Karlsson on the Roof by Astrid Lindgren

In 1942, Crockett Johnson created the cartoon Barnaby, in which we see Mr O’Malley through the eyes of a boy who wishes for a fairy Godmother, but instead is presented with a short, fat, flying, conceited and not altogether competent fairy Godfather.


The cartoon was a big hit within the Left intelligentia in the US. Dorothy Parker adored it, Duke Ellington was chuffed to be part of one of the strips. He even wrote a letter to the editor of PM to say so. The Roosevelts were avid followers. It was syndicated – not a big syndication by US standards, but nonetheless to newspapers which had a combined readership of 5.5M or so. It was a cartoon strip for adults that kids read. Johnson was a cartoonist’s cartoonist, original – perhaps radical – in his technical vision of the strip and highly influential on those who came after him in the US.


The influence of this cartoon was, however, by no means limited to that country. When the editor of The Daily Mail in the UK saw it, he wanted one like it. This led to the creation of Flook, an indispensable part of the cartoon scene in the UK for over forty years. However much Flook may have been inspired by Mr O’Malley, however, and despite its subversive role as a cartoon for adults read by children, Flook is different enough in looks and character that one needs to have the inspiration pointed out.

Barnaby 3

Not so in the case of Karlsson. Here Astrid Lindgren has taken the figure of Mr O’Malley in a way that one could say is nothing short of brazen. It has prompted me to write to an expert on Johnson, curious to know what he had to say about Lindgren’s take, a word I use advisedly. Mr O’Malley even has the stock phrases that are so important to the nature of Karlsson. Different ones, of course – Cushlamochree – an exclamation of surprise meaning ‘pulse of my heart’.

Barnaby 2

Same physical qualities, though they fly by different methods, and same character. That is not to say, however, there is no difference in output. Barnaby is an intellectual cartoon with a sophisticated take on the politics of the period, (which is not to say that it was always political). Perhaps that is why Barnaby has been the influential publication whilst Karlsson has been the popular one. Lindgren has taken the intellectual content out of Barnaby and created something that is straightforwardly for children.

Barnaby 1

There has been speculation in our household recently as to why Karlsson doesn’t have the popularity in Anglo-Saxon countries that he has in the Scandinavian-Germanic-Russian areas. My reaction to Karlsson when I read one of the books in English recently is to find him quite repugnant and yet Mr O’Malley is not. I do wonder if this has something to do with cultural differences as to what Anglo-Saxons will find amusing compared with Scandinavians (etc), as well as to the appeal of intellectual content.

Chuck Rothman comments on his blog that

To Barnaby Mr. O’Malley is a wonder, but the reader noticed quite soon that he hilariously overstates his talents, usually creating more problems than he solves in the rare cases when his magic actually works. O’Malley is a charming braggart and blowhard, who’s all too willing to help Barnaby out — to disastrous results — when he isn’t spending his days at the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes & Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society.

Like Karlsson, Barnaby went through all sorts of attempted permutations, but unlike Karlsson, Barnaby’s failed. They included a musical/play and a couple of proposed TV series. The 1959 TV pilot included Ronald Reagan, a very young Ron Howard as Barnaby and the great Mel Blanc as the voice of the Leprechaun. Bert Lahr played Mr O’Malley. Despite the pilot being a bit of a hit, the show itself was never made.

The fact is that Barnaby was for a small, discriminating audience.

In October, Henry Holt published Johnson’s Barnaby. It sold its first printing of 10,000 copies in its first week, and would sell 40,000 before the end of the year. The reviews were ecstatic. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Rose Benèt called Barnaby “a classic of humor” and declared Mr. O’Malley “a character to live with the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, Ferdinand, and all great creatures of fantasy.” Ruth McKenney, whose My Sister Eileen had become an Oscar-nominated film earlier that year, delighted in “that evil intentioned, vain, pompous, wonderful little man with the wings.” As she put it, “I suppose Mr. O’Malley has fewer morals than any other character in literature which is, of course, what makes him so fascinating.” Dorothy Parker began her “Mash Note to Crockett Johnson” by confessing that she could not write a review because, despite her efforts, “it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.” Lauding the book as “the best American creative writing of this year” and O’Malley as “the most brilliantly conceived character in many a year,” novelist and Book-of-the-Month Club publicity director Edwin Seaver nominated Barnaby for a Pulitzer.

I found Karlsson on the Roof an enjoyable way to pass an hour as an adult and have no idea of how I would have found it as a child. Perhaps hilarious, I really can’t say. But I am very happy that through Karlsson that I have discovered Mr O’Malley and its author, Crockett Johnson, about whom I will write more in another post.

For more on the Barnaby Astrid Lindgren connection go to Astrid Lindgren had a role model in the US.

Oh. And there is a talking dog in Barnaby. Cushlamochree!

It is slightly interesting to speculate on the future of Karlsson. Unfortunately he is a politically incorrect character in an age of extreme political correctness. Back in the Cold War days it is possible that it was hard for Karlsson to break into the US (and perhaps other English-speaking countries) because he was so big in the USSR. Right now, however, Karlsson is at threat from both countries for oddly similar reasons, subverting the status quo. The Russians have him on a black list due to the notion that the cartoon is anti-family. In the US he is raising objections for reasons as obscure as the possible impact upon baby-sitter child relations, but I guess too for the obvious one that children aren’t allowed to have weird adult friends. I read somewhere recently that the latest editions of Karlsson have him as a young adult rather than a mature one. This is really too bad.

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