To Astrid Lindgren: Farewell and thank you
Birgitta Thompson
This appreciation of the life and work of Astrid Lindgren appeared in the 2002:1 issue.

Pippi LongstockingAstrid Lindgren, the children’s writer known and loved all over the world, died at her home in Stockholm on 28 January, 2002, at the age of 94. British national newspapers promptly announced her death the next day in detailed obituaries under headings ranging from “Swedish children’s author who created the rebellious Pippi Longstocking and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” and “children’s writer whose independent heroine Pippi Longstocking helped her sell 80m books” to “author of the Pippi Longstocking books whose campaigning gave every Swedish pig the right to a happy life”. From the forties onwards, she helped to raise once and for all the then low status of children’s literature in Sweden, and to change adult views of children and their needs. “I don’t want to write for adults. I want to write for readers who can work miracles. Only children work miracles when they read,” she said. She knew what every child’s life could be like, if only that child were afforded respect and love and more love still, so essential for anybody so “new to this world”. On being asked what she meant by her writing, her answer was inevitably: “Meant and meant... I didn’t mean anything at all.” Her basic attitude was that she wrote to amuse the child within herself: “the only child that can inspire me is the child I once was myself’; “you only need to have been a child yourself once — and remember roughly what it was like” to look at everything with fresh and new eyes. Her own happy childhood on a farm close to the small town of Vimmerby in the southern Swedish province of Småland is essential to Astrid Lindgren’ s writing, but rather than being directly reflected in her stories, most of them are “just versions of my own experiences in my far- off childhood where they gleam in my memory like flashes from a lighthouse”. Now that clear, shining beacon has been extinguished — but her books will remain with us forever.

A hundred thousand people from three generations lined the streets to pay their last respects when the funeral procession passed through the city of Stockholm on a sunny day between winter and early spring; the white coffin adorned with red roses was carried appropriately in a horse-drawn hearse with an unsaddled white stallion following immediately behind it, a symbol of a much loved authorship, and also a reference to Mio’s beloved horse in Mio, My Son, and the importance horses always had for Astrid Lindgren, both in her books and in her life. The funeral service in Storkyrkan, the Stockholm Cathedral, was televised, and the congregation comprised family and friends as well as the king and queen and the crown princess, government representatives and other specially invited dignitaries. A little bunch of blue cornflowers from a nine-year-old girl with a “thank you for all the books” was among the floral tributes surrounding the coffin, together with those from friends and colleagues at her publishing house of Rabén & Sjögren, the royal family, parliament, the government and the Swedish Academy. After the funeral her wish finally to return home was granted, and she was interred in the family grave in Vimmerby cemetery. The tenant farmer’s daughter had what amounted almost to a state funeral, an honour that she herself would not have been particularly impressed or overawed by. Far more likely would have been for her to seize the opportunity in true Småland style, with so many prominent people present, and demand to know from the prime minister what he intended to do for refugee children. Once she had elicited a promise that action would be taken to improve things, she would have patted him on the cheek, like the little boy he was still in her eyes.

Children always took centre stage for Astrid Lindgren — undoubtedly this goes some way towards explaining part of her phenomenal success with young readers. I witnessed this instant and natural rapport on the only occasion I came face to face with Astrid Lindgren, when she was in Wales in October, 1978, to collect the International Writers’ Prize from the Welsh Arts Council, one of the many national and international awards she was to receive over the years. We were able to take along our son to a small reception in her honour, so that he could meet this magic woman whose stories he loved and knew so well, and ask her to sign his Swedish copy of The Brothers Lionheart. She very kindly did this, of course, but then lavished all her interest on this the only child in sight, much to the dismay no doubt of local academics and dignitaries present. Seeing her in action was something of a revelation, the more so as it was so completely natural and unpremeditated; she simply homed in on the individual that to her was the most interesting among those present, the child.

It all started a long time ago with a strange name and an equally strange character: out of the blue Astrid Lindgren ‘s daughter Karin asked her mother to tell her about “Pippi Longstocking” one day in 1941. When the book was published in 1945 it was an immediate success: the children loved the escapades of this rumbustious girl with a heart of gold; she would never grow up, could do whatever she wanted since there were no parents around to tell her when to go to bed or to take her cod-liver oil; she was the strongest girl in the world and had unlimited funds in her suitcase full of gold coins. However, the following year Pippi was caught up in the on-going discussion about new ideas for bringing up children and liberal education: supporters of old authoritarian values clashed with modern reformers after John Landquist, a leading literary critic and professor of psychology and pedagogics, had lashed out at the book and its author for being vulgar, tasteless and even abnormal. Astrid Lindgren had not yet reached the stage when she actively campaigned for causes she felt strongly about, and simply let the three Pippi books speak for themselves; twenty years later she was on friendly terms with the professor, when the two of them were members elect of the same prestigious literary society. Meanwhile, Pippi marched on supreme, and children loved her wholeheartedly and unquestioningly, in the same way as they enjoyed the everyday adventures of the Noisy Village children and the hair-raising pranks of Emil, Madicken and Karlson-on-the-Roof.

According to statistics provided by her agent in 1997, Astrid Lindgren wrote forty books for children and young people and forty-four picture books, in addition to a number of anthologies and other books, such as the one about her matchless parents Samuel August from Sevedstorp and Hanna from Hult and their life together in the early years of the last century, a veritable Song of Songs in provincial Småland. Her international successes are equally impressive, and she has supposedly been translated into no less than seventy-six different languages. Almost everything she ever wrote has been turned into films, TV-scripts and plays.

It is worth remembering that she wrote in several different genres suitable for many age-groups, that she regenerated each genre and endowed it with her own particular style, paying no attention to fashionable trends and least of all to political correctness. She was herself a yardstick, setting brilliant, ingenious standards of her own, from Pippi with her fibs and irreverent treatment of anything stuffy, false and arrogant, through her melancholy fantasy fairy-tales and her revival of the Räuber Roman genre in Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter (1981). In her disarmingly shy and modest way she said that this book came about because she longed so very much to get out into the forest again. By then she had lived in Stockholm since the mid 1920s, admittedly with a summer cottage in the archipelago north of Stockholm, and the refuge that her childhood home always provided her with. Incidentally, she firmly believed that all children ought to live in the country, or have their roots there in some way, in order to establish a similar kind of innate relationship with nature that she herself had in her childhood and managed to give to her own two children and presumably to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too: trees to climb, horses to ride, wild strawberries, the hepatica drifts, the meadows awash with cowslips, the blueberry patches, the immense joy of seeing the beauty of cherry-blossom and a rambling rose in the meadow, of feeling the tongue of a calf and the feet of a newly-hatched chicken, of hearing the call of a corncrake and the hooting of an owl. Another world a long time ago, no doubt, where she and her siblings used to play so hard, it was a wonder they didn’t play themselves to death — when they did not have to work, of course: there was plenty of work to be done on a small-holding almost a century ago. No wonder she was virtually a one-woman green party, fighting to save the traditional countryside and her beloved trees, and to campaign for farm animal rights. It was here she was also imbued with the Småland oral tradition through her father’s tales of what it was like long, long ago, a heritage she used with great wit in her Emil books.

She became something of a national icon in Sweden, and was declared Swede of the Year for 1997 and later proclaimed Swede of the Century; people used to take notice whenever she expressed an opinion. Mutterings were first heard when she let the taboo subject of death feature openly in The Brothers Lionheart, 1973. The story of two brothers and their sacrifices in their fight against evil forces touches the heart of every child who reads it, and it has even helped many a dying child to come to terms with life’s toughest aspect. However, her courage in challenging convention was not merely confined to her books, if she felt strongly about the issue at hand. There are two particularly famous occasions that spring to mind, first her criticism of the Swedish tax system, and secondly her fight for decent conditions for farm animals; she took on the government and proved to be a formidable opponent with a large public following. That was something the ruling Social Democrats discovered to their cost when she joined the protests against a tax system that legally charged some citizens more than 100% of their income, including herself. Although she said she had no objection to paying a reasonable amount of tax and actually supported the party, she thought things had got badly out of hand, stressing her point in her saga of Pomperipossa in the tabloid Expressen in March, 1976. This really stirred things up, making the then minister of finance advise her to stick to what she was good at, her story-telling, and leave politics to the professionals. Meanwhile, members of the otherwise silent majority wrote to Astrid Lindgren and provided her with more fuel for the ensuing debate: she went on to state that much to her own regret and disappointment, Swedish Social Democracy had betrayed its own ideals and she therefore felt compelled to urge the public to make sure there was “one hell of a change in direction”. The saddest thing about the Pomperipossa affair was, she said, that if the action of a “celebrity” was needed to correct sheer madness, then all was not well with democracy. In the autumn that same year the Social Democrats lost the general election, and for the first time in forty years Sweden had a non-socialist government. It was generally felt that Astrid Lindgren’s action had contributed to this, and leading Social Democrats regretted that her views had not been taken seriously early on by those responsible.

Astrid Lindgren’s action was governed entirely by sympathy for those who were suffering because of the autocratic attitude of those in power; this to her was more important than any solidarity she had always felt for the working class behind the ruling party. She had always stood up for victims of injustice, oppression and violence, not least starving and suffering children all over the world. It is this strong emotional involvement that was characteristic of her public actions from the end of the 1970s to her ninetieth birthday. This does not mean that she entered discussions without being fully equipped with information, common sense, analytical skills and humour. In her concrete language, calves and pigs were live individuals in a living countryside, and not economic units in the large-scale food production industry. Britain would have been well blessed had there been a campaigner of her stature in the recent foot-and-mouth crisis. In time for her eightieth birthday the Social Democratic prime minister made sure the laws governing cruelty to animals were made more humane and pushed through the so-called Lex Lindgren in the wake of her campaign for animal rights. Unfortunately the final result was a much watered-down version of what Astrid Lindgren and her veterinary expert had originally proposed.

If one flicks through her books, one certainly catches glimpses of similar kinds of emotional involvement, be it in Pippi, Emil, the Lionheart brothers or the stirringly melancholy and beautiful fairy-tales of Sunnanäng (South Wind Meadow, 1959). They all begin with the set phrase: “Long, long ago, when people were living in poverty...”, and show something of the artistic mastery Astrid Lindgren achieved in her fantastic tales, Mio, My Son and The Brothers Lionheart. This was a much overlooked book in which the author first gave way to her own feelings of melancholy, so long repressed. She showed that children, too, need to be moved and stirred by art, and should not always be fed on a diet of nice, cosy stories, but need to be confronted with large and difficult emotions, involving love and death. As her biographer points out, it was when Astrid Lindgren dared to probe more deeply into herself and confront her own pessimistic feelings that her writing achieved its characteristic qualities: its strong emotional intensity, and the fluctuations between ecstasy and grief, fear and confidence. Simmering indignation lies behind the sorrow expressed in these fairy-tales, or legends, as somebody has labelled them, where the cuckoo calls like one possessed in the spring twilight.

The richness and diversity in Astrid Lindgren is firmly based on the security and freedom of her childhood, the love and trust between child and adult she was privileged to experience to the full and later immortalize in her books. She knew that we have to cry an awful lot at times in order to laugh even more, and she was not afraid to write about it, least of all for children. At her funeral Inger Nilsson, who played Pippi in the films some thirty years ago, said that if ever she was asked again if she was as rich as Pippi, she would say, “Yes, I am, for I knew Astrid.”

Thank you, Astrid Lindgren, for having made every one of your readers over three generations so much richer through your books.