This summer my daughter is reading Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart for the first time together with me. I’m revisiting this childhood favorite after nearly 25 years. Written in 1973 it’s nearly as old as me but still a magical and wonderful book to introduce to young readers.
The story tells about Karl/Kalle or Skorpan, a 10 year old sick boy (he probably has tuberculosis) and his 13 year old brother Jonatan who live with their mother in Stockholm, Sweden. Karl (or Scotty in the English translation after biscotti) knows that he is going to die one day. Jonatan tries to console him by telling him that dying is not “lying under the ground somewhere” but instead your soul in the shape of a white pigeon flies to a land called Nangijala where he no longer will be sick and where his brother will join him for adventures in a land of “campfire and storytelling”. One night a fire emerges in the building where the brothers live and Jonatan tries to rescue Karl by jumping out from the third floor. He dies in the attempt but saves his brother. Two months later Karl is visited by a white pigeon by his window sill and he takes it as a sign that Jonatan has come for him. He dies that night and finds himself outside a cottage in the Cherry Valley in Nangijala. Karl and Jonatan go on many adventures and they meet a farmer Mattis who become a father figure for them. But even in Nangijala, on the other side of the mountain in the Thorn Rose Valley the evil Tengil with his dragon Katla holds power. Jonatan and Karl join the resistance force against Tengil and Jonathan kills Katla in the end but is wounded by her fire that will slowly kill him. In a leap of faith Karl decides to carry Jonatan on his back and fly to the land of Nangilima where they will see the light.
The Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) wrote over 100 books since her first publication in 1944, a year before she published her most famous children’s book Pippi Longstocking. Over 50 of her books have been translated into English and you can find Astrid Lindgren’s book in almost 60 languages. Other famous books are Emil from Lønneberga, Ronja The Robber’s Daughter (Ronja Rövardotter) Mio My Mio, Seacrow Island (Vi på Saltkråkan) and Madicken, most of them describing small town family life in Sweden.
The Brothers Lionheart is one of her darker novels. It deals with sickness, death, betrayal and evil and many cautious parents were questioning this at the time of its release. Some critics claimed the author romanticizes death and especially suicide. Astrid Lindgren once said she did get the inspiration for the story at a graveyard where she once saw a gravestone for two brothers. In a response to the critics she writes in a letter from 1975:
"It is clear that children had a great wish for tales and preferably these kinds of exciting tales. Right now I am swamped with letters from children - from several countries - that love the Brothers Lionheart. Never before have I received such a strong and spontaneous reaction on any book."
I was about the same age as Karl when I read this book for the very first time and a few years older than my daughter is today. I didn’t really questioning the fact that both the brothers die. What I related to was Karl’s special bond to his brother and their love for each other. Secondly I loved the land of Nangijala and the adventures and stories of bravery, betrayal, loyalty and evil in this fantasy land, the same way my daughter who is 7, now does. Parts of the story I had to explain to her after we read it, especially the beginning. But then she said, she gets it. She likes the idea that I also used to read this story when I was young.
Many of Lindgren’s books have been adapted into successful movies or TV series. Director Olle Hellbom made the movie version of Brothers Lionheart in 1977 and Astrid Lindgren herself wrote the script. Today, with the CGI effects and technology available Lindgren’s novel could’ve turned into a very good movie the same way JJ Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings were. Unfortunately the 1977 version although it won several prices and is shown regularly on Swedish television even today, did not fulfill the novel’s fantasy element. Personally I was more disappointed by the actor who portrayed Jonatan than I was about the lack of special effects. How could they have selected a 23 year old man to play the brave 13 year old boy? (Years later, through web sites and reviews I found out that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about this. It was as though a childhood “betrayal” were universally confirmed!)
Today when my daughter and I are reading the novel together, we are looking at the wonderful black and white illustrations by Ilon Wikland, an illustrator Astrid Lindgren worked together with on most of her books. We go back to the story and then look at the detailed page describing Karl’s room, the pigeon outside his window, the garden by their cottage, Jonatan and Karl, the horses, the Thorn Rose valley and the scary monster Katla. We enjoy the story and illustrations and the world it creates for us. I believe we call this the magic of fiction; yesterday, today and tomorrow.