I was asked some time ago what my favorite book was as a child, and I couldn’t say. I could have listed a dozen, at least, that I loved, but I don’t know how I could have chosen one. I asked my mother, and she said my favorite book as a child was the one I was reading right that minute. I read a lot.
But something about The Brothers Lionheart has stayed with me. I don’t know when I read it, or how many times – not many, I think, maybe only once; but it made a strong impression, and I’ve found myself thinking about it over the years. (Astrid Lindgren is better known as the author of Pippi Longstocking, but I think this one kicks Pippi’s butt.) So I finally went and got my hands on a copy recently, and I’m so glad I did!
The story is fantastical. When it opens, little Karl Lion is sick; he’s been in bed for six months. But his older brother Jonathan is a good big brother, one of those golden people, beautiful and strong and talented and kind, and modest because he seems to just really not notice or care how special he is. He’s sweet to his little brother, and stays up late telling him stories. Karl knows he’s going to die. Jonathan tells him it’s okay, because he’s going to a beautiful place beyond the stars called Nangiyala, a land still in the time of campfires and sagas, where the brothers can have adventures together. Jonathan is only sorry that Karl will get there before he does, since Jonathan seems destined to live a long and healthy life.
But there is a fire, and Jonathan saves his brother’s life but forfeits his own; and when Karl succumbs to his illness, Jonathan is waiting for him at Knights Farm in Cherry Valley in Nangiyala. They have horses, and rabbits, and a vegetable garden; Jonathan tends the rose gardens of a nice woman named Sofia, and they are friends with everyone in the town. Karl is happy. But too soon, he learns of Wild Rose Valley, the next neighborhood over, where things are not so simple and joyful: an evil tyrant named Tengil has enslaved the people of Wild Rose Valley and built a wall to keep them from their friends in Cherry Valley. Jonathan and Sofia are part of the resistance; and although Karl is very small and very frightened, he finds himself involved, as well.
There are forces of evil dressed in black uniforms and scary helmets; there is an occupation; there is a fire-breathing dragon; and there are brave citizens. It is a saga itself, and Jonathan is its shining golden hero, but Karl doesn’t do too badly either. I loved this story very much, this time as much as when I read it as a child. And the ending thrills me as much as ever.
This is definitely a book for kids; the language is simple and childlike, and the thing I found most striking upon this adult read was the pacing. It moves very quickly! It takes very few pages to establish how lovely & simple & calm Cherry Valley is; and then we’re on to the darkness next door immediately. An adult book would have been longer and allowed the action to develop a little more slowly. But this made for a very enjoyable, quick read. I’d recommend it for anyone who likes fantasy and dreams and adventure, and who might not be up for a longer, more involved novel.
There is another level on which this story can be read as allegory. Tengil’s occupying force presents several clear options for comparison (and I think also offer some tips on how not to do it). One valley looks so sweet, good, prosperous and happy, and yet if you open your eyes just a little – zoom out to the point where you can see as far as just the next valley over – things are not nearly so happy or easy as you thought. Without putting too fine a point on it, I think this offers an analogy for capitalistic western culture. Speaking of capitalism, I was charmed by the idea of everyone helping everyone & taking care of one another in this idealistic Nangiyala. One can dream.
Themes include the beauty of a deeply felt brotherly love, resistance against evil, loyalty, hope, and courage; but there are also themes related to death & what happens after, tyranny, war and betrayal. The book has been criticized for its approach to suicide (although I would argue it’s not quite that simple). For me, the good is bigger than the darkness, and the ending is happy. I feel that the interplay of dark and light is part of what makes this story the kind that has stuck with me for over 20 years, and keeps it from being saccharine. But not everyone will see it that way.
I am so pleased to report that Jonathan was still simply heroic, Karl still sweet and surprisingly brave, Sophia still good and the dragon still scary, even now that I’ve grown up. Do check out my childhood favorite with me.