Retro Reading: The Brothers Lionheart…

Today I present to you a book that I have been forced to categorise (since my most recent reading) as a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a very attractive dust jacket. I first encountered The Brothers Lionheart by perennial favourite Astrid Lindgren (she of Pippi Longstocking fame), as a reasonably young gargoyle. If memory serves I would have been around 9 or 10 years stony standing and was deeply involved in a “medieval” phase – which has been acknowledged as a highly important developmental period for gargoyles and other stone-creatures alike.  It was first published in the original Swedish in 1973, and had its first outing in English in 1975.

brothers lionheart

The story centres around young brothers Karl and Jonathan Lion, who die within weeks of each other and are reunited in Nangiyala, which appears at first glance to be an afterlife consisting of simple country living, such as one might have experienced during “the time of songs and sagas” as Lindgren puts it.  Shortly after Karl’s arrival in Nangiyala however, it becomes apparent that a creeping evil is descending on the valley where the boys reside and the story really takes off when Jonathan vanishes while on a secret mission into the heart of enemy territory.  Essentially, the plot unfolds as your basic good townsfolk versus tyrannical despot type of story, until we leave the boys as they gain entry into a second afterlife-y place called Nangilima.

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Right. Now as soon as this book popped unbidden back into my head n years after first reading, I immediately added it to my “to read retroactively” list as the thought of it was accompanied by a lovely warm feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment in the story.  Weirdly, as I re-read it, I also remembered that I was not able, as a youngling, to read this book in one sitting due to a feeling of dis-ease that seeped into my young mind with every turn of the page.  In fact, after some really focused reminiscing, I acknowledged that while I remember borrowing this book out from the library multiple times, I did so only because I found the book too discomfiting to finish in one reading.

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As a grown stone re-reading this story, I could see why it made my young self a tad unsettled.  For a start, it’s chock-full of death. The two main characters die not once, but twice; the second time in a way that I found, as an adult reader, a bit disturbing.  There’s plenty of terror and tyranny in the story as well – dissenters being carted off to a secret prison, traitors revealed amongst trusted company, and so forth.

I think though that this book is one of those tricky ones that can be interpreted at a much deeper level if first encountered as an adult.  Prior to re-reading, I had fond memories of my experiences with this book, with only vague undertones of something a bit frightening lurking within the pages.  As an adult reader, I’m now a bit unsure as to whether I like the story or not, and what sense or message I can take from it, and this might be a little unfair.

Soooooo…….do I recommend this one for young readers or not? I think I’ll have to err on the side of a guarded recommendation. It’s an engaging and action packed read, but “Macy the Shopping Mall Fairy” or “Captain Underpants” this book ain’t.  There are deeper themes presented here than one would normally find in children’s literature and for that reason I would recommend this book as a read-aloud, or for young independent readers who are fairly mature and/or sensitive in their outlook on life and books.

I would love to hear from anyone else who encountered this book as a youngling, and how their recommendations would pan out now.

Until next time,



18 thoughts on “Retro Reading: The Brothers Lionheart…

  1. Hi Bruce. I have never heard of this book. It sounds intriguing though, and I think I’ll add it to my to-read list. Thanks for sharing. Cheryl- Hop Hostess


  2. This is precisely the type of book I would have swallowed whole as a tween/teen. In fact, I do believe I read it, because some things you mentioned seemed familiar to me. It does sound quite dark and disturbing, which I love, but I don’t necessarily want my kids to experience. lol However, that being said, I don’t want my children to be afraid of death and dying and it sounds like this book examines the possibilities of the afterlife. I’ll have to read how they die the second time though – I’m totally curious!

    Thanks for sharing in the Kid Lit Blog Hop.


  3. HI, this book will be made into a new film very soon by swedish director Tomas Alfredsson(“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and Let The Right One In). It will be Swedens most expensive film in history at a 60 million dollars budget. It is one of the most beloved “children tales” in Sweden and everyone have read the book as youths.

    All children books are actually very dark in Sweden in an international comparison. The outlook on death and life is still very much the same as in the Viking age in the nordic countries, which reflects in the litterature..


  4. So it’s Swedish origin? I remember reading it as a teenager or pre-teen and the novel I read was in German (it’s my second language). I guess I always just thought it was written by a German. The Brothers Grimm didn’t write friendly stuff either. I found some of the fables quite scary as a child in Germany. My mom is Austrian by birth and my dad is American and he was based in Germany twice for the U.S. Army. He was in the JAG Corps and today he still works for the Army as a lawyer, but now as a civilian.
    I digressed. Back to the book. It was interesting to read, but I felt the message was twisted. It seemed to me that the older brother died and the younger one chose death (suicide) to be with his older brother. For me, this was a terrible thing to be promoting to young minds.
    I’m visiting from the Kid Lit Blog Hop. Have a great week!


    • Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Yes it was the second death of the boys that has really left me a bit ambivalent, re-reading as an adult…I remembered before re-reading that they died twice, but couldn’t remember the specific circumstances of the second death, so obviously it didn’t bother me too much when I read it as a kid.
      Perhaps it has specific cultural meanings that would put it in better context if I understood them!


      • Well, if you have read anything about Asatru which is the old Nordic pagan religion you should know that if you died in battle you would reach the halls of Valhalla where the gods of Odin and Thor reigned. In Valhalla you fested and died in battle each night only to wake up the next day doing it all over, that is the old nordic concept of heaven. There was also human sacrificings, but those sacrificed did it willingly, when a great warrior died in battle often the wife would join him in death setting both their bodies on fire, joining him in the halls of Valhalla. Thus men and women became equal very early in Scandinavia.

        Astrid Lindgrens Nangijala is in many ways an image of old medieval times in Sweden.


      • Yep, that’s the sort of information I mean – it gives a bit more context around the events so the reader can interpret it more easily. Thanks Eric, you’ve been a font of useful information!


  5. I enjoyed your review and you know what as a writer of MG I made a conscious decision that my books would minimally focus on death, murder and mayhem. I know there is a place for novels like this and really, as a huge fan of Harry Potter I see that kids can handle it but there are some that can’t. So at the risk of being an overprotective parent, I think I would tread lightly around this one if you found it disturbing. Thanks so much for linking in to the kidlitbloghop


  6. This reply is a bit late, but I’m going to pretend it isn’t because I loved that book as a child. I’m Swedish and I read “Bröderna Lejonhjärta” when I was around six years old. And when I was in either first, second or third grade (7-9 years old) we made a play out of it in our Swedish class (after having watched the movie). I was the teacher and I still remember my line from Jonathan’s funeral: “Those who are loved by the Gods die young.”

    We even did the scene with Katla in the end. And the cliff.

    Needless to say, it taught me about illness, war, evil, tyranny, slavery, death and suicide. And I think that most Swedish children first experience these themes through this book and/or movie.

    But it also taught me about loyalty, love, courage and fighting for the greater good. So I think it covered the most important parts, wouldn’t you say?


    • Definitely – I certainly remember checking it out of the library multiple times as a youngster. It’s an engaging story, that’s for sure and I’m glad that I managed to remember what it was called and find it again as an adult. Thanks for stopping by!


  7. My favorite children’s book.

    As a child I loved it – as it gave me hope and belief that life never ends.

    It just takes on new forms after what we see as death.

    Not in a religious sense, but in the sense that everything is possible.

    As a child – this book was so reassuring.


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