Long live Pippi Longstocking: The girl with red plaits is back

Astrid Lindgren's classic children's novel about a naughty nine-year-old Swedish girl captured the world's imagination.
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Who could lead a more enviable life than the nine-year-old girl in Villa Villekula, on the outskirts of a little Swedish country town? There she is all by herself, and while it is sad that her mother died when she was a baby and her father is away sailing a distant ocean, the advantages of her situation enormously outweigh the disadvantages.

She can go to bed at what time she likes and can always sleep in her preferred way, feet on the pillow, head under the covers; she can make pancakes whenever she chooses, and for company has her horse, quartered on the porch and fed with brandy-snaps, and her monkey, Mr Nilsson. No wonder that the nice normal children next door gravitate to her household, or that the town authorities get worried and alarmed. Luckily the girl is as strong in body as she is in willpower. So when two interfering policemen call on her, she takes hold of them by their belts, frogmarches them out of the garden and deposits them, astounded, on the roadway, remaining free to do whatsoever she pleases. But being kind-hearted, she is ever ready to help others.

This little girl is Pippi Longstocking. The famous Swedish feminist and educationalist Ellen Key (1849-1926) declared that the 20th century would be the "century of the child", loosening all the crippling restrictions and obligations imposed on children in the previous one. And if anyone has a claim to be "the child of the 20th century", it is surely Pippi, thanks to another Swedish feminist and writer, Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), from Key's own province, Småland. Pippi's many acts of defiance constitute a good-natured protest against the tyrannies of convention, of being continually required to deny one's instinctive preferences. Pippi has something of the indomitable individualism of Huckleberry Finn, a character Lindgren loved, but she is not simply a girl boldly doing boys' things. In her panache and inventiveness she appeals to the longings, the secret psychic demands of girls and boys, and indeed has happily united them in readership all over the world (Lindgren has been translated into 91 languages).

Lindgren followed Pippi with other characters as memorable and as healthily exemplary: the boy detective, Bill Bergson; the irrepressible small boy, Emil; the run-away orphan, Rasmus who befriends a hobo; and, most impressively, the eponymous Ronia the Robbers' Daughter, healer of a long-standing rift.

Pippi Longstocking first came out in Sweden in 1945, an appropriate year, it now seems, considering its author's passionate lifelong involvement, inside and outside her writings, with the cause of peace. It was Astrid Lindgren's third published book. An earlier version – more closely based on those tales she told her daughter, Karin, when she had pneumonia – had been rejected by the prestigious publishing house Bonniers, but Rabé* & Sjögren, who had had some success already with two books of Lindgren's, were prepared to take on the revised text. Nothing however could have prepared them for the huge reception Pippi received, fiercely criticised on the one hand as irresponsible and seditious, and enthusiastically applauded on the other as a work of liberation and an outstanding artistic accomplishment. Lindgren then became Children's Books Editor at Rabé* & Sjögren, and in this capacity, as well as in her own prolific publications, had incalculable influence on the development of the genre. And this in a society, Social-Democrat Sweden, which had an active and vanguard appreciation of the medium's importance to developing lives.

In 2007 we are honouring Astrid Lindgren's centenary, but this has turned out to be also the year in which we mourn the passing of Ingmar Bergman, who died on 30 July. There is a rightness here: these two great artists not only greatly admired one another, they shared a truly Shakespearean creativity which poured itself into many different forms. Astrid Lindgren wrote some 40 books (excluding those she edited or merely contributed to): adventure stories, tales for very young children drawn from her own childhood in rural Småland (The Six Bullerby Children and its sequels), humorous books such as those featuring that eccentric motor-propelled being, Karlsson-on-the-Roof and the little boy he visits on his flights, and, later on, longer and more sombre fiction which, like Bergman's Wild Strawberries or Through a Glass Darkly, intricately blends reality and fantasy to explore the themes of loneliness, confusion of identity, and the inevitability and ubiquity of death. The first of these was Mio, My Son (1954) dealing with a boy unable to relate to his foster-parents, who finds a genie in an ordinary beer-bottle lying by the park-bench on which he likes aimlessly to sit. The genie transports him to Farawayland where lives his real father, the King. Mio's adventures are clearly self-projections, compensating for his loveless life and his envy of his best playmate, but are presented by Lindgren with beguiling authenticity.

The deepest springs of her creativity lay in her own childhood, with parents unusually affectionate to each other and to their four offspring; her father a hard-working tenant-farmer near the delightful town of Vimmerby. Son and three daughters were expected to help with farm-work, but expected also to play, to read, to develop their imaginations. Lindgren believed her own oeuvre was a harvesting of all her childhood playtimes, and of her intimacy with Nature. She told Birgitta Thompson for the issue of Swedish Book Review honouring her 90th birthday, "The countryside occupied every single one of my days from morning till night, and filled them so intensively... Our games and our dreams were inspired and nourished by rocks and trees."

In contrast, her early maturity was a difficult period. She had to quit her job on a local newspaper because, unmarried, she was pregnant, and her move to Stockholm entailed painful difficulties with money, work and mode of living. These years explain her books' unbounded empathy with the lost, the isolated, the ill-adjusted, and, too, the unforgettable vividness of her rendering of Stockholm, inextricable alike from Mio, My Son, a study of sadness, and the hilarious Karlsson-on-the-Roof. In 1941, married and with a regular family, she moved into a large flat overlooking the city's Vasa Park.

It was here, in May 1994, that I visited her, in the company of my friend Sonja Svensson, director of Sweden's Children's Book Institute, with which Astrid Lindgren had been involved for many years. We arrived to find her down in the hallway, busying herself with a problem of the block's rubbish-disposal that she felt management hadn't sorted out properly. After she'd led us upstairs to the first floor, she stopped outside her front door, and said to me: "Now that my eye-sight is failing, I have to take a very close look at a visitor, to find out what kind of person I'm with." She took my head in her hands and proceeded to explore my whole face with her weak but keenly inquisitive blue eyes. It was an unnerving business, but, once it was over, I felt strangely cleansed, as though temporarily rid of all my more trivial thoughts. The flat's main room, in which we sat for tea and cakes, was a beautiful light-honouring one with, outside the window, Vasa Park in blossom, and on the walls landscape-paintings of Småland. But my eye kept travelling to the sculptures of white birds on various surfaces, recalling for me that snow-white-pigeon which carries the dying narrator of probably her most complex book, The Brothers Lionheart (1973), to the halfway world of Nangiyala.

She then spoke to me of that book, in which a desperately sick boy has to face the terrible fact that his loved elder brother has died while rescuing him from a fire. Many parents and teachers had written to her, grateful for its creative approach to that hardest of all subjects for the young, but the letter that made her proudest was that from an American war-veteran, telling her it had cured him of fear of death. Fear of death is vanquished by love of life, and Astrid Lindgren gave me fresh evidence of that last quality of hers by talking about her strong fellow-feeling for animals, and how nothing she had achieved had given her more satisfaction than the passing of a law for which she'd laboured hard, the "Lex Lindgren" for the humane treatment of farm animals.

My friend Sonja told her: "Sweden wouldn't be Sweden without you, Astrid!" And that is how her country still feels. There were commemorative events earlier this year in Vimmerby at her favourite cherry-blossom time, there will be further ones, on her actual birthday, 14 November, there and in Stockholm. Here, Oxford University Press has issued a handsome edition of a new translation of Pippi Longstocking, of which they were the original British publishers. Astrid Lindgren, like Ingmar Bergman, is a gift from Sweden to the whole world.

'Pippi Longstocking' by Astrid Lindgren, trs Tiina Nunnally, illus Lauren Child (Oxford £14.99) is published on 11 September