Why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart

Cherry blossomsThe time has come for me to review one of my absolute favourite books. A book I added to my Classic Club reading list just to get an excuse to re-read it (again) and review it. I’m  talking about The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta) by Astrid Lindgren.

The Brothers Lionheart is primarily a children’s book, aimed at rather young children, but it has plenty to offer older readers. Indeed it is a highly unusual and brave novel. The main-character and narrator is ten-year-old Karl Lionheart and already on the very first page we are told that he is about to die. The story is however not as bleak as it may sound. For children this is primarily a fantasy adventure which deals with sibling love, death and the nature of courage in a way no other children’s books do. It has some really dark parts but it doesn’t stay in the darkness and, as all is told from a child’s perspective, it never really scared me as a kid.

In many ways this novel is more melancholic when read as an adult. Lindgren lets us read between the lines and glimpse a sadder, but equally beautiful, story. She wrote this novel at a time when her favourite brother was seriously ill and a note of love and grief runs through the text. It may look like a children’s novel but it is not afraid to take on the big questions. The result is sad and wise and comforting.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for those of you who have yet to read it, just tell you that you should. I can’t guarantee that you will like it, it is not for everyone, but if you do it is something really special.

If you don’t mind spoilers read this excellent review, but beware, it does give away much of the plot including the ending.

I need to discuss this book with everyone and that can’t be done properly without spoilers so spoilers are welcome in the comment section for this review. If you have not read it yet, avoid the comments and go and read it instead (and do come back to let me know what you thought).

TW: Death, ableism.

Edit (August 2019): There is now a really interesting, but spoiler-filled, discussion in the comment section. Those of you who dislike spoilers may want to avoid the comments until you have read the novel.

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29 thoughts on “Why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart

    1. It’s from 1973. Internationally Astrid Lindgren is better known for Pippi Longstocking but she was a prolific writer and have written many of the Nordic children’s classics. The Brothers Lionheart is perhaps the most daring of them and really deserves to be better known outside of the Nordic countries.

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  1. I hadn’t heard of this but will read it, I don’t think melancholy makes a book less enjoyable. When I reviewed A Voice Through A Cloud for my classics list I realised I had made it sound very sad, but there was so much beauty – I think it was my quickest read!

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  2. This sounds so interesting! I know some people think death is a too “dark” theme for middle grade, but, realistically, it’s something people deal with no matter their age, and it can be really helpful to see how book characters come to terms with hard topics.

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    1. I agree, and by the time kids reach middle-grade I would assume most of them have had at least a distant encounter with death (such as the death of a friends grandparent) and thus starts to have questions. Younger children may want to read it together with a parent though, although arguably it may be harder on the parent than on the child.

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  3. Hi,
    I’ve read this book in childhood at least two or three times. Now, not remembering much of the plot I re-read it. I had a vague memory of something sad and beautiful, of a certain atmosphere. Now, read at adult age it hit me hard. This is a book that doesn’t leave my head. I keep pondering over the meaning, over the ending. Finding symbols. I also got my own theory, but both movie (which is amazing, by the way) and half of the internet tries to convince me I’m not right. I just wish to know what really happened at the end, and that is even hard to grasp. This is a good writing to me, that keeps reader thinking, analysing, wondering. Even if it’ “only” a children’s book.

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    1. That all sounds very much like my own impressions of the novel (and of the movie)!

      I’m fairly sure that there are at least two “true” interpretations of the ending, a fantastical one for child readers and a more realistic one for adults. I’m really impressed of how it manages to work so well on multiple levels. Definitely proof that a children’s book need not to be less complex or though provoking than adult fiction.

      I would be very interested to hear what your theories are about the ending.

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      1. Aaaaawww, it’s so nice to find someone who think alike.

        Also, to whomever read this comment: SPOILERS as huge as Katla!

        Yes, there are two possible interpretations, but I think both can be analyzed on a quite deep level. Even “fantastical one” can mean so much more than merely an adventure.
        I see Nangiyala as a place for Preparation, some may say Purgatory of sort.
        We have in Poland one famous classic book which tells about pagan folk traditions concerning death. There is one scene where souls of two small children come to a gathering. They ask for a mustard seed, because as they never tasted any bitterness in their life, they could not enter the Paradise. The scene has sprang to my mind when I thought of little Karl. He had quite sheltered life, he never really experienced anything. Maybe he had to go through certain experiences, to see the evil side of human nature, in order to mature and deserve the final destination of Light? As Jonatan was the one who tried to protect him on Earth, it seems quite fitting that in Nangiyala he would be the one to expose Karl to a completely different life.
        Now, about Jonatan (I absolutely adore this character). He was always healthy, fit, likable, eager to help. Maybe he had to “taste” the sickness and feeling of depending on others? This way both brothers filled for each other shortcomings and could pass together to the Light.

        After reading many of Lindgren’s short stories I can see that motive of a child dealing with psychological hardships through imagination is quite recurring in her works. Thus the theory with a sick child imagining all the adventure to come to terms with own death and to get rid of the fear of The Unknown seems to be very probable (although it pains me to write that). The movie clearly confirms this (the scene where Jonatan tells about Nangiyala for the first time convinced me about that). And let’s not forget that Lindgren herself was involved in adapting her book into screenplay. That makes a lot of sense and explains many things, like why is Jonatan so perfect (because his little brother sees him so), why some motives from worldly life are transferred to Nangiyala (doves from mother’s song or even the nickname ‘Lionheart’). The final jump is the acceptance of the unknown (darkness, abyss) – embracing the unknown nature of death and conquering fear of the uncertainty.

        Now two points quite puzzle me. One: the final jump was never actually shown, neither in the book, neither in the movie. Karl strangely cuts his sentence in the middle of the word. Two: The story comes to a full circle with some recurring motives – fire, sickness, jump – only the roles seem to be reversed.

        I think it doesn’t matter anymore which version is “real”. If both end up with Karl going to The Light and reuniting with Jonatan, that should be really all that matter. And, strangely, I feel like both explanations can somehow coexist. Just don’t ask me how, the logic doesn’t apply here. Yes, the story does work on multiple levels and I can’t shake off the amazement on how well it does.

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      2. Thank you so much for your comment, this is the kind of discussions I hoped for when I wrote this post as I love this novel so much!

        I think it is definitely fair to say that both versions are “true”. As you note the realistic version is definitely intentional and runs through the story in a beautiful way, but Lindgren primarily wrote for children and and I would argue that their reading of the story is at least as valid. Lindgren was also sticking to the fantastical interpretation in her interactions with her fans, she even wrote a two page extra “happily ever after”-chapter set in Nangilima for all the children who wrote letters to her to ask what happened next.

        I think it is a typical adult limitation to assume that the less fantastical version is more “real”, even in a case of fiction such as this. I believe that Lindgren gives all her readers a story about death on the level where they are, a fantastic story for children who still kind of believe in the fantastical, and a pragmatic story for adults who have lost that ability. I do believe that both stories coexist, it’s a bit like a Schrödinger’s story, as long as we don’t open the box both alternatives are true 🙂 I guess the jump at the end is a place were the two interpretations would have crashed into each other if she had let them, thus we are never actually told if Karl steps of that cliff, or if he takes a leap of faith as he faces death in his bed.

        I agree that Nangiyala acts as a preparation although I hardly think that it is bitterness Karl needs to experience, we are after all talking about a young boy too ill to go to school or play, who knows he is about to die and have just lost his beloved older brother. I thus think that it is not bitterness but courage he finds in Nangiyala (although that legend could still have been an inspiration, it’s a beautiful legend, thanks for telling it!). In the beginning of the novel he is terrified of dying but after his time in Nangiyala he is still scared but ready. He has realised that there are things that you must face even if you are scared and have found the courage in himself and from Jonatan’s love to do so. To me that is a very comforting thought, I may be too old to truly believe in Nangiyala but I can believe in the message that it is possible to find enough courage to face death when I have to. I hope I’ll have Karl and Jonatan with me on that day.

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  4. I wanted to answer at evening, but as one thing bothers me, I won’t wait.

    I did not express myself clearly enough – I never meant to say that ‘bitterness’ is what poor Karl needs. Absent father, hard working mother, own illness and death of a beloved brother – Karl’s life could be called anything but sweet. What I meant was just the idea of experiencing after death something that lacked in life. This is the idea introduced in some of Lindgren’s other works (‘Southern Meadow’, ‘In the Land of Twilight’ and of course ‘Mio, My Son’). As Karl spent big portion of his young life in a very limited setting and in a limited company, he never really experienced the world. He dreaded death like the worst thing that could happen, but in Nangiyala he witnessed much worse. He learned that there ARE things worse than death. I think that on Earth Jonatan tried to protect him from all the evil as much as he could, but in Nangiyala he had to expose him to the evil and teach how to fight it and how to find courage.

    There is one brief scene in the movie when Jonatan sits down to do his homework. That always gets to my heart – come on, he is still a kid! A kid who had to mature very early and take care of his younger brother and, most probably, of mother too. I wonder what you think of film makers’ choice to present Jonatan as 3-4 years older than in the book? (Played by 25 year old, but I don’t mind. Sometimes Staffan Götestam could express more just with eyes than in a dialogue). I actually welcomed this change with a sigh of relief. It was hard to me during reading to see such charismatic character as merely 13 years old.

    I like your ‘Schrödinger’s story’ comparison and I think I don’t want anymore to open that box 😉

    Yes, I agree with you (and I think I expressed it in previous comment too), that Karl conquers his fear of death and of the uncertainty of it. I remember after finishing the book and watching movie (which threw some more light on uncertain parts) I spent whole night wide awake, thinking about death. My own. This is the subject which we despise, but the truth is, we will all experience it, no matter how we hate the thought of it. Some people think it’s just “lying buried and being dead”, others believe in the explanations presented by their religions. But most of us are scared. I think this book can reach an adult on such a level. Teach him to embrace the idea of eventual death and to find his courage. Reaching for “Brothers Lionheart” I expected just a quick trip to my childhood. Instead, I had a trip to the depth of my soul. That may sound as quite a exaggeration, but for me it’s true.

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    1. Sorry I’m late at responding, the discussion got so interesting that I wanted to take proper time with my response.

      That interpretations makes a lot more sense, I completely agree that Karl really never really got the chance to experience a full life before Nagiyala and I really like your interpretation of Nangiyala as a place where he gets to live a full life, something that made him more ready to face death. Learning as you say that there are worse things than death, but also more about family love and of courage. I also agree with your parallels to some of Lindgren’s other works. There are certainly a darkness in many of them which I believe is an important part in why they are so powerful.

      I think it was a necessary choice to age Jonatan in the film. Him being 13 only really works if we go with the realistic interpretation where everything is imagined by Karl, who of course thinks that Jonatan can do anything… Perhaps they could have used a somewhat younger actor but I’d rather have a good one and really like Götestam in the role. There were talk of a new movie adaption of it recently but so far nothing really happened. It could certainly use some more updated special effects but I doubt a new version could catch the feel of the novel any better. I would love for the story to be better known though.

      Anyway, the beginning of both the book and film always gets to me and yet it could have been even worse. Imagine if the story was told from the mother’s perspective instead…

      I completely understand your response rereading it, it is certainly a much scarier book to read as an adult than I ever remember it being when I read it as a child. I know it certainly forces me to consider my own mortality, and yet I find it oddly comforting.

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      1. Hi,

        I’m answering late from exactly same reason 😉

        About mother… Oh, I must say I am glad she is barely present in a story, and completely absent in a movie. If we were shown her reactions it would be heart wrenching. I feel exceptionally bad for her when I think she would definitely prefer to spend some more time with her sick son while she still had a chance – but someone had to work to keep all three of them alive.

        It is interesting that Sophia too is a kind of motherly figure, not controlling (boys still live alone), but providing (brings them food). Actually, she has quite a lot in common with poor Sigrid Lejon – a bit in the shadow but nevertheless most important (Sofia for resistance, Mother for… well, providing living). And let’s not forget about pigeons (symbols of love and peace) – in song and in real life – attributed to these two women. In the afterword (which, by the way is automatically added to the Polish edition of the book. I just got a copy in English and “light” is the last word – I like it better this way.) it is mentioned that these two women lived together in Nangiyala and Nangilima and they were like “two mothers” to the boys. I still feel like this afterword is not exactly well fitting; like a badly glued piece. But that’s probably just my impression. It was probably aimed at kids anyway.

        About movie, the planned new one… Here my feelings are very mixed up. On one hand – oh, how I would love to see the story presented in the style and with a budget of, let’s say, Lord of the Rings. Katla would be a terrifying dragon, not a hand puppet (while watching the movie for the first time I tried to get into the mood of terror – but couldn’t. Burst out laughing.). Nangiyala would be beautifully out of this world. Visual definitely would be stunning. But.
        BUT.
        I do not trust modern cinema to adapt any book faithfully. I can fully see: added action scenes, added love interests, added comical relief characters; wouldn’t be surprised if they’d stuck in there some talking animals and Tengil’s tragic backstory. It could be visually stunning, it would resound with the modern viewer, but would it have a soul? I very much doubt it, so I’m quite glad nothing happened about this adaptation since 2013 or so.

        At the end… I was wondering why Lindgren called the valleys of Nangiyla names of these two particular plants: cherry and wild rose? And stumbled across the information, that in Japan culture cherry tree symbolizes mortality, death, rebirth and shortness of human life. I don’t know did Lindgren know about it, maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I must say I like it.

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      2. Wait, what? Are they including the Nangilima afterword in the Polish version? That’s completely wrong! The original ends at “light” like the film. The extra ending is just something Lindgren wrote and sent as an answer to all the children who mailed her and desperately wanted to know what happened next, it was never meant to be part of the official novel.

        I also have mixed feelings about a new film but a Swedish director probably wouldn’t dare to mess too much with the story, we take Astrid Lindgren very seriously here… It could still easily be soulless though, but I would like for the novel to get more recognition outside of Scandinavia and Germany and a decent film could do that. Mixed feelings indeed…

        I hadn’t thought of the parallels between Sigrid and Sofia but I agree, they are definitely there.
        A parallel mother figure in Nangiyala also makes a lot of sense in the perspective of the adult story line where Nangiyala would form out of Karl’s experiences and dreams in our world (and out of Jonatan’s stories of course).

        I also like the connection you found between cherry trees and mortality. Of course there are few things more heavenly than a cherry tree in blossom so it could just be that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Lindgren knew of the Japanese symbolism. The wild rose at least carries some symbolism in Swedish where the old fashioned name “törnros” (literally translated into thorn rose), is used instead of the simpler and more commonly used form “ros” (rose). With the name törnros you never forget that there are thorns among the flowers. When I think of törnsrosor I also associate it with Sleeping beauty (Törnrosa in Swedish) and thorns with Jesus’ crown of thorns. Neither seems like an immediate parallel to the story but that is the kind of connotations wild roses have in Swedish so maybe there’s more there than I can immediately see.

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