Swedish babes in the wood: #NordicFINDS23

© C A Lovegrove

Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter /
Ronia Rövardotter (1981)
by Astrid Lindgren,
translated by Patricia Crampton.
Oxford University Press, 2010 (1983).

“I write fairy tales, and people need fairy tales. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it is.”


First published in Swedish in 1981, Ronja Rövardotter was the last novel that Astrid Lindgren wrote at the age of 72, and it’s the kind of fairytale she thought people needed, essentially a Romeo and Juliet story but with a happy ending, set in an alternative medieval Sweden.

Matt and Lovis are in charge of a group of twelve robbers who waylay unwary travellers in what’s known as Matt’s Forest before retreating to their safe refuge on Matt’s Mountain, an eerie called Matt’s Fort approachable only by the Wolf’s Neck. There are no children however in the band – until one dark and stormy night when little Ronia is born, the baby girl who immediately becomes the apple of Matt’s eye.

But the night of Ronia’s birth a terrific lightning bolt splits the castle asunder. And in time that other part of the castle separated by what’s termed Hell’s Gap is taken over by a rival band of robbers led by Borka, to Matt’s impotent rage. The scene is thus set for a bitter feud between the two groups; will brave young Ronia be able to reconcile the rivals or will things turn out entirely differently from the usual narrative predictions for children’s stories?

Moat at Raglan Castle © C A Lovegrove

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this tale, either before or during much of the reading of it. It begins in a jokey fashion, mostly fixated on Matt’s comic temper tantrums with him smashing food or drink against the castle hall’s walls, but it soon becomes clear that these displays of unrestrained anger are not only dangerous but may well lead to unforeseen outcomes. What then if Matt’s beloved Ronia were to cross or contradict him? And what will happen when Ronia realises exactly how Matt’s band acquires all the goods that she takes for granted?

As Ronia grows up she takes to exploring the surrounding woods and enjoying the delights of nature. But as well as birds, fish and wild horses, even bears, the forest is home to other unfamiliar creatures: vildvittror or wild ‘harpies’ – a bloodthirsty type of spirit or wight (from the Swedish vittra or vættr) – and in the winter the troglodyte rumpnissar or rumphobs, tiny primitive goblins. There are also grey dwarfs and murktrolls to cope with, and the siren calls of unseen ‘unearthly ones’. The unsettling unpredictability of these supernatural beings matches the extreme impetuosity of the very human Matt, requiring continuous care and caution. But Ronia finds there’s another being in the forest – Birk Borkason, son of the rival chief – and as a result of her meeting him nothing will be the same as before.

Fairytales aren’t just about the supernatural and about magic, they’re about how individuals respond and react when they find themselves confronted with unfamiliar challenges in unusual circumstances, and that’s certainly the case with Lindgren’s story. For here we discover relationships both sweet and heartbreaking, and choices that inevitably turn out to be brave or foolish, just as in traditional tales; and more than that, almost every seemingly simple deed or situation can be symbolic, hinting at a corresponding future incident.

I was pleasantly surprised by this children’s story, seemingly uneven and unfocused at first but impressing me the more it progressed. It’s enlivened by fairytale conventions such as the terrifying repetitious calls of the vildvittror crying “Now the blood will run, ho ho!” and the traditional trope of the Babes in the Wood, yet we’re presented with many well-drawn individuals within the closed society of the robber bands.

But the heart of the story is Lindgren’s own love of nature – the forest of her childhood memories in Näs with its changing seasons, its caves, pools, waterfalls and it’s beings both real and imagined – all encapsulated in Ronia and her fierce love of Matt and Lovis, her ‘brother’ Birk Borkason, and her friends such as Noddle-Pete (Skalle-Per in the original). The call of the wild, or the comforts of home – can these opposites ever be reconciled?

Nordic FINDS 2023: AnnaBookBel.net

My Swedish fiction read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS; it also qualifies for the tree icon in Bookforager’s Picture Prompt Book Bingo 2023

17 thoughts on “Swedish babes in the wood: #NordicFINDS23

    1. I still haven’t tried any Pippi Longstocking titles but a couple of bloggers suggested I try Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart, and like that novel Ronia‘s plot, rarely predictable in its direction, is all about sibling loyalty and affection – though here the two youngsters aren’t blood relatives. I found it rather touching so you might find it worth a look, Annabel!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas #NordicFINDS23 – AnnaBookBel

  2. I was never that into Pippi, but love all Lindgren’s other books that I’ve read. Thanks for highlighting this one. I recall that the kids loved it when I read it aloud, while teaching elementary school long ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m new to Lindgren, Lory, and our kids were strangely denied the pleasure of Pippi’s exploits (though never at a loss for reading matter) – so it’s interesting to finally see what she’s about!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved Pippi Longstocking when I was a kid because she did all the things I longed to do and then some. Don’t know how I’d react if I came to those tales as an adult.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s difficult to know how we might feel about something we adored when we were young I suppose – whether the same, or more, or less – unless and until we try. When it comes to books I know for me most revisits rarely recapture the impressions I had lodged in my memory. But it may be different for you!

      Liked by 1 person

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