Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Old Books 2: The Brothers Lionheart

The first three chapters of The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren, were serialized in very early issues of Cricket magazine, which is where I ran into it. I got it as a book for Christmas the winter of fourth grade. The story is a sad one, and it gets sadder the older I am. I remember crying over it when I was nine.

The book does what I've never seen any other book do, in resolving the "how to get rid of he parents" question. It kills the kids. Given that much of the book is grounded in the basic heroism of being human  ("Some things you have to do or you're nothing but a bit of filth" is a running line), the heroic deaths of Jonathan Lionheart make sense. What Lindgren does that's so unusual is to then follow on to their next adventure.

The last time I read the book, several years ago, I got a strong whiff of Scandinavia's time in World War II. Lindgren doesn't acknowledge this as a source, but just as Tolkien's Sauron and Saruman owe a great deal to the fascist and communist totalitarians of the mid-20th Century, so too with Lindgren's Tengil. But the whole book has an oddly stylized quality to it, and so the evil doesn't carry the same visceral punch you might expect.

What does pack a punch is the juxtaposition of joyful love of life, and death. I remember the scene at the beginning of chapter 3, when the 10-year-old narrator, who has arrived in Nangiyala after dying of tuberculosis, discovering he had straight legs, no cough, and could swim and ride— it's like a miracle story or a fairy tale, but told in the first person. It's utterly deliriously beautiful. On the other hand, the ending, where the brothers agree to commit suicide, to "jump into Nagilima," this next world's next world, just puts a capstone on a story where, before they turn 14 and 11 respectively, they both will die twice. It's very unsettling, the more you think about it.

Astrid Lindgren has written about her sources for the book: a train ride along Lake Fryken with a sunrise of unearthly beauty, and a cross in a cemetery in her home town of Vimmerby, memorializing two brothers who died young.

This is what I take away from this book: the terrible sad beauty of boys who know how to do good in the face of evil, who know how to be the hero of the saga, and who give their lives not happily, but willingly, because in the story they are living it is the necessary thing to do. All those boys, a long line of them, following a clear road that was paved before they arrived, and not coming back.

1 comment:

Maria said...

I read it in Cricket and Company when I was younger too. My twin sister read it too but we never talked about how much it moved us until we were much older. It was hugely comforting as children as we couldn't bear the idea of losing each other. We still love it today!