Tag Archives: Astrid Lindgren

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter’

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.

Image: ingebretsens.com

Image: ingebretsens.com

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.



Small Imaginations Hold the Most

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite stories was by Astrid Lindgren, and it was called ‘Nils Karlsson, the Elf.’

Image: gimmesumhunny.wordpress.com - also on this blog, there is a full transcript of the story, which pleased me hugely. I hadn't read it in a long, long time before this morning.

Image: gimmesumhunny.wordpress.com – also on this blog, there is a full transcript of the story, which pleased me hugely. I hadn’t read it in a long, long time before this morning.

It tells the story of a lonely little boy named Bertil, left alone each day while his parents go out to work. Beneath his bed is a nail, which – when he touches it and says a magic word – makes him small enough to play with a tiny elf named Nils Karlsson who happens to live in his bedroom. So, the story tells us, Bertil was lonely and afraid no more when his parents left him alone, because now he had a friend to keep him company, and the whole world looked new and different when he was no bigger than a thumb.

I loved that story then, and I love it now. I love it because it makes me realise how much a child’s imagination can hold – how many worlds, how many characters, how much magic. I loved it particularly because Bertil can grow big again when he’s finished playing, and so he has his parents on one hand, and the magical world of Nils Karlsson on the other. That, to me, was the perfect story.

This past weekend, my husband and I visited one of his oldest friends, a man whom my husband has known since they were both about four years old. This is particularly wonderful because my husband’s friend now has a daughter who has just turned four, as well as a little son who is just over eighteen months old. It was amazing to see my husband and his friend fall into the speech patterns and comfortable-ness of their shared youth while his wife and I played with the children – and by played, I do mean played. The four-year-old has an imagination the size of eternity.

During the few hours we spent together, this little girl, her brother, her Mummy and me took a plane journey across another galaxy in order to find a beach in China where we could swim with all our clothes on. We had a safety belt to hold us in our seats (which, when not moonlighting as airline security equipment, is a skipping rope); we had one ‘crash helmet’ (which was a witch’s hat left over from Halloween) which we had to share between us; we suffered alien attacks, volcanic eruptions, inter-stellar fuel difficulties and a severe make-believe coffee shortage until, finally, we arrived at our magic beach.

It was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.

I was amazed to hear the constant patter of chat from this tiny girl, all the time making up more and more elaborate tales, constructing story world after story world, taking changes and twists into account. Everything became magical – her scooter became a rocket, her parents’ bedroom a mighty sea. Her own bedroom was a magical cave. She read to me from her books, and told me better stories than the ones written on the page.

And then, like Bertil from my favourite story, when she wanted to return to her ‘own’ world it was a simple matter of refocusing her gaze. Her magic rocket became her scooter again, and her house stopped being an inter-galactic cruise ship just long enough for her to reassure herself that her Mummy and Daddy were still there, or for her to get some juice or finish her dinner. Then, when she wanted it to, her beautiful imaginary world clicked back into place and it was all systems go once more.

I think there’s something very profound in that little lesson.

It also made me wonder whether my own imagination, old and dessicated as it has become, is big enough and flexible enough to hold all the worlds that children can imagine so effortlessly, and so fluidly. I can but try.

Image: omtimes.com

Image: omtimes.com

(Note: my husband drew my attention to this article, a blog in Scientific American, about the value of pretend play to a child’s development. It’s very interesting, and rather relevant to my own little post. So, check it out if you like!)