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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Children’s Literature 1 - The Brothers Lionheart

The Brothers Lionheart is a book published in 1973 by Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), a famous Swedish author of children’s novels. It tells about the adventures of two brothers, 13-year-old Jonathan Lion, and his little brother, 10-year-old Karl Lion, whom Jonathan calls “Rusky.” Jonathan is lively, funny, tall, handsome, and brave. All the children love to play with him, and all the adults admire him. His teacher names him Lionheart, and the name sticks, because he really is so brave and handsome. Rusky, on the other hand, is small, timid, and sickly. So sickly, in fact, that he hears one night the grown-ups saying that he will die soon. To cheer him up, Jonathan tells him about a wonderful world of beyond named Nangiyala, which is a place of campfires, sagas, and adventures. That’s the place to which Rusky will soon go. And Jonathan will follow, too.

Only it turns out that Jonathan will go to Nangiyala first. There is a terrible fire at the Lions’ home one night, and a brave heart as he is, Jonathan rescues his little brother by jumping with him from the window. Now Rusky is all alone, sad, but he knows that at least Jonathan will be waiting for him in Nangiyala. And true to his word, when Rusky is transferred there, he finds Jonathan at their very own farm in a place called Cherry Valley.

At Cherry Valley, everyone loves Jonathan, of course, and welcome his little brother in their midst, too. The Lionheart brothers, as they are called, have their own beautiful horses, Grim who is Jonathan’s, and Fyalar who belongs to Rusky. The center of the valley is the inn called The Golden Cockerel, where Rusky is introduced to a friendly old woman, Sofia.

Sofia has bad news for Jonathan and Rusky. A very evil war lord named Tengil is planning to conquer Cherry Valley. There are two green valleys that lay beautifully in among the mountains of Nangiyala, Cherry Valley, and Wild Rose Valley, and cruel tyrant Tengil has submitted Wild Rose Valley to his power, and plans to capture Cherry Valley, too. His soldiers, called “Tengilmen,” oppress the people, but the most fearsome of his powers is that he can control the ancient, horrible dragon named Katla. And Rusky is also informed, that it is Sofia who is the leader of the troops of Cherry Valley against Tengil, and she also helps the people in Wild Rose Valley. The leader of the Wild Rose Valley resistance is Orvar, but he has been captured by Tengil as is soon to be fed to Katla.

Since Jonathan is the bravest of all in Cherry Valley, he tells Rusky one day, that he will leave to help the people in Wild Rose Valley. But he will do it by himself. Torn and sad because he has to again be by himself, without Jonathan, Rusky then decides to follow him to Wild Rose Valley, where Tengil and Katla are too...

The Brothers Lionheart is an exceptionally dark toned children’s book. Death is heavily present in it, as is loneliness. For the small and timid Rusky, his big brother is a hero and protector. And he gets angry when Jonathan wants to help and protect the people of Wild Rose Valley, too. Rusky is extremely upset when Jonathan leaves him, and writes:

I remembered suddenly how things had been that time when Jonathan was dead and away from me, and I was lying in my sofa-bed, not knowing whether I’d ever see him again; oh, it was like looking down into a black hole, just thinking about it.

And now he wanted to leave me again, just disappear into dangers about which I knew nothing, and if he didn’t come back, this time there would be no help and I’d be alone forever and ever.

I could feel myself getting angrier and angrier, and I shouted at him even louder and said as many horrible things as I could think up.

It was not easy for him to calm me down, even a little. But, of course, things went as he wished in the end. I knew that he understood everything better than I did.

And the Lionheart brothers do make up, and Jonathan does become the hero of Nangiyala, leading the resistance against the evil powers. In the book Tengil is a typical, Stalin-like dictator, who purges his enemies and opponents by killing them, either by sword, or by feeding them to the dragon Katla. One of the things which attracted me so much in the book when I read it was that it didn’t sugarcoat the sorrows which many children must suffer in the world. Lindgren was so popular with children because she knew how to write stories children themselves enjoyed, instead of what grown-ups would want them to read.

The dark themes of death, violence, and loneliness were things which raised some criticism against the book when it was first published. I read it when I was about 9, and I loved it, and wasn’t a bit traumatized by it. But some parents might want to read the book first themselves, and make the decision if their children are more like Rusky or like Jonathan, and brave enough to read it.

The Brothers Lionheart is available on Amazon. (The Puffin Books edition with the drawings by J.K. Lambert is the preferred one.)

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