27430 7, £1.50 pbk
The Fox and the Tomten, sadly out of print.
Emil and the Soup Tureen, Beaver, 0 09 942210 7, £1.50 pbk
The Brothers Lionheart, sadly out of print
Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, Methuen, 0 416 26220 1, £6.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.1720 1, £2.50 pbk
The Dragon with Red Eyes, Methuen, 0 416 64180 6, £5.95
Acknowledgements to BBC Radio 4 for material from the programme ‘The Girl Who Never Grew Up’ broadcast in September 1988.