Today’s post will be a short but heartfelt tribute occasioned by the recent birthday anniversary of Astrid Lindgren, falling on 14th November. Astrid Lindgren was – and still is – one of the most popular, prolific, and influential authors of children’s literature, one of the most translated, too, right on the top with the classics: Grimms and Andersen. And most empathetic, and humane, of them all ;).
But why do I write about her on a blog dedicated to fantasy and science fiction? I have my reasons, rest assured :).
Although she didn’t write many fantasy books, Astrid Lindgren was an exceptional fantasy writer, one of the greatest among all authors of books for children, and probably the best the whole Swedish literature has to offer. Period. And don’t tempt me, I could forever go on about Shakespeare, Goethe or Mickiewicz being great fantasy writers as well :D.
Lindgren is usually associated with very funny and at the same time poignant depictions of childhood – and rightly so. Childhood in Lindgren’s books is usually a form of near-utopia: relaxed, liberal, free and easy, unlimited and filled with unconditional love – even if children need to work or they don’t always get whatever they ask for (and their wishes are much smaller and easier to fulfill than the wishes of modern children ;)). Emil of Lönneberga, The Six Bullerby Children, Pippi Longstocking, Lotta on Troublemaker Street – these are the most widely known examples, rooted in the popular culture and in children’s hearts (even if children in question are long past their adolescence). I was always a staunch admirer of Emil, who managed to get himself in deep trouble even during so mundane activities as eating soup.
But Astrid Lindgren also wrote many fantasy books which quickly ascended to the place of honor in the canon of children’s literature. Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, Mio, My Son, and, last but not least, The Brothers Lionheart.
I’m a devoted fan of the first of these books – Ronja depicts a very deep and complicated relation between children and their fathers, a rarity in Lindgren’s books (at least those that I have read), where father is usually a rather distant, slightly vague – even if loving – figure. Ronja the Robber’s Daughter tells the universal story of growing up, but growing up in very peculiar circumstances. An old fortress in the woods, divided into two separate halves by a cataclysmic storm, where two feuding bands of robbers live alternatively in quarrel and uneasy truce. The woods surrounding the castle are full of fantastical creatures, sometimes neutral, sometimes outright hostile, incessantly hovering on the borders of one’s awareness. The process of growing into the adulthood is depicted with care and precision – from learning one’s own limits – at times in painful, and quite imaginative way, to learning the limits of others. And the black-haired heroine, Ronja, is one of the most comprehensively developed young female figures in literature. We trace her growth from an unruly child to a young woman, and every step of this evolution rings true.
The Brothers Lionheart, on the other hand, is a high fantasy story in a Medieval setting, with dragons, evil tyrants, magical trumpets, swords and bows, and lindworms from beyond the time. This is the most analyzed of Lindgren’s story, with analyses themselves frequently ranging into the fantastical territory, and with many dignified academic ruminations of what really happened there. It’s also probably the darkest of Lindgren’s books, with death prominent and guiding the action from the very beginning. However, it is as well a tale about brotherly love, about compassion, devotion, and sacrifice. It’s an exceptionally poignant book, very moving and thought-provoking, and it resonates deeply with children (and not only children, if my case could be of any indication). The Brothers Lionheart tells the story of two brothers, Jonathan and Karl, on their journey through worlds – from our, mundane, to fantastical lands of Nangijala and, ultimately, Nangilima. It’s also a tale of heroism, courage and betrayal, of an of encroaching corruption defied in a fight against all odds, of a world that is black and white, yes, but which also can turn to all shades of gray, where appearances can be deceiving and our assumptions false.
And the illustrations, did I mention the illustrations? They’re beautiful, unsettling, detailed and intriguing, and can be downright scary.
Astrid Lindgren was one of my favorite authors when I was a child. Now I re-read her books, and find in them an ever more complex world, full of warmth and joy, but not shying from pain or sorrow either, tackling difficult themes with grace and depth of insight. It’s great literature, fantasy or not, and I cannot recommend it enough for children of all ages.