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A Night with Ronia

December 17, 2011

Or maybe it was a day. Or a night and a day… I don’t know. I stayed up all night from Sunday to Monday, in an attempt to get my messed-up sleep schedule turned around to more normal hours.

It gets boring, being awake so long, when it’s dark outside for so many hours, and the few hours of daylight so rainy and grey… when you’re too tired to write, bored with knitting and reading, can’t think of a movie you’d want to watch… so I decided to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now: continue to colour the illustrations in “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter.”

Ronia’s spring yell – last picture in the book, first picture here. All illustrations are by Ilon Wikland, I’m only responsible for the colouring.

There are some books that never lose their magic, no matter how many times I’ve read them, no matter how old I get. I’m so far out of the age range for this book – I guess I could still get away with reading YA, but “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” by Astrid Lindgren is a full-on children’s book.

And yet, I love it. I loved it from the first time I read it, even though that first time was at school. Even though it was given to my by my absolutely horrible secondary school teacher, who – ten years after I’ve last seen her – is still one of my least favourite people. We were doing some sort of project on Astrid Lindgren, so I read several of her books at the time, but Ronia was the only one I really fell in love with. I must have told people about it, because that Christmas, I got my very own copy from my godparents.

Now I didn’t get along with my godparents too well, so it irked me a little to see the note they’d written on the first page, every time I opened the book. But I loved it dearly all the same, and I still loved it when my horrible teacher made me read it again, in English this time.

I once read a quote by the German writer Erich Kästner: “The quality of a literary work of art is measured by how many German teachers it survives unharmed.”

For me personally, “Ronia” stands undefeated.

Ronia and Matt

I’d sometimes started to colour illustrations in books before, but not very well. In fact, embarrassingly awful. But Ronia deserved better than that, so when I finally started to colour I took my time and did my best. Which, of course, meant that I soon lost my patience and gave up after just one page. I was proud of that page, though, and sometimes opened the book just to look at it.

Now, I had time, I had more patience, and the coloured pencils were already out on the table anyway because the Clown Brother had used them.

frontispiece (I learn so many words while writing blog posts…)

In between colouring, I couldn’t resist reading the book again, and musing about why I loved it.

When I first read it, I didn’t think such deep thoughts. If you’d asked me then, I’d probably just have said, “Because it’s a good story,” and buried my nose in a book again. The story of Ronia and Birk, daughter and son of two rivalling robber barons, who become friends even though their families hate each other.

There is, of course, a certain Romeo-and-Juliet-ness to that, though now that I think about it, it reminds me even more of Pyramus and Thisbe, in that these two live in adjacent houses, and Ronia’s and Birk’s clans in the two halves of a lightning-split castle. But, being a children’s book, “Ronia” of course has a happy end!

Matt introducing his daughter.

Reading it now, knowing it almost by heart, the excitement and pleasant fear of grey dwarfs and harpies and fighting fathers is no longer what captivates me. I suppose what I enjoy most about “Ronia” now is the sense of freedom… yes, I do miss being a child. I miss playing in the snow, and roaming in the forest all day long, without shoes… given the time and place I grew up, I had a pleasantly free childhood, but I still find myself slightly jealous of the freedom Ronia and Birk have.

I know, I know… I’ve posted this picture twice before, but I just love it.

Now, I realize that “Ronia” is a Fantasy book. When I first read it, I was still in my “magic is stupid” phase, and wouldn’t have touched Harry Potter (if that was even published then) or Lord of the Rings with a ten-foot pole. “Ronia” is chock-full of fantastical creatures, harpies and grey dwarfs, rumphobs and unearthly ones… and yet, the focus is never on them. They’re just part of the forest, like foxes, bears and wild horses. I suppose the story could be told just as well without them, but they make the world a little more exciting, a little more colourful. And like the freedom I envy so much, they add to that flavour of childhood, reminding me of the time when everything was magical… when dwarfs lived under tree roots and fairies fluttered among the leaves. Sometimes, being a grown-up is sad, when you realize you don’t see those things any more.


Another thing that so clearly says “childhood” is that Ronia and Birk are friends. They might fall in love one day, but for now, they’re simply friends, and that they’re a girl and a boy doesn’t matter one bit. This is another thing that spells “childhood” to me. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of romance in a book, but it does get a bit wearying when everyone is always neatly paired off, and a plain and simple friendship seemingly can’t exist. Everything is so much simpler when you’re a child…

OK, not yet friends – Ronia’s and Birk’s first meeting

One thing that I had never thought about until now, but which I really appreciate (especially because I’ve just recently thought about it), is the complete lack of villains. The lack of a clear good and evil. Matt, Ronia’s father, is a robber chief, as is Birk’s father Borka. So, since the book is from Ronia’s point of view, the robbers should be the “good guys”, right? At least they should be from Matt’s perspective. But when Matt tells Ronia about what he does, he’s clearly embarrassed about it, is trying to show himself as better than he is by claiming he’s taking from the rich and giving to the poor (a clear lie, and old Noddle-Pete makes sure to point that out). From Matt’s view, Borka and his men are the “bad guys”, not only being a competitor, but also possessing the cheek to move into Matt’s very own castle. But how can they be wholly bad when they only wanted a better hiding place after their den had been discovered? And even the sheriff’s men, every robber’s enemies, can’t be the “bad guys”, because every reader knows robbers deserve to be punished. No black and white in this book (except for the illustrations, but that is changing, at least in my copy.)

Matt’s and Borka’s robbers, meeting at Hell’s Gap – how would you tell which is the “good” and the “bad” side? (Also, two dozen robbers are really boring to colour.)

And there’s such light-heartedness to the story. That whole issue of “right” and “wrong” doesn’t weigh it down (I quoted Erich Kästner above, and while his books can be fun, he’s sometimes so heavy-handed with the morals.), and while a character does die, while Ronia and Birk know they can not survive the winter in the cave they’re living in after they’ve left their families to be together, it’s never tragic – dying is just a part of life.

The light mood of the book blends together with the freedom I babbled on about before. Going out each day to have fun, without worrying that you might get injured or die, riding wild horses without worrying about getting thrown off, swimming in the river… taking each day as it comes… oh, if I could think and live like this again!

Matt’s Fort (and Ronia and Birk meeting for the first time). I like how that sky turned out.

And last but not least, it’s a book that makes me laugh. I can’t really quote any of the dialogue, because I’ve only got the book in German, and I don’t really want to do any translations without being able to check them against the actual English book, but I absolutely love Ronia’s reasoning when her father tells her what to watch out for when he first lets her out into the forest. Be careful  not to fall into the river? That means she has to go to the river – you can’t practise not falling into the river anywhere else, after all! And there’s plenty of cursing. I like cursing. I need to start using some of those robber curses (many of which, I’ve learned while writing this post, are left out in the English translation. Sad…) And the rumphobs. Oh, the rumphobs – I doubt I’ll ever get tired of asking, “Woffor did ‘un do that?”

Ronia (and Birk) practising”being careful not to fall into Hell’s Gap”.

During this latest re-read, I suddenly felt I absolutely had to watch the film. Right now. I’d only seen it once, on a school trip in primary school, but my best friend has seen it again recently and told me it’s good. I could have waited until the next time we see each other, and ask her to bring the DVD (I think her boyfriend has it). But no. It had to be right then. But it was not to be found anywhere online, at least not in a language I speak. I could find it in Swedish. With subtitles. In Swedish.

Ronia, Matt and Lovis – a last few words of advice before she gets to go to the forest for the first time.

Eventually I grew impatient enough that I watched it. In Swedish. I only know a couple of words in Swedish (we went there on a school trip once), but I could follow pretty well. It’s close enough to the book that I knew what was going on, and with the few words I could understand or guess from the subtitles, I could often figure out what was being said as well. And I agree, it’s a nice film. Admittedly, I’ll probably say that about any film that stays close to the book. But it’s cute. The only thing that I imagined a little differently is Ronia and Birk’s hair – I see Ronia’s as way more curly, because that’s the way it is in my book’s illustrations, and Birk’s hair is not curly. It’s smooth like a copper helmet. But I’m not going to complain. Instead, I’ll grin as I remember that they did include the scene when the robbers are sent out to wash. In the snow. Naked. I always have to laugh when I imagine how some parents must have reacted to that – who expects a dozen naked men in a children’s film? Heck, who even expects them in an illustration in a children’s book? I wish I could remember if they kept that scene in when we saw it on a school trip. I probably wouldn’t have noticed, that was never a big deal in my family, and it definitely wouldn’t make me consider the film inappropriate for children. On the other hand, I’m glad they kept the fight scenes entirely blood-free – that is something I mind (spiders and blood. The two things I can not deal with.)

Now I have a lot of pretty images in my head, and a couple of entirely useless Swedish words. That language-jumble in my brain is getting worse and worse. Far åt pipsvängen, you pointless words!

A work in progress… Ronia, Matt and Noddle-Pete in front of the fire

A big thank-you to Astrid Lindgren for that wonderful book (too bad she’s dead… would love to have this book signed!), and to Ilon Wikland for the pretty pictures – it wouldn’t be the same book without them!

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2011 03:42

    Sounds like a book I would have loved. By the way, your coloring skills are quite impressive 🙂

  2. December 19, 2011 16:17

    Way cool! I am a big fan of Ilon Wikland and I really like your colourings of her work. Especially the forest overview.and the picture of Ronia by the lake.

    • December 19, 2011 19:06

      I think the nature scenes are the most fun to colour, too.


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