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

The importance of language

My first-language is Swedish, but I read most books in English. A large proportion of my reading was originally written in English, and as I feel comfortable reading it in its original language, I see no reason not to. In addition it is often easier to find English translations than it is to find Swedish ones for much of the translated fiction that I read (although not for Nordic authors, plus reading Nordic authors in English feels wrong). As a bonus, reading in English gives me useful language practice and is often the cheaper option.

However, although I don’t find reading in English noticeably more difficult than reading in Swedish, the impact is different. Swedish is to me associated with real, living, breathing people. It is the language I use with those closest to me, in both mundane, everyday conversations, and for the words that changes everything. English on the other hand I associate with fictional characters who say things such as “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” or “My name is Bond, James Bond”. To me the English words lack the solidity that Swedish has, I don’t think I consider English entirely real.

This dissociation when I read in English is not entirely negative. Although the very best Swedish literature speaks to my heart in a way that English never can, I am also much more sensitive to any wrong notes. I have a much easier time to suspend my disbelief and to accept e.g. a slightly awkward translation when I read something in English. I believe that I’m more likely to like a text in English, but less likely to love it. The same is true to an even higher degree for film and TV. I quite enjoy a lot of mediocre US and British productions, but if something is in Swedish it has to be really good, or it is painful to watch.

In addition to Swedish and English I also read in Norwegian (both Bokmål and Nynorsk) and, more rarely, in Danish. Due to the similarities between the Scandinavian languages written Norwegian and Danish are both perfectly understandable to a Swedish reader, but not without some effort. In Norway I have heard it said that “Swedish is misspelled Norwegian whereas Danish is mispronounced Norwegian”, which describes the situation fairly well. Written Danish and Norwegian (especially the Bokmål variety) are rather similar, while Swedish is spelled quite differently. On the other hand spoken Norwegian and Swedish are much closer to each other than to spoken Danish.

To communicate across the language divides you need get used to the different spelling and pronunciation, and learn a few tricky words, but it’s much easier than learning a new language. My primary work language is “Svorsk”, that is Swedish with lots of Norwegian words thrown in, it is ugly but it works. However, living in Norway I of course also need to improve my written Norwegian (plus most of the library books are in Norwegian). I therefore try to read at least some fiction in Norwegian, but as it is more of an effort I tend to go for easier reads, such as crime fiction and thrillers. Crime fiction, both Scandinavian and British usually works fine, I have for example found that Agatha Christie works just as well in Norwegian and Swedish as she does in English, although reading her in three different languages makes it very hard to keep track of which titles I have read. Thrillers are different, although I disconnect from the text in a similar way as I do when I read in English, my language associations are very different, and I have a much harder time believing in an American hero doing impossible things if I read about it in Norwegian. It is still good practice though, and choosing page-turners is a good way to counteract the reading resistance that comes from the extra effort it takes me to read in Norwegian.

Three months in and what have I read?

Based on my reading statistics the beginning of 2021 seems to have been great for reading. So far I have read 47 books by authors from 20(!) countries and ranging in style from Tolstoy to Ludlum. Normally that would have been a very good thing, but I think mostly that I have been hiding within my books. With closed borders emigration feels more like exile, and I have been very homesick lately. I have had some really good reading experiences lately though, In February the Read Indies month made me discover several interesting books, and more recently I finally took the time to read Anna Karenina.

Some memorable reads

Påskekrim

For Easter my focus is on crime novels, Påskekrim, as that is the Norwegian tradition. I started with Margery Allingham’s fine WW2 thriller Traitor’s Purse, where the main characters amnesia adds complexities to the character and makes the plot feel more like a nightmare.

Having been intrigued by the way the fictional characters’ amnesia added to the mystery I decided that it was time to finally read another famous amnesia thriller, Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, and I also re-watched the film. I wasn’t very impressed by the book, although I did not do it any favour by reading it in Norwegian, I can never take thrillers in Norwegian seriously, it just sounds wrong. However, the central idea of a man with amnesia who has no idea of who he is, but who quickly realizes that he has some disturbing skills and that everyone he meets seems to want to kill him, is excellent thriller material, as proven by the much better film version.

Reading the two books right after each other was interesting though, as it allowed me to compare how the authors used the trope to drive the plot and add complexities to the character’s sense of identity. If anyone knows of any other good amnesia thrillers or crime novels I wouldn’t mind adding a third title to my comparison.

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Ronia the Robber’s Daughter

I felt it was time for another reread of a childhood favourite, this time of Ronia the Robber’s daughter (Ronja rövardotter) by Astrid Lindgren. In it we follow Ronia/Ronja, daughter to the chief in a clan of robbers, as she explores the world around her and decides on her own future. A sort of bildungsroman in the shape of a middle-grade adventure novel.

Ronia’s need to balance her obligations to herself, to her family, and to her friend, forms the central conflict of the novel, with a particular highlight being the complicated father-daughter relationship. Parents in children’s fiction are usually either very good or very bad, or absent, but here we get a father who loves his child more than anything in the world, but who still manages to be a pretty terrible parent.

I guess that technically the novel would be classified a Fantasy novel, considering that the forest that Ronia spends most of her time in is full of vaguely mythological creatures, but it doesn’t feel like one. Rumpnissar, grådvärgar and vildvittror, are all the kind of creatures that almost exists, and which may perhaps still be glimpsed in the shadows on a dark night. In fact one of the things I love with this novel is how real the forest feels. My own childhood forest was a boring planted spruce forest, but exploring it I still felt much of the same sense of adventure as Ronia does in her more magical one.

Most of Lindgren’s novels have at least a small streak of darkness in them, but her Fantasy novels are among her darkest and most interesting ones. Although The Brothers Lionheart is my favourite Lindgren novel, Ronia is a close second, and is perhaps an even better, or at least less controversial, introduction to her novels. Highly recommended for both children and adults!

Independent publishers on my bookshelves

To finish the Read Indies month I thought I’d present some of the indie publishers on my bookshelves, together with some recommendations from each of them.

Favourite indie publishers

Slightly Foxed

Excellent memoirs in a beautiful format, the Slightly Foxed Editions are very easy to love. I have

Recommendations

Peirene Press

Sharp, short and hard-hitting translated fiction, Peirene Press is one of my favourite publishers. I have liked almost all of the Peirene Press books I have read so far but The Last Summer is my favourite.

Recommendations

Folio Society

Beautiful, illustrated editions of well-known works. If you are looking for a luxury edition of a favourite book, a special gift, or just really love interesting illustrations and book designs, Folio Society is a good place to start. Expensive though, although they sometimes have sales.

Recommendations

Some other independent publishers on my shelves

Photo of wild flowers by a river

Notting Hill Editions

Notting Hill Editions is close to becoming another favourite publisher of mine. They publish small cloth covered collections of essays and similar texts. The format is rather similar to the Slightly Foxed editions, but with a more modern look. My favourite so far has been Deborah Levy’s short memoir “Things I don’t want to know”, but most of them seems interesting.

Pushkin Press

I haven’t read much from Pushkin press but they did publish A woman in the polar night, one of my favourite reads last year.

And Other Stories

And Other Stories publishes a substantial proportion of translated fiction, which I like, but so far I have only bought two novels by from them, both by César Aira. I liked The Lime Tree but the other, The Seamstress And The Wind, was too weird for me.

Ayebia

Is another interesting publisher, focused on African and Carribean literature, but another one I am not yet very familiar with. For my first read from them I decided to start with African Love Stories, an anthology. I am only halfway through it, but am enjoying it so far, and have been introduced to several interesting authors that were new to me.

Indiebooks

Indiebooks have republished the first three books about Worrals. I was not too impressed by the design but they were quite fun to read, especially the first one.

Baen books

Baen publishes Fantasy and Science Fiction, including a few of Elizabeth Moon’s titles, which are always good fun. Their ebooks are DRM free and not region locked, which I really appreciate, and they make a yearly free short story bundle which is a great way to test their authors. That’s a good thing because not all of their authors are worth reading.

A few Swedish independent publishers

Yellow roses on blue sky

Bakhåll förlag (Swedish)

Bakhåll förlag has recently published some excellent memoirs, including A maid among maids by Ester Blenda Nordström and Every Friday by the gate by Wanda Heger, both of which I have reviewed in this blog.

Atlantis (Swedish)

Atlantis focuses on classic literature in Swedish, including The Poetic Edda and Pennskaftet (Penwoman) by Elin Wägner.

Every Friday by the gate

For my next indie read I selected a WW2 memoir, Varje fredag framför porten (Every Friday by the gate) by Wanda Heger.

The memoir begins during the German occupation of Norway during WW2, when Wanda Heger’s father was arrested and sent to Germany. Thanks to his family connections he was eventually released, but only under the condition that he and his family stayed in Germany. Frustrated by the forced exile Wanda Heger and her siblings began visiting Norwegian prisoners, eventually locating the Sachenhausen concentration camp. At this time official humanitarian organizations were barred access to the camp, but a young Norwegian woman bringing food packages to her countrymen must have seemed fairly harmless, and she managed to get into the outer part of the camp where she became a weekly visitor. While there she could find out names and prisoner numbers of the Norwegian prisoners and have some careful secret communication with them.

From this rather simple beginning the organization gradually grew and Norwegian prisoners were traced also to other concentration camps. The prisoner lists created from the information made it possible to send some food and medicine to the camps and were also important for the Swedish-Danish White Buses rescue mission during late WW2, a rescue mission in which Wanda Heger and the group around her also took active part.

I found this an unusually inspiring WW2 memoir, perhaps because it focused on aid rather than death, and because they were so successful. I would really recommend it but unfortunately it has not been translated into English (but to French and German).

The memoir was published by Bakhåll förlag, one of my favourite Swedish indie publishers. Bakhåll förlag has also published A Maid Among Maids, which I have previously reviewed.

Miss Pettigrew lives for a day

I have long wished that I loved Persephone books. The ambition of publishing lost books, mostly by women writing in the first half of the 20th century, is great, and the books are published as attractive soft cover volumes. The quality is a bit variable but that is not the main problem either, I gladly read books by much worse authors if the plot includes a murder. Instead I fear that it is a matter of taste, having previously tried four of them I found three rather boring. The fourth, Miss Buncle’s book, was a lightweight comfort read, but really rather sweet. That was the only one I kept.

However, it being Read Independent Publishers Month, I thought I would give them one final chance, this time with Miss Pettigrew lives for a day, their bestseller. The story is a classical Cinderella story about poor and jobless Miss Pettigrew who accidentally ends up in a world of glitz and glamour. Hardly an original story, but the Cinderella trope is popular for a reason, and the result is rather charming and uplifting. A lightweight read, with a few casually racist remarks of the kind common in books from the 1930s, but other than that I did enjoy it.

While I am still not really a converted Persephone fan, they do have many loyal followers, so if you do enjoy early 20th century fiction you might want to give them a try. They have a clear publishing profile so if you like one of them there is a good chance that you will like several other.

Jokkmokk’s winter market

Bored of sitting at home all the time? Perhaps you want to visit my favourite market? Jokkmokk’s winter market is held in northern Sweden every February. It is famous for the cultural events, with skilled artisans and interesting concerts, and it is especially interesting if you are interested in Sami artists and artisans.

This year there is unfortunately no ordinary market, but the online version, although disappointing compared to the real thing, is both easier to visit and less cold than the original. Most of it is of course in Swedish or Sami, but some of the films have English subtitles and many of the performances are enjoyable even if you don’t understand.

Very varied content, just like the real market, you can experience it here. (Note that the market is currently ongoing so I guess more content will be added in the next few days).

Focus on the indies – Folio Society

Karen and Lizzy are currently hosting Reading Independent Publishers Month, which seems like a good excuse to continue my Focus on the indies series, this time featuring Folio Society.

If the content of a book is the only thing of importance to you this publisher have little to offer. Almost all it publishes is readily available elsewhere and for less cost. It is also a rather conservative publisher, focused primarily on well-known classics and somewhat more modern books with a strong following, so not a great place to start if you want to expand your reading. However, outside of the exclusive private presses, few publishers care more about books as physical objects than Folio Society do. With interesting designs, great illustrations, sewn binding, quality papers and carefully selected fonts, their books are a treat to handle and read. I probably rate any book I read in a Folio edition slightly higher than I otherwise would, just because they are so pleasant to handle.

I first found Folio Society a few years ago when I was looking for a good replacement of a favourite book of mine, Fermat’s Last Theorem, which was falling apart. Since then I have gotten myself a bit of a collection, mostly of titles I expect to read again and again. With book illustration otherwise mostly kept for children’s books and many publishers cutting corners on binding and paper quality, I do appreciate that there are some who take quality seriously. I must admit that I have almost stopped buying normal hardcover books as they are still rather expensive but without the quality to match. If I really want a nice edition of a book I will rather pay for one that will last. (Fortunately for my book budget I still happily buy normal softcover books and tattered second hand volumes, as for them the lack of physical quality is properly reflected in the price).

Pros: Beautiful design, usually illustrated (thus supporting interesting book illustrators), high quality. A pleasure to read.

Cons: Usually (much) more expensive and space demanding (thicker paper, larger fonts, slipcases…) than alternative editions. Can be addictive and highly damaging to book budgets.

Recent reviews of books published by Folio Society

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Previous posts in this series

Focus on the indies – Peirene Press

Focus on the indies – Slightly Foxed