Of campfires and sagas

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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?

Sigurd fights the dragon

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.


Thanks go to Johanna and Ola for so strongly recommending this! Also read for World Kid Lit Month and European Reading Challenge 2021

27 thoughts on “Of campfires and sagas

  1. So… did you like it, Chris? 😉

    On a more serious note, you are right – Brothers Lionheart is a novel very much steeped in Norse myths, not only with regards to various mythological creatures, but also to the general outlook on life, with a sort of stoic acceptance of hardship and death as parts of life. In that, it goes much further, IMO, than Lewis, who in The Last Battle unimaginatively – if with seemingly somewhat vicious pleasure – copied religious scripture 😛

    P.S. Ilon Wikland rules! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t just like it, Ola, I’m completely taken by it, almost haunted by it! My fondness for it has a tinge of awe — awe that such writing should be offered to children with the knowledge they would be likely to accept and assimilate it while at the same time certain adults would be muttering about trigger warnings and its suitability for delicate minds. (Some of the same adults would be insisting on Bible readings, and we know what wholesome material the Old Testament contains … not.)

      Having read the odd saga (Hrolf Kraki’s springs to mind) and Northern epic (the Nibelungenlied, for instance) I recognise the traditional Nordic stoicism Lindgren portrays here. Nangilima sounds like a child’s version of Valhalla (campfires instead of feasting and drinking) but the fact that it may just be anothet iteration of Nangiyala suggests that the leaps of the brothers are equivalents to the Norse hero’s leap into a nest of vipers with a shout of joy, the Viking way to accept death.

      And I’m already feeling a resurgence of distaste for Lewis’s syncretism, not good for an open-minded approach to Narniathon21! So I’ll enthrone Ilon Wikland instead. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be fascinated to know what you think when you get to it, Karen: it confounded my expectations of it as children’s fantasy and I keep revisiting it in my mind, trying to assimilate all the ideas that I find it prompting.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Pippi is of course the most famous one but Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is the Lindgren novel that is closest to The Brothers Lionheart in tone, although it is not quite as dark and not as controversial. Ronja was originally also illustrated by Ilon Wikland, but unfortunately it looks like the English version is using someone else. Otherwise, many of her other classical works are written for a slightly younger audience and are much lighter in tone, although often with a melancholy streak. I still really enjoy most of them, Lindgren is brilliant at writing from a child’s perspective and can be very funny, but my own preference is for her darkest stories.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I remember the Ronja title being mentioned before so it’s sad that neither the Puffin or OUP editions include Wikland’s illustrations. (I see Studio Ghibli has animated the tale in the last couple or so years, which was news to me, and I think that there’s a version with their images.) Anyway, the story’s the thing!

          Liked by 1 person

    1. “Northness” is le mot juste here, Jo, Scandinavian fells, heroic deeds, dragons—all that’s missing are the trolls! Another one with that particular northness which you might like is one I read as a kid: The Ship that Flew by another Lewis, this one called Hilda. Skíðblaðnir is Odin’s ship, its quality being that it can be shrunk small enough to be carried around…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This really intrigues me, thank you Chris. Pippi Longstocking’s appeal rather passed me by and this certainly sounds very different to that. I wonder what children make of The Brothers Lionheart? It’s definitely on my wish list now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s very different, the first Pippi Longstocking book was one of Lindgren’s first novels, written for a slightly younger audience and mostly lighthearted and fun. The Pippi books are loved by many young kids but they are not the Lindgren novels I would primarily recommend for an adult reader. In contrast The Brothers Lionheart is her darkest novel, written almost thirty years later, and for slightly older kids. Apart from good writing they don’t have very much in common and it’s easy to like one but not the other (her more realistic novels can be found somewhere in between these two extremes).

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I suppose the fact that bookish adult fans like Johanna and Ola, who were taken with this as children, still sing its praises says something of its lasting impact, Anne. It must’ve been an instant classic when it appeared in Sweden — I read recently that Lindgren is amongst the most translated children’s authors, with Pippi Longstocking mingling with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, the first Alice book, Pinocchio and The Little Prince — so this title must also be part of most Swedes’ childhood. (Also up there is Green Gable’s Anne.) I hope you get to read it!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Your comment that you are still thinking about the book is partly what makes me want to read it. I love stories, either for children or adults, that affect the reader so deeply. Definitely going to read this, eventually! I have saved your review to remind me.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I wasn’t born in 1973 so I’m not sure how instant its classic status was, but it is certainly considered a classic today. It was also filmed a few years later and the film actually captures the story really well, although the special effects are terrible. My first encounter with The Brothers Lionheart was in the cinema aged about 8, I only read the book myself a few years later. Since then I have both re-watched the move/tv-series, reread the book lots of times, and listened to a more recent adaption as a radio play.

        In fact most of the more famous Lindgren novels have been successfully filmed and those films and tv-series are shown again and again on Swedish TV, ensuring that also those children who are not reading the novels themselves, or have had them read for them, will know the stories. It is rather hard to overestimate how influential Lindgren has been in Scandinavia.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hurrah, I’m so glad that you’ve read it, and liked it! I consider convincing others of its greatness to be one of my main missions as a blogger 😉! It may be a children’s novel in a fairytale format, but I don’t know of many adult novels that deals with death in such a convincing and thought-provoking way. I believe she wrote this novel at a time when one of her brothers was seriously ill and I feel that a note of that love and grief runs through the text.

    Ilon Wikland is really great, she illustrated many of Lindgren’s novels, but unfortunately the illustrations are not always kept in the translated editions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, thank you for giving me that gentle but persistent nudge, Johanna, as I feel enriched from having read it. The suggestion that personal experience may have encouraged Lindgren to write this tale of sibling love seems very likely given how powerfully that love comes through; and it makes a change from so much fiction focused on the theme of sibling rivalry.

      I wonder why Wikland’s illustrated don’t appear in all translated editions? Maybe the fact that one of them has the boys naked when they rescue the Tengil horse from the torrent might have swayed some publishers. A shame, if so, as they’re so powerful.

      Anyway, thanks again for banging the drum for this, I’m glad I got round to it, and just in time for World Kid Lit Month too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe Wikland’s illustrations are mostly kept for The Brother’s Lionheart, although I suppose some more sensitive markets might skip that particular illustration. However, the English editions of several of the other novels she illustrated are using other illustrators.

        I suspect it may be in an effort to give them a more modern look, which might be more attractive to modern kids. If it works I guess it might be worth it, after all, the most important thing is the stories reaches the kids, but it is a loss nevertheless.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Brothers Lionheart – I read that in a book

  5. DarTamar

    I was given this book as a kid in the 1970s – maybe around age 9 or 10 – and read it multiple times, loving it more with each re-reading. (Honestly, I liked it far more than Pippi.) As a parent, I quickly came to realize that some books remembered fondly from childhood do not stand the test of time (looking at you, Babar) but it was a great joy to read this aloud to my own kids. It seemed normal to me as a child reader, but as an adult I was impressed with how Lindgren does not shy away from issues like betrayal and death, while still imbuing the story with such magic, and at the same time conveying so clearly the message (never needed more) that you’ve got to stand up to evil in this world – or in any.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you summarise its nature really well, Tamar, and especially the fact that the best children’s books aren’t overtly moralising but allow the young reader (or listener) to draw their own lessons or conclusions from the way characters act and speak.

      They also leave space so that not everything is spelt out; a bit of imagination, a sense of wonder and some reflection are all called for. I think The Brothers Lionheart does just that.

      Liked by 1 person

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