Few books have meant more to me than the chronicles of Narnia. As a child I read them over and over, and even, after I had collected them all in Swedish, collected Narnia books in other languages as souvenirs. It is thus fair to say that I know the stories rather well, but I must admit that it have been a long time since I reread them. Calmgrove’s Narniathon seemed like a good time to do something about that and I have therefore revisited The lion, the witch and the wardrobe.
Most of the time when I reread a book I have at least partially forgotten the plot, but not this time. Every scene, almost every word, was familiar, but despite this I still enjoyed it. Sure, there are things I could complain about, the children all feel fairly flat and unconvincing, the narrator sometimes starts lecturing, but none of that really matters. What do I care about the Pevensie children? When I read a Narnia book, I am always the child that travels to Narnia. That C. S. Lewis created a world I could almost believe I could travel to has always been what I loved most about the Narnia books.
Apart from his excellent abilities for setting a scene I believe that there are three things in particular that makes my immersion in Narnia possible, Firstly, Narnia is a portal world, making it entirely plausible that I could travel to Narnia, unlike most Fantasy lands. Secondly, The chronicles of Narnia contain something that the author truly believed in. A story with a moral is often worse for it, but I have often found that the stories with something true (or believed to be true) at their core are the ones with lasting power. The chronicles of Narnia and my other children’s Fantasy favourite, The Brothers Lionheart, although very unalike, both have this is common. Thirdly, Narnia is created by an author who appears to believe in it. Perhaps not in a literal sense, but because Lewis wrote it with a strong Christian centre (which I completely missed as a child), he took it seriously. Other portal worlds, such as Oz or Wonderland, are written by authors who don’t take them seriously, they are interesting and fun, but I never found them believable in the way that I do believe in Narnia.
All in all I found my return to Narnia to be interesting and enjoyable. I had hoped to discover more new things in it, but I have read it so many times, and also reread it as an adult, although a long time ago, that it all felt familiar.
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!).
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.
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).
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!
Kjerringa som ble så lita som ei teskje (Mrs. Pepperpot) by Alf Prøysen
Mrs. Pepperpot, or teskedsgumman/teskjekjerringa as she is called in Norwegian and Swedish, is the protagonist in a series of children’s book by Alf Prøysen. Every time she gets particularly busy she tends to suddenly shrink to the size of a tea spoon (tesked/teskje). Fortunately she instead gains the ability to speak with animals and this, together with her wit, allows her to solve the various problems her miniature size causes.
My impression is that these are stories that ought to be read aloud for a fairly young child. In many ways the stories resemble classical Norwegian fairy tales and the language, in the Norwegian version written in dialect, should be well-suited for reading aloud. Unfortunately I had no child to test this on and read silently I found the stories a bit short and simple and not that interesting for an adult reader.
The Carey novels are a series of historical fiction novels centred around British history (mostly war history) and all following a member of the fictional Carey family. In Captain of Dragoons the focus is on Charles Carey, a Captain in the Duke of Marlborough’s army.
I am always interested in a good adventure story and Captain of Dragoons indeed feature thrilling events such as duels, espionage and daring escapes, but for some reason I failed to connect with the main character, which made all of it a bit flat. All in all I found it fairly well-written for the genre and I did enjoy it, but it would probably have been more interesting if I had a bit more of an interest in UK history.
Rasmus på luffen (Rasmus and the Vagabond) by Astrid Lindgren
I have saved my favourite for last. Of course you never go very wrong with Astrid Lindgren and Rasmus and the Vagabond, despite being one of her lesser known books, is a lovely book. I don’t think I have read it before but I vaguely remember the TV-series.
The protagonist Rasmus is a nine-year-old orphan. After having been once again rejected by a pair of potential parents, who instead picked a curly haired girl, he decides to run away from the orphanage to find some parents for himself. As an adult I could see multiple ways this could go wrong but fortunately the first person he meets is Paradis Oskar, a friendly vagabond who takes him under his wings. Less fortunately they soon encounter a pair of robbers who tries to blame Oskar for their deeds.
As an adult reader the robber-plot was the least interesting part of the story, although I’m sure it would have been thrilling to the intended audience. I was however very much invested in Rasmus quest to find himself some parents. Rasmus is a lovely portrait of a sensitive, affection starved boy, and his friendship with Oskar is very sweet.
I’m staying in Moominvalley, which is a pretty great place to be in right now. Admittedly in the novel I just finished, Comet in Moominland, the valley had its own problems with a comet heading right towards them, but other than the slight question of impending doom, things were as they used to be.
Mumin (Moomin) is once again the protagonist and together with Sniff he sets out on the dangerous journey towards the observatory to learn all they can about the coming disaster. Along the way they pick up a few new friends, Snusmumriken (Snufkin), Snorkfröken (Snork maiden) and Snorken (Snork), who all make their first appearances in this story. I especially enjoy Snusmumriken, a care-free tramp and Mumin’s best friend, who always makes me long for a few nights in the woods.
Comet in Moominland is the second of the Moomin books and thus has less of the beautifully melancholy feeling prevalent in the later books, but what it has instead is a strong feeling of adventure and a promise that no matter how dark it looks, in the end all will be well.
Troubling times calls for comforting books and few things are as comforting Tove Jansson‘s Moomin family. In addition the novel I selected for a reread, Finn Family Moomintroll (original title: Trollkarlens hatt, Direct translation: The Magician’s Hat) is probably the most uplifting of them.
In The Magician’s Hat (I really don’t like the English title…) we follow the Moomin family and their friends during their summer adventures, adventures that are getting even more magical by a certain influence from a strange black hat. While all the Moomin novels have at least a touch of melancholy in them, this one is a distinctly happy story.
In general I like the darker Moomin stories better, especially Moominland midwinter and Tales from Moominvalley. It is not even Jansson’s best summer novel, her The Summer Book is one of my favourite books in all categories. Still, out of the lighter Moomin books, this one is probably my favourite. I enjoy the overarching story-arc around the magical hat and reading it just gives me the feeling of a happy summer holiday.
I thought that the spring was already here. The wind was warm, the sun shone and the snow only held on the higher mountains and in the most shaded spots. I should have known better, two days of heavy snowfall later and the landscape is white again (the photo was taken this morning). To get back into proper winter mood I decided to reread Moominland Midwinter (Trollvinter), my favourite winter book and one of the best Moomin books.
Moomin trolls are of course summer creatures who normally hibernate through the winters, but one year Moomin accidentally wakes up early from his winter sleep and thus becomes the first moomin troll to experience a winter. In moominland Midwinter we get to follow his explorations of the strange, cold, dark, lonely world he has awaken to. It is a bit of a bildunsgroman, with Moomin learning to adapt to and eventually enjoy his new environment, and a beautiful portrait of one of my favourite seasons. Perhaps the Nordic countries should just hand it to every immigrant from a warmer country to let them know what to expect?
As it is a Moomin book it is also filled with Tove Jansson‘s amazing characters. I know that it was first published in 1957 but I am sure that I have met most of them and some obvious relatives of Hemulen come by our summer cabin every year.
Michael Ende may be best know for The Neverending Story, but my favourite novel of his has always been Momo. In it the young girl Momo sees her friends turn into hollow shadows of themselves as they one by one gets tricked into saving time by mysterious Grey Men. It is a beautiful exploration of the concept of time and have some really disturbing antagonists, I really recommend it!
As Momo is a childhood favourite of mine I would have liked to give you a proper review, but the truth is that I am too tired. Last week was long and stressful and although all went well it left me drained. In fact it left me pretty much like the victims of the Grey Men so perhaps I should have taken the novel’s warning that to save time is to waste life more seriously…
Moominpappa at sea by Tove Jansson is the second to last Moomin novel and takes place at the same time as Moominvalley in November.
It starts as the Moominpappa is going through a bit of a life-crisis. Things are getting a bit too comfortable and he starts to suspect that his family doesn’t really need him anymore. The solution is obviously for the family to leave their comfortable home and move to an isolated lighthouse where the father can prove his pioneer spirit (I want to blame Moominpappa for this but while it may have been his dream it was actually Moominmamma who decided it).
The result is a melancholy story about a family growing apart from each other, carried by Jansson’s amazing ability to write characters and scenes that feel absolutely true, although centred around a family of Moomintrolls.
While all Moomin novels have a touch of melancholy it is more dominant in the two last ones. In some ways I feel that the earlier Moomin novels are children’s novels that can be read by adults, while these last two are adult’s novels that can be read by children.
I read The Little House in the Big Forest as a child and, although I have forgotten much of it, one scene in particular has stayed with me. I am of course thinking of the time they made candy out of maple syrup. As a child the thought of making candy in the snow was endlessly fascinating to me and I lamented the lack of sugar maples in Sweden.
However, it is said that it is never to late to have a happy childhood and I finally realized that I didn’t need a sugar maple, just ordinary maple syrup and the fresh new-fallen snow outside. Tonight I have finally fulfilled that particular childhood dream and although I may have eaten a bit too much I have no regrets. Thank you Laura Ingalls Wilder!