The Brothers Lionheart

A few years back I wrote a post explaining why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart. This novel is known as one of the greatest classics in Scandinavian children’s literature, and with good reason. Although superficially a rather classical fantasy novel, it deals with questions of death, courage and family love in a way that few adult novels can match. It is a bit divisive, and certainly unusually dark for a middle grade fantasy, but it is also beautiful and though-provoking. I consider it one of my favourite novels all categories.

The last time I wrote about The Brothers Lionheart I carefully avoided spoilers but I just finished another reread and this time I want to discuss it properly. This blog post will therefore contain some rather large spoilers, including of the ending. Those of you who are bothered by spoilers and didn’t take my advice last time might want to stop reading here and go and read the book instead (it’s not a long read and, in my opinion, definitely worth it!).

View over a cloud covered landscape

That this is not our usual middle grade fantasy novel is clear from the beginning. Already on the first pages we learn that our narrator, nine-year old Karl/Skorpan/Rusky, is dying and afraid. His one comfort is his older brother Jonatan, who tells him stories about Nangiyala, the afterlife, a land full of adventures. And then not Karl but Jonatan dies, leaving Karl behind as the book reaches its darkest point, about 15 pages in. By the time we reach the third chapter Karl is dead too and as an emotional reader I’m definitely crying.

It is certainly a rough beginning, especially on adult readers, who might have a hard time believing in Nangiyala, but fortunately the novel doesn’t stay in that darkness. Instead things brighten considerably as Karl reaches the Cherry Valley, a beautiful valley in Nangiyala where Karl is no longer ill but able to run and swim and fish and ride, and above all to reunite with his beloved older brother.

Alas, that cheerful interlude can not last, gradually it is revealed that not all is not well in paradise either. What follows is plot-wise a rather traditional fantasy story with good vs. evil, just set in the after-life, but Lindgren uses that well known format to tackle some fairly heavy questions, and to prepare her readers for the ending, which in some ways is just as shocking as the beginning, only this time we are better prepared to face it.

Unreliable narrator?

A few things in the novel seem suspicious to an adult reader. Jonatan is rather young considering the things that he does in the novel, not to mention suspiciously perfect. It makes sense in one way as we see him from his younger brother’s perspective, and it is very clear that Karl loves and idolizes Jonatan, but from an adult’s perspective Jonatan does seem a bit too good to be true. There are also a number of convenient coincidences in the plot and a few allusions to Nangiyala as a “place where you get all you have wished for” and “part of an old-time dream” (my translations), all tempting a skeptical adult to suspect that Karl might not be a reliable narrator. That what we are reading is his feverish dreams, and that he only really dies at the end of the book. In that reading we get a beautiful but sad story of a young boy who uses the memories of his brother’s love and stories to find the courage to face his own death.

Explaining everything away as a dream is usually, rightly, considered a lazy way out for an author, but that reading assumes that Karl is in fact an unreliable narrator. Lindgren clearly opened the story for such an interpretation, but although it is always tempting to assume that the hidden and cynical read is the truer one, I am not sure that it applies in this case. Lindgren was a children’s author and she always wrote primarily for the child. It can thus easily be argued that the straight-forward read, assuming Karl to be a reliable narrator, is the primary one and that the alternate unreliable narrator variety was something she left for those of us too old and cynical to approach the story with child-like wonder. Either way the two alternate interpretations runs beautifully in parallel through the text, telling us a story about death and love and courage on whatever level we are ready to appreciate it.

Various things I like about the book

  • I love that it is so full of love. It may be dark but through it runs a thread of brotherly love strong enough to conquer death. I find that very hopeful.
  • I like that it shows courage as being afraid but doing the right thing anyway. Whereas Jonatan’s heroism is that of a fairy tale hero, and thus rather hard to live up to, Karl’s scared heroics seem more achievable, and in the end they are shown to be just as great.
  • I appreciate that it makes me face my own mortality, but also that it reminds me that it can be met with love and courage.
  • I like that it doesn’t glorify violence. That is a hard thing to accomplish when a central premise of the story is the fight between good and evil, but in this story the main heroes are a pacifist and his younger brother, neither of which is doing any fighting, but who are still shown to be true heroes. The ending is also in line with this message in that it shows that even a fight for the best of causes, there is one in the story, although our heroes are not fighting in it, will still cause irreparable harm. That even when necessary, and it is hard to describe the fight against Tengil’s tyranny as anything but, there are no pure happy endings after a war.

So is it a sad book? Yes, but it is also a hopeful book filled with death-defying love. I find it very comforting.

Have you read it? What did you think about it? I would love to discuss it with you! (With spoilers obviously, this is not a book that can easily be discussed in a spoiler-free way).

Further reading

17 thoughts on “The Brothers Lionheart

  1. I love this book very much!
    I agree. I feel like the interpretation of all of it being Karl’s dying dream is something concocted by adults who had lost the ability to live in their imaginations 😉 I think Lindgren excelled in mixing the magical and the mundane is ways that blur the division. Nangiyala sounds like a somewhat non-Protestant, and not entirely Catholic either concept of purgatory to me – it is a place of growth, especially for Karl; to achieve the potential he was denied on Earth, so that he can go on as a fully realized person.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wouldn’t say concocted, I think it is quite clearly intentionally written into the story. I think of it rather as something Astrid left there so that there would be something in the story also for those adults of little imagination. I do enjoy seeing both interpretations run in parallel through the story, I see it as a Schrödinger’s story, where the boy is both dead and alive the whole time, only at the end would we need to determine the “correct” interpretation, and that is exactly where the story ends. I find that intellectually interesting, and also a bit comforting, because it tells me that if I ever get too boring to believe in the fantastic interpretation, there will still be a story there for me.

      I completely agree with your interpretation of Nangiyala as a place of growth and preparation. The Karl that first came to Nangiyala could certainly not to what he eventually did in the end. He faces his fears and grows, and in the end he is ready for the next step.

      Did you read it in English? I have heard that some Polish editions include an afterword that’s not a true part of the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I have read it now, and therefore appreciate this commentary all the more! Of course I’ll be reviewing and discussing this myself in due course, but here I will just say that your photos are absolutely spot on for the various natural environments the brothers find themselves in, and complement Ilon Wikland’s illustrations perfectly. Did Lindgren have particular valleys in mind for Nangijala?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hurrah! I believe an inspiration was a beautiful dawn she once saw near lake Fryken in Värmland, but other than that I suspect that she used inspirations from all sorts of places that a child in Sweden might be familiar with and find magical. I’m glad you found the photos appropriate, I have photographed places I’ve found magical, and as I grew up in Sweden, my idea of magical places is probably rather close to the one Lindgren imagined (although not all photos are taken in Sweden).

      An interesting coincidence is that the original version of the hymn “How Great Thou Art” was inspired at a place in Småland not very far from where Lindgren grew up, perhaps it is just a good place for heavenly inspiration 😉 (I’m from the same general region as Astrid Lindgren, so I am letting my own bias show here)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m curious about an aspect Joan Tate’s translation now. On the Astrid Lindgren site there’s the key quote when Jonathan tells Karl how ‘there are things you have to do, even if they are dangerous.
    “Why is that?” I asked.
    “Because if you don’t you are not a human being, you’re nothing but a little louse,” Jonathan replied.’

    Now the Tate translation has “you’re nothing but a bit of filth,” with no louse involved; but my more scatological adult mind wondered if the original Swedish was a bit more explicit: in modern English Jonathan’s contempt might be expressed by “you’re nothing but a piece of shit,” which is a lot stronger than and of a different kind from a common louse.

    So I’m wondering how Astrid originally phrased it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The last phrase in Swedish is: “Annars är man ingen människa utan bara en liten lort.” , and it is one of the most famous quotes in the novel. “Lort” usually refers to dirt or filth, but in combination with liten/little it does indeed imply that we are talking about shit, although probably rabbit shit or similar, not something more disgusting. It is a rather mild way of phrasing it, so it points to something unpleasant but insignificant, rather than something disgusting. The translation into “little louse”, although farthest from the literal meaning, may be the one that is closest to the original in tone.

      Liked by 2 people

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