Then he again spoke of how swiftly they must rid the valley of all Tengilmen, and Jonathan said:
"Rid? You mean kill?"
"Yes, what else would I mean?" said Orvar.
"But I can't kill anyone," said Jonathan. "You know that, Orvar."
"Not even if it's a question of your own life?" said Orvar.
"No, not even then," said Jonathan.
Orvar couldn't understand that, and neither could Mathias.
"If everyone were like you," said Orvar, "then evil would reign forever."
But then I said that if everyone were like Jonathan, there wouldn't be any evil. (p. 165)
I first read Astrid Lindgren's The Brothers Lionheart back in May 2007, after being urged to do so. Over five years later, again urged by Dunja to read it (and this time review it), I am finally recording my thoughts on this remarkable YA novel. It's strange to think that over five years had passed between initial reading and re-reading; it seemed like it was at most two years, as I vividly recalled the story. The Brothers Lionheart is a poignant story, a bit darker than the juvenile fare that I read when I was 8-12 years old (with one notable exception; I do plan on discussing some of these preteen reads in later review essays). I think the younger me would have dreamed just as much as the adult me did in both 2007 and today; he perhaps wouldn't be quite as pensive, however. There is a lot going on under the surface that will move most who stop and consider.
The story revolves around the very close fraternal bond between the handsome, athletic Jonathan and his chronically ill younger brother Karl Lion (nicknamed Rusky by Jonathan after his favorite pastry). Rusky is on the verge of dying (it isn't spelled out, but from the coughing spells, it is likely tuberculosis) and Jonathan entertains him with tales of the magical land of Nangiyala, where after death Rusky can find fun and adventure and not have to endure more physical pain. Tragically, two months before Rusky's eventual succumbing to his illness, Jonathan perishes in a house fire, dying to save his younger brother. Yet this death (followed afterward by Rusky's, the night after he leaves a farewell note to his mother) leads to their reunion in Nangiyala, which appears to be based on medieval Swedish sagas in terms of environment and the people they meet.
Yet this saga contains an evil enemy, Tengil. When the brothers, now rechristened Lionheart (in part a play off of their original surnames, in part a reference to their wholesome natures), travel the valleys of Nangiyala, they discover that Tengil, with the aid of the fearsome dragon Katla, is threatening to overwhelm the entire realm. Each brother embarks on daring missions to discover the depths of Tengil's machinations and along the way, important lessons are imparted.
This later comment perhaps may sound like a weary condemnation of juvenile literature that focuses on "messages" at the expense of imaginative storytelling. This is far from the case here. The two brothers, Jonathan in particular, are noble not because the plot calls for them to be, but because each embodies such a perfect goodness that readers, even jaded, cynical adult readers such as myself, may find themselves relating to the characters at the level of them being the idealizations of ourselves. They do battle evil, but not with violence. Jonathan is an avatar, akin to a Jesus or a Gandhi, that does not enact violence against evil, but instead overcomes through pacifistic resistance. Too often, whether it is in children's lit or in adult novels, violence is employed to combat violence; the difference being merely a matter of degree and intent. Lindgren's use of Jonathan as the whitest of white characters could have faltered in many respects: he could have been too distant, too sketchy, not enough childlike in his persona. Yet he is not just a "perfect" character but one who is sympathetic to us because he inspires us to reflect back upon the times that we have loved our brethren, biological and friendship-based alike.
Lindgren's narrative is short, sharp, and rarely over-indulgent. Nangiyala is described in some detail, but with enough fuzziness that readers across the globe can imagine the characters and setting within their own cultural milieu. There are interesting plot twists, such as traitors and even a few cliffhangers. It is hard to stop at the end of a single chapter; there is something looming just on the next page that drives readers to read this 180+ page novel in as few sittings as possible. Lindgren's characters, children and adults alike, feel "alive"; we can grasp their motivations and with the exception of the main enemies, there are nuances to each character.
The only questionable elements I noticed in The Brothers Lionheart relate to parents and death. In the two Lindgren novels that I've read (the other being Pippi Longstocking), parents are virtually absent, either through death, disappearance, or seeming benign neglect. Perhaps this is done to highlight the resourcefulness and resiliency of Lindgren's youthful protagonists, but it was something that bears noting. Also, although it did not bother me per se, it was odd to see death being used as a way out of Rusky's illness and, toward the conclusion, what happened to one of the brothers. Perhaps for some that would lead to some awkward questions regarding the preference for death (or even suicide) to continued suffering, but in light of the entire narrative, it merely is something that is subservient to the main themes of the novel, those surrounding nobility of spirit, agape love, pacifistic resistance of evil, and overcoming life's obstacles.
Next month, I will be an uncle for the first time. I could see, eight or nine years down the road, giving my niece a copy of The Brothers Lionheart. There is a timelessness about it that I think will continue to resonate with children born over 40 years after its initial 1973 release.