Iconography: The Rather Extraordinary Astrid Lindgren and Pippi Longstocking
If any icons loom large, they're those of our formative years. Let's open up some children's books, shall we? With sales numbering at about 145 million copies and, according to UNESCO, as the world's twenty-fifth most translated author, Astrid Lindgren is about as formative as it gets. Who among us doesn't love Pippi Longstocking?
Astrid Lindgren was born in 1907, growing up in Näs, Sweden. She had her first child at eighteen, and started her storytelling by entertaining her children with stories she herself had been told when young. Lindgren thought up Pippi to cheer her daughter, Karin, when she was home sick one day. Lindgren was famous for being a supporter of children's and animal rights in particular. Following her death in 2002, the Swedish government instituted the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, awarded to authors whose work is in the spirit of Lindgren's. Promoting children and children's literature worldwide, the award of five million SEK is a pretty big deal – it was huge news here in Australia when Sonya Hartnett won the 2008 prize.
There's a quote attributed to Lindgren of which I can't find the source (if only I could search it out in the original Swedish!) that I think pretty perfect: "I don't consciously try to influence the children who read my books. All I dare hope for is that they may contribute a little bit towards a humane and democratic view of the world in the children who read them." Much better than stuffing children's stories with a moral without respect for their own thinking, no?
Lindgren's most beloved character is Pippi Longstocking, of course. There were a number of picture books, short stories, films and such, but the three original full length books were Pippi Longstocking (1945), Pippi Goes Aboard (1946) and Pippi in the South Seas (1948). Pippilotta Provisionia Gaberdina Dandeliona Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking moves back to Sweden when her father, a ship's captain, is lost at sea. She's convinced that he has become a cannibal king, and decides to live in her childhood home, Villekulla Cottage, until such a time as he will come back to get her. In the meantime, she befriends her neighbors, Tommy and Annika, keeps her horse on the front porch, goes to bed when she feels like it, and sleeps with her feet on the pillow and her head under the blankets when she gets there.
Pippi is simply one of my favorite characters. She has the most gloriously nonsensical logic. There's a part in Pippi Goes Aboard in which she asks for a half price ticket for a play, promising to look with one eye only. Pippi is resourceful, independent, and kind to her friends. She tries ever so hard to be polite but simply doesn't understand the social rules governing the behavior of the nice young girl she ought to be. There's a fantastic tea party scene for which Pippi shocks everyone by not behaving like a proper little lady, but "had painted her mouth a violent red with chalk, and blackened her eyebrows so much that she looked quite dangerous." What a delightful, gentle poke at compulsory femininity! She proceeds to eat too much cake, and sprinkles sugar on the floor–but the biggest problem is that she imposes herself on the adults' conversation. Adults are, in my experience, generally rather shocked when children expect to be treated as equal participants. A lot of Pippi's rudeness is simply different perceptions of social cues, and of children's value.
Lindgren uses Pippi to push a lot of gender boundaries, as with the latter's amazing physical strength. I like the passage in which she is preparing to wrestle a strongman:
"But you could never do it," said Annika. "Why, that's the strongest man in the world!"
"Man, yes," said Pippi. "But I'm the strongest girl in the world, don't forget."
And she wins. Many girls in children's books of the time are shy, strictly feminine and obedient to their parents, but Pippi allows the wild side of one's imagination to come through. Annika is set up as her good-girl contrast, however, and she ends up replicating the one dimensional misogynistic stereotype for that. I wish Annika (and Tommy for that matter) had been more fully formed rather than simply acting as the reader's way in, because the cardboard cutouts don't add much.
And yet. There's always an "and yet," isn't there? Pippi in the South Seas is chocked full of some horrible racial politics; I'll try not to pain you with too many of the details. Pippi is finally reunited with her father who, yes, turns out to be the king of a cannibal island. The residents of this island actually play their national anthem, "Here the conquering hero comes!" It's very much about being grateful for their "fat white chief," and it made my eyebrows about shoot into my hairline. Pippi is, of course, the 'velly fine white princess,' but at least she doesn't understand why her father's subjects are bowing to her, thinking the children are searching for something on the ground. The racial politics in Pippi Goes Aboard are likewise wince-worthy. One of these days, I should like to be able to have a memory of a favorite fictional childhood hero not sullied in some horrid respect, to feel like the author was writing for people like me.
Do give Pippi a go if you haven't already. If you have, what do you think of the books?
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