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.
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.
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.
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,