Most people know Astrid Lindgren as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, but this one – Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter – is a perennial favourite of hers, too. Originally published in the early 1980s, it has been made into a film, a stage play, and a musical, and it is currently being adapted by Studio Ghibli as an anime.
In some ways, it’s strange to think of this story having such a multifaceted life beyond its original format, because it is – on the surface, at least – an exceedingly simple tale. It opens in no-nonsense fashion: Matt, a robber chieftain, is nervously awaiting the birth of his first child. His wife Lovis (who likes to sing during the birthing process in order to ease the child’s passage into the world, which is all kinds of awesome) is unperturbed by the fact that she’s in labour, but the screeching of the harpies outside, who are flying about in the storm which rages overhead, is disturbing her peace. Her husband fires arrows out the window to disperse the harpies, and his band of robbers carouse in their dining hall, waiting for the child to be born, and Lovis quietly carries on with her important work. They all expect the baby to be a boy – a new robber chieftain, of course – but when the child eventually arrives, it is a girl, and everyone (especially her father) is instantly smitten.
[Matt] stood there gazing in admiration at her clear eyes, her little mouth, her black tufts of hair, her helpless hands, and he trembled with love. (p. 5)
As the new baby is being presented to the robbers, a huge clap of thunder bursts through the sky, and a lightning strike hits the fort in which the robbers live. Next morning, they discover that the fort has been split in half by the power of the lightning – but Matt, after an initial burst of futile rage (which is his calling card) decides to live much as before, except in half the space. His major worry is about the outhouse, which is now beyond ‘Hell’s Gap’, the name the robbers give to the chasm down the centre of their home.
Named by her mother – who had decided that Ronia would be her child’s name, whether it was a girl or a boy – she grows up the pet of all around her. She learns to crawl, and then to walk, and then to sing and dance and cavort as a good robber should. Then, eventually, there comes the day when Ronia wants to leave home and explore the forest all around.
Her parents don’t stand in her way – they warn her, in plain language, of the dangers she faces, and tell her what to do if she gets in trouble. If she falls in the river, she must swim; if she gets lost, she must find the right path. Matt roars in fear at the thought of what will happen if Ronia falls into Hell’s Gap, but she assures him she won’t, and so he tells her to go. I loved this bit: this book is one of the few children’s adventure stories I’ve read where the protagonist has both her parents living, and in this story the adults are ushered out of the way through their respect for, and trust in, their daughter; she wants to be free of them for a while, and so they allow her that freedom. As it turns out, Ronia’s first expedition almost meets with disaster – her father saves her from a bunch of grey dwarfs, but she learns from the experience and does not repeat it.
One day, she sees another child sitting on the other side of Hell’s Gap, happily swinging his legs and looking quite at home. After some interrogation, she discovers he is Birk Borkason, the son of her father’s mortal enemy – Borka, the other robber chieftain who lives in the forest. Matt and Borka have been arch-enemies for years, getting in one another’s way and generally making life difficult – for a forest is only so big, after all, and how can it support two bands of robbers? Soldiers have chased Birk’s people away from their home, and the only refuge they could take was in the other half of Matt’s fort, across the terrifying gap. When Matt finds out, he is not pleased.
Slowly, the children become friends, eventually deciding to become unofficial sister and brother. Upset by their fathers’ inability to see eye to eye, and afraid they are going to be kept apart, they run away together into the forest where harpies, grey dwarfs, and even more fearful creatures live…
This story has a very simple plot, and there’s not much to it in terms of subplot or nuance. The dialogue is fun, the characterisation a little predictable, the threats of the forest somewhat toothless, but for all that I loved it. We know what will happen, but that doesn’t take away from the joy of reading it. The psychological complexity of Matt’s relationship not only with Ronia but also with his strong-willed, intelligent, resourceful and extraordinarily brave wife is a charm, and I loved Lovis’ calm, rational reactions to events in the book which stand in contrast to Matt’s passionate, hot-headed and rather impulsive decisions. The book has everything – birth and death, nature as a thing of beauty and also red in tooth and claw, the transformative power of love and friendship, and a particular kind of fairytale magic. I’m sorry I didn’t come across this book as a child, but if you know one (or you are one, even at heart), you can’t go wrong with this.
Spellbinding, sweet, and a deserved classic, this would be perfect for a ‘read aloud’ book, or an early reader for a confident child of six or seven upwards.