Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Zen and the art of Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Pippi Moves In! by Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, which is the first English-language collection of the comic strip featuring Pippi Longstocking. The strips were originally published in the Swedish children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty in the late fifties, a decade after Lindgren’s novels appeared, and although they caught my eye mostly because I hoped they would amuse my daughter, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since. In the first strip, we’re introduced to a pair of ordinary children, Tommy and Annika, who live next door to an empty house in the village of Villa Villekulla. “It’s so stupid that nobody lives there,” Annika says. One night, Pippi Longstocking moves in, and when we first see her, she’s casually lifting a horse over her head. (“Nobody can lift a horse!” Annika exclaims. “I can,” Pippi replies.) “Tommy and Annika don’t know it yet,” the narrator continues, “but she’s the strongest in the world.” Pippi lives by herself, with a suitcase of gold coins left by her absent father, and she immediately befriends the two kids, giving them presents—including “a nice dagger with a mother-of-pearl hilt” for Tommy—before telling them to come back to visit her again soon. The ensuing stories are charming in themselves, but the more I read them, the deeper they become. In fact, Pippi is nothing less than a perfect example of the life of Zen, as outlined by R.H. Blyth in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Zen is notoriously hard to define, and the best you can do is learn to recognize it, like Judge Potter Stewart said of pornography, when you see it. Then you just point and say: “There it is.”

And there’s a lot of it here. Take Pippi’s two most salient qualities—her strength and her wealth. She’s the strongest girl in the world, but she never resorts to violence for its own sake, and she only uses her strength to gently reprimand unlikable adults, like the man she finds beating his horse. (“Keep out of it,” the man says, “or else I might beat you too.” Pippi quietly breaks his stick over her knees, and replies: “That won’t happen, because your stick is broken.”) Similarly, she blithely observes that she’s “as rich as a troll,” but she just uses her money to buy a store’s worth of candy to share with all the kids in the village. In other words, she has the kind of unthinking trust in her own limitless resources that only a child, or a Zen adept, possesses: she gives freely of everything, because she takes it for granted, and she knows that there’s plenty more where it came from. Freely given, it circles back around to the paradoxical freedom that comes from voluntary poverty and spiritual powerlessness, which become identical, in their inward sense of liberation, to the casual wealth and strength that Pippi possesses. In fact, Pippi works hard, and she’s always absorbed in what she’s doing. She’s a “thing-searcher” who gets to keep whatever she finds on the ground, including “gold nuggets and ostrich feathers and dead rats and tiny little screws and things like that,” and she has to be dissuaded from laying claim to a drunk sleeping in a field, although it bothers her that someone else will come along to swipe him. Pippi concludes: “Just think how stupid people are. They are carpenters and shoemakers and chimneysweeps, but no one is ever a thing-searcher. And it’s such a great job.”

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi’s wisdom has many of the qualities of a Zen koan, with Tommy and Annika as her bewildered novices. When Annika asks why she has a horse on her porch, Pippi replies: “Well, he wouldn’t be happy in the living room, and he’d just get in the way in the kitchen.” After being told that she can’t mix pancake batter with a bath brush, she says: “Of course I can!” When she finds a large tin can, she puts it on her head to pretend that it’s the middle of the night, and then tumbles over a fence. She sits up and says: “Imagine if I wasn’t wearing this can! I might have fallen on my face and really hurt myself.” When a teacher asks why she’s drawing on the floor instead of on paper, she sensibly replies that it’s the only way she’ll have room to draw her entire horse, and then she lies down for a nap. (As Blyth notes: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.”) Then there’s this classic exchange, after Pippi and her friends have gotten shipwrecked for fun on an island in the lake, and she dictates a message in a bottle:

Pippi: “Here’s what to write: ‘Help us before we perish. We’ve been pining away for two days on this island without any snuff.’”
Tommy: “I can’t write that!”
Pippi: “Why not? We don’t have any snuff, do we?”
Annika: “No, but we don’t use snuff.”
Pippi: “Exactly. That’s why we don’t have any. Just write what I said.”

I don’t think Lindgren was out to create anything more than wonderful entertainment, but whenever an author manages to write honestly and unsentimentally from the point of view of a child, and honors the logic of childhood, the result is a glimpse into the heart of Zen: it’s why we’re told that we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We see this in the Alice books, and in the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, of whom Blyth observes: “What seems to be at first impudence rises with an influx of energy into an identification of himself with the whole machinery of the Law.” But Pippi’s nearest relative is Don Quixote. As Blyth writes: “[Don Quixote] is in a state of muga, a state in which he himself is nothing, he seeks nothing for himself, his personality is always dissolved in the valor and glory of the action itself.” You could say much the same about Pippi, except that she succeeds where Don Quixote fails, even as they both embody what Blyth calls “entire engrossment, conscious and unconscious, in what one is doing.” (He writes sadly: “We ourselves, as we read the book, have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.”) As it happens, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which has been out of print for decades, has recently been reissued at last in an affordable paperback edition, and I’d encourage everyone to get a copy: it’s close to my favorite book in the world. But you would do just as well if you only bought Pippi Moves In!

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