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  • Astrid Lindgren's The Robber's Daughter:A Twentieth-Century Fairy Tale
  • Eva-Maria Metcalf (bio)

When Astrid Lindgren's The Brothers Lionheart appeared in Swedish in 1973, critic Alf Thoor referred to it as an extraordinary fairy tale.1 The same can be said about Lindgren's more recent novel, The Robber's Daughter, which appeared in Sweden in 1981.2 In what way is The Robber's Daughter an extraordinary fairy tale? What is so special about it? How does it fit into the fairy-tale tradition we are accustomed to, that is, the tradition that emerged in late seventeenth-century France and reached its peak in the early part of the nineteenth century in the Kinder-und Hausmärchen collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm? How does it break with that tradition? These are the main questions I would like to examine more closely in this paper.

If The Robber's Daughter is a fairy tale which is outside of the ordinary, why do I insist on calling it a fairy tale? Why not call it a children's novel with fantastic elements, a romance, or a robber's story as Vivi Edström does in a recent article?3 I have chosen this approach to The Robber's Daughter because I find in this novel many motifs and structural elements reminiscent of folk and fairy tales. Lindgren herself has repeatedly pointed to the formative power which the folk and fairy tales she read as a child have had on her literary production (in Törnqvist, 17). And, finally, I want to explore, from the perspective of children's literature, whether and how the fairy tale has survived in modern day typographic and electronic culture. I believe that the fairy tale is very much alive in the form of children's novels by such writers as Michael Ende, Janosch, and Astrid Lindgren. The Robber's Daughter is a fairy tale which has been adapted, transformed and altered to meet the demands and reflect the conceptual horizon of a child growing up in twentieth-century Western society, and it has enough complexity to satisfy the adult reader, as well.

Along with major shifts in means of production and communication, narrative patterns also change, retaining only traces of their former manifestations. Walter Ong has expressed this paradox of change for the sake of continuity, which I find manifested in The Robber's Daughter, by saying: "We have to die to continue living." The acknowledgement of [End Page 151] the historicity of the fairy tale is fairly recent and has led to its demystification. In the late nineteen sixties and in the seventies, the underlying authoritarian and sexist attitudes of fairy tales were revealed through "alternative" renditions of the classical fairy tales guided by new value systems. Parodies of Mother Goose and Grimms' fairy tales are now staple entertainment for young and old in newspaper comic strips, as well as on Sesame Street and other children's television programs. Caught in the flood of cheap reproductions to satisfy the steadily growing market for children's books and entertainment, the fairy tale has slowly lost the aura with which it had been endowed in the Romantic age.

The search for identity engendered by the rise of nineteenth-century nationalism fostered the collection of national cultural treasures everywhere in Europe and led to the collection of remnants of oral culture—among them fairy tales—and to the formation of a fairy tale canon. As Rudolf Schenda points out, the fairy tale was as much invented as it was discovered, and it was overrepresented at the expense of other varieties of folkloric narrative.4

One of the manifold reasons for the formation of the fairy tale canon was the longing for the naive and direct enjoyment of just hearing or reading a tale. In the estimation of the Grimms, the treasures of folklore were collected at the eleventh hour, for the culture of the text was infringing upon the culture of the spoken word.5 The formulaic, participatory, situational forms of narrative organization were replaced by analytic, distanced, and abstract forms. The Brothers Grimm, along with other Romantic intellectuals, wanted to preserve the...


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