”I write fairy tales, and humanity needs fairy tales. That’s how it’s always been and that’s all there is to it.” This is how Astrid Lindgren expressed it when Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter was presented to journalists in 1981.
One of Astrid Lindgren’s favourite books was Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which is all about how the author built himself a dwelling from forest material and tried to live as solitary and simple a life as possible, at a distance from the materialistic city culture from which he had fled. Since Astrid lived in the city she was not able to enjoy nature all the time, but she could be there in her imagination. That’s how the story about Ronja began – with a longing to the forest.
Astrid Lindgren’s entire life had to do with being in tune with nature, something that was closely connected with a child’s intuition and inherent spontaneity. She once said: “If anyone asks me what I remember from my childhood, my first thought is actually not of the people. But of that beautiful environment that framed my days then and filled them with such intensity, that as a grownup you can hardly comprehend it. Wild strawberries among the rocks, carpets of blue spring flowers, meadows full of cowslips, special places where blueberries could be found, the forest where dainty pink flowers were nestling in the moss, the paddocks around Näs where we knew every little path and every little stone, the creek with the waterlilies, ditches, streams and trees – I remember all this more than the people.”
The natural environment around Ronja is also full of supernatural beings. Primarily it is populated with fantastic, more or less dangerous powers that are out to get you. Researcher Vivi Edström has pointed out that Astrid Lindgren takes up a dialogue with forest romanticism, forest terror and the forest fairy tale tradition. From those fairytales we remember the trolls and the giants, the harpies and the elves. But Astrid created her own mystical forest inhabitants that are reminiscent of traditional fairy tale characters, whilst they also represent something new: grey dwarfs, wild harpies, rumphobs… That Astrid Lindgren was protective of her creations was something one Swedish school book publisher became painfully aware of, when in a textbook about religion – in connection with an excerpt from Ronja, the Robber’s daughter – they had written that the grey dwarfs “in reality were ordinary stones in the forest”. In a letter to the publisher in 1985 Astrid Lindgren wrote the following: “And who is it that is taking the liberty of such a meddlesome, or dare I say simple-minded interpretation? The grey dwarfs, mark my words, are the most gruesome little living creatures (though cowardly) that ever frightened a child out of its wits. And, as long as I live, no adult interpreter and destroyer is going to come and fool 6,000 children, or so, into thinking that ‘in reality’ there are no fairy tales.”
Besides the natural environment and the forest, there are other themes in the book about Ronja. The male and female theme is very evident in the story: Ronja’s mum Lovis has decided that the child is going to be a girl, and that this girl child is going to be a chief robber is a natural conclusion for both parents. Lovis is a strong image of a woman, a source of life and a role-model for Ronja. Her name is closely related to love. Ronja’s father, Matt is portrayed as the big child of the book whilst Lovis is the one who puts the men to work, drives them out when necessary and makes sure they keep themselves clean and fed. Ronja’s liberation from her parents and the classical coming-of-age theme is another red thread in the novel, as is the Romeo and Juliet story. The love between Ronja and Birk is however not first and foremost a romantic love, but focuses more on soul-mateship and a bonding that emerges out of their common sense of belonging to nature. They “…get affectionately attached to each other”, is how Astrid Lindgren expressed it in an interview in connection with the book release. The most important relationship in the book is actually the one between Ronja and her father, Matt.
Just as she created new forest inhabitants, Astrid also made up new names, words and expressions that she uses in the book. And, as the story is set in the middle ages it was important that the language and names of people and places would sound authentic and true to the times. Several of the first names have a very special background. Lena Törnqvist tells in her book “Man tar vanliga ord – att läsa om Astrid Lindgren” (Take ordinary words – Reading about Astrid Lindgren) (2015) that they are derived from Astrid’s school atlas of the Swedish alps. Ronja’s name is taken from the Ju-ronjaure-kåtan, northwest of the town of Arjeplog and the names of the robbers Fjosok (Fooloks) and Tjegge (Shaggy) come from the lakes Fjosoken and Tjeggevas.
Before the book was released, the name Ronja was practically non-existent. Nowadays it’s a name used in several countries – in Sweden alone 5529 women and one man have Ronja as their first name –and the name Lovis is increasing among newborns. Tage Danielsson’s well-loved Swedish film version from 1984 has naturally also contributed to the popularity of the book and the name. In addition to the character names there are other more or less new words and expressions in Ronja the Robber’s Daughter that have also found their way into the Swedish vocabulary, for example rumphobs and spring scream.
Ronja the Robber’s Daughter was the last novel that Astrid Lindgren wrote, at the age of 72. After 1981 she only produced picture books. The central theme of Ronja the Robber’s Daughter – man’s relationship with nature – came to be the last great passion in her life: the fight for the welfare of domestic animals and the preservation of the open landscape in Sweden. The animal protection campaign spanned a ten-year period in the 80s and 90s, and Astrid Lindgren became an important voice in the green debate.