Brought into the limelight. Canonisation processes at work in the oeuvre of Astrid Lindgren in Flanders and the Netherlands (1952-2012)

Start - End 
2008 - 2015 (completed)
Research Focus 
Research Period 
Additional tags 
Scandinavian literature
Literary canon
Children's literature



Story lines and characters from Swedish children’s books author Astrid Lindgren’s oeuvre have permeated Swedish cultural life and society. Her legacy is kept alive, and has become transcendental, ethereal, and pervasive. Observations on the self-evident awareness of Lindgren’s importance and the ubiquity of her works led to the question how an author acquires status in the first place: how does he or she gain recognition and eventually become canonical? How and why is value attached to the writer’s oeuvre? By what terms can one judge the author’s importance? Starting from the above questions, I set out to investigate what the parameters of canonisation are, that is to say, what set of criteria needs to be imposed – knowingly or unknowingly – on an author or a work in order for them to be considered canonical. I use the reception of Astrid Lindgren’s works in the field of children’s literature in Flanders and The Netherlands as a case study by means of which I attempt to answer these questions.

The term “canon” is nowadays used to refer to those texts from the Bible which are acknowledged as authentic and chosen by God. This use of the word stems from exegesis of the Bible. Canonisation relies on selection and hence entails the establishment of a hierarchy, as the chosen texts are considered to possess an authority which non-canonical texts are denied. An important proposition, then, is that authority is ascribed, which means that it is a property which is acquired, not one which is inherent in the chosen texts. These texts are foregrounded as essential in a given cultural context and are subsequently treated with reverence.

My aim was to reveal how these texts become so significant, and to uncover the criteria of value underlying their canonisation. I chose to do so by focusing on the role of the readers granting these texts authority. More specifically, the inquiry centres on how players in the literary field under scrutiny, viz. the Flemish and Dutch fields of children’s literature, bring the works into the limelight. Hence, my approach focuses on the interface between literature and society. I regard canonisation as a matter of interplay between different spheres and different types of actors within the literary field. As primary channels of canonisation I identified literary criticism, literary historiography, and academic interest.

The materials to be studied were selected in order to reflect the main channels of canonisation as well as the most important spheres of influence in the field of children’s literature, viz. the academic and the professional. Moreover, in an effort to capture current reading practices, I chose to involve popular media as well. The method had to suit the goal of analysing the way in which people have responded to Astrid Lindgren’s works. Therefore, I chose to tie in with phenomenography, an empirical method principally employed within educational research to discover how people experience and understand phenomena in the environment surrounding them. In my specific case, that phenomenon is the oeuvre of Astrid Lindgren.

A distinction between two divergent approaches to canonicity served as a starting point for my analysis. Within the first mindset, one focuses one’s attention on the exemplary role and outstanding literary quality of a single canonical work in a preponderantly normative type of research. The alternative is to take on a predominantly descriptive stance which is simultaneously longitudinal. In the latter case, factors such as the life span and popularity of the work are stressed. These two main currents of research can be called synchronic and diachronic respectively, and relate to the essence or the function of canonical works.

My study shows that the gatekeepers of Flemish and Dutch children’s literature seem to have adopted a common grammar for the discussion of Lindgren’s oeuvre. Their discourse is orchestrated, or, harmonised, to the extent that they all sing a fairly similar tune, constructing a narrative which consists of comparable building blocks.

In addition, my inquiry demonstrates that the process of canonisation, in which a literary work acquires canonicity, is a matter of ever-expanding influence. In a first stage, the book impacts individual readers (gatekeepers included), by the grace of text-internal qualities and text-induced effects, such as relatable subject matter which evokes identification. These textual properties embody the work’s potential to become canonised. In a subsequent phase, the book can be seen to affect a community of readers. Its influence becomes more extensive, as it is distributed extensively, gains acclaim, and capitalises on its canonical potential. The final stage, then, sees the book leaving increasingly widely scattered traces, becoming truly embedded in a literary and even cultural field. Indeed, with respect to individual works, successful canonisation surpasses the primary works themselves. The dissemination of their impact can be seen to evolve in a funnel-shaped way, with the manifestations of canonisation fanning out, if you will. The works’ scope becomes ever broader, in a pattern which could be compared to an inverted bottle neck. As far as Astrid Lindgren’s oeuvre is concerned, this evolution is most easily observed in the reception of Pippi Longstocking.

The canonisation and ensuing dispersion of Lindgren’s works in the Dutch-language field of children’s literature are in fact mirrored in the discourse surrounding them. My phenomenographical analysis shows that evaluations predominant during what I termed the establishment phase are of a persuasive kind, urging readers to get acquainted with Astrid Lindgren’s books based on their immanent qualities. In this phase, the books are reviewed because they ought to be well-known, and criteria of a synchronic kind preponderate. Gradually, in the confirmation stage, as the works are still around, the rationale becomes affirming instead, implying that the initial recommendations were justified. Eventually, a retrospective viewpoint comes to predominate in the dissemination phase. At that point, the enduring success and, in a best case scenario, the ubiquity of the works prove that their canonicity is deserved. Now, they are reviewed and discussed because they are well-known. During this evolution, emphasis shifts to diachronically oriented arguments.

What is decisive in the establishment stage, that is, in terms of gaining gatekeeper approval, is whether the work corresponds to the gatekeepers’ world view and outlook on literature. The latter proves to be reader-oriented primarily, with the adult canonising agents in the field of children’s literature taking into account what will appeal to child readers. Another important question is whether the gatekeepers will be able to relate to the child image comprised in the works. Canonical works of children’s literature, so it seems, should not just touch child readers, but grown-up readers as well.

In this respect, the Flemish and Dutch canonising agents turn out to be on the same page as Astrid Lindgren entirely: they commend her progressive conception of childhood and her ability to sense what children like. Her canonicity derives from the fact that she wrote for children in an emancipatory way, and that she provided ample opportunities for her readers to relate to her works by tying in with universal subject matter.

Having put her on a pedestal, the canonising agents consequently meet Lindgren with concerted reverence. This culminates in the proverbial consecration of the author, which makes it hardly acceptable for Dutch or Flemish critics to voice criticism against Lindgren. One could say that the Dutch and Flemish gatekeepers appear to be ardent supporters of a self-induced and self-perpetuating cult of Astrid Lindgren, who during her lifetime was considered to be a living myth and whose status is sacrosanct. As such, the canonisation of Lindgren’s works in Flanders and the Netherlands reflects back the aforementioned sense of worship that is associated with canonical works in general as well as with the origins of the concept in religious history.



Phd Student(s)