The Brothers Lionheart
by Astrid Lindgren.
Swedish title: Bröderna Lejonhjärta (1973)
translated by Joan Tate (1975).
Illustrated by Ilon Wikland (1973).
Oxford University Press, 2009.
“This can’t be real. It’s like something out of an ancient dream.”Karl Lionheart, Chapter 12.
King Richard of England received his nickname of Lionheart during the Crusades, but legend has it that when on the way home he was captured and a ransom demanded for his release, his troubadour Blondel discovered the castle in which he was imprisoned by hearing the king sing a verse of his favourite song.
Brothers Jonathan and Karl Lion have a similar relationship to each other, Jonathan telling his invalid young sibling tales about the country of Nangiyala where they will live after they die. When a succession of incidents means they are reunited in Nangiyala may they expect an idyllic existence, passing their days in campfires and sagas?
The Brothers Lionheart turns out however to be a tale of bravery and betrayals, and of cruelty and compassion when Nangiyala comes under threat from the neighbouring polity of Karmanyaka. Will little Karl find the courage he needs to live up to their acquired epithet of Lionheart and overcome his fears before tragedy strikes?
This is a dark novel, there’s no doubt, but it holds out hope. Karl is around ten and sickly, suffering from TB and unlikely to survive long, but 13-year-old Jonathan cheers him up with stories and promises of health, fun and companionship in what at first sounds like a paradise. But when their block of flats catches fire and Jonathan leaps from the flames with Karl on his back, it is the elder brother who dies in the fall, while the younger survives till consumption presently takes him.
It is at a bridge over a stream in Cherry Valley, Nangiyala where the brothers are united, and all at first feels perfect with Karl now in good health. But figurative storm clouds loom over the horizon, with the neighbouring Wild Rose Valley occupied by cruel forces from Karmanyaka. Karl is both proud and petrified to learn that Jonathan will be leaving him to be a freedom fighter; he has to learn how to be brave despite fears for his brother and the new friends he has made in Cherry Valley.
When, later in the novel, Karl exclaims, “This can’t be real. It’s like something out of an ancient dream,” there is a nugget of truth in what he says: there is indeed antiquity in what transpires, the stuff of legend in the perils and adventures that confront the siblings. There are journeys through mountains and along foaming rivers, though tunnels and into caverns; there are conspiracies and battles and, yes, there’s pain, even death in this paradise. There are echoes of sagas and myths, of Jörmungandr and Fafnir, of music soothing the savage breast, and much else.
What makes The Brothers Lionheart a rarity in children’s fiction is that it deals with the death of young protagonists while leaving the question of happy-ever-after unanswered. A few other children’s classics attempt to address this: C S Lewis’s The Last Battle is seen as problematic, while Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies skirts around the issue when Tom the climbing boy is reborn after drowning. Lindgren’s novel challenges the reader to reach their own conclusions as to what happens at the close when the brothers anticipate their transition to Nangilima; will the promise of fishing and campfires and saga-telling be finally achieved?
The author captures, I think successfully, the voice of a ten-year-old narrator, and the translation from the Swedish keeps the vocabulary at a level easily comprehensible for its readership. The joy of this story is that while it has a fairytale quality it doesn’t shirk from describing harsh realities: duplicity, hardships, difficult decisions, trauma, inhumanity are all there either on- or offstage. But we are also offered loyalties, principles, pacifism and sibling love. Can these be real? I think we may believe that at least.
I mustn’t neglect to mention the cover illustrations and superb line drawings by Ilon Wikland which accompany the text and which will surely be forever intimately associated with Lindgren’s text. They work so well in faithfully supporting the narrative, emphasising the youth and vulnerability of the brothers, the medieval nature of Nangiyala and Karmanyaka, and the dramatic landscape inspired by Sweden’s mountains, valleys and waterfalls. They also bring out the protagonists’ close relationships with their horses (perhaps unconsciously echoing the partnership in C S Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy); any edition lacking the illustrations would be the poorer for it.