Friday, 19 September 2008

The Brothers Lionheart - Astrid Lindgren

This was one of the most unsettling and bizarre books I've ever read, and I don't really know what to make of it. It's one of those books for children that have you thinking "would I be able to recommend it to any kid?" and the answer is probably no. But I know people who absolutely loved this story when they were children and they weren't disturbed by it at all. That's probably because when you're a child you see things differently and what is disturbing for me as an adult, might appear innocent, or even brave to a child's eye.
So, what's so strange about this book?

It's the story of two brothers. Rusty is the youngest and is ill. Jonathan is the older, he is handsome and kind and brave like a hero in a saga. When Rusty finds out he will die soon, his older brother Jonathan reassures him. When he'll die he will have a marvellous time, in a place called Nangiyala, somewhere on the other side of the stars. Nangiyala, Jonathan tells Rusty, is where all the sagas take place, there he will have incredible adventures from morning till evening, and he won't have to lie down on the sofa and cough all day.
One day, though, a fire sweeps through their building, and Jonathan is killed in the attempt of saving his little brother.
Then Rusty is left alone, waiting to die, so that he can be with his brother again in Nangiyala. When this happens Rusty is transported magically into this mythical and idyllic world. There he meets his brother, who lives in a lovely white cottage with a stable, in a place called Cherry Valley. He gets his own horse and eat delicious food and think that he has everything he ever wished for. Soon though, he learns that the valley next to theirs, Wild Rose Valley, are oppressed by an evil tyrant, called Tengil, and Jonathan, who's being fighting with the rebels, is the hero of the resistance against him.
The whole book is the story of how Jonathan, with a little help from his brother, manages to defeat ruthless Tengil and bring peace into Nangiyala again.
Which is all nice and good. Nothing highly original or earth-shattering. It did bother me a bit that the Big Bad was completely one-dimensional. He was just evil, full stop.
The good were good and the bad were bad, with nothing else in between. Which I guess it's ok in a story that wants to evoke the days of camp-fires and sagas.
It's the ending that brings on the unsettling feelings, but I can't talk about it without giving it away....
So here it goes. Jonathan saves the day by killing the evil dragon, but he gets hit by her poisonous fire, paralising him irreversibly. Then he tells his brother about another world called Nangilima, where everyone's happy and there's no cruel ruler to fight. And all they have to do to get there is die. So what's the final, brave thing that Rusty does? He grabs his brother and let himself fall with him into the abyss.
He kills himself, and his brother! How creepy is that?

Now, I'm all for the right to euthanasia, when there's obviously nothing else to do. I'm also not religious, so I don't want to criticise the book's reincarnation ideas from that point of view. I might even welcome the idea of another life after this, it's not that. But to show children that the way to have an adventurous life is to die, either waiting for death to come, or even going towards it by basically committing suicide, is something that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
And I'm not happy to say this because I love Astrid Lindgren, or at least I loved Pippi Longstocking. It's still one of my all-time childhood favourite. So I was very excited when I found this in Bookworms' Heaven a.k.a. Hay-on-Wye, because I had never heard of it. I was prepared to love it too. But this suicide thing was just too much to accept.


Nymeth said...

That is a bit disturbing, yes. It's probably the sort of thing that most kids don't think twice about, but as an adult you can't help but consider the implications.

Darla D said...

Wow, Valentina - that does sound bizarre! I'd have been taken aback by that ending, too. Creepy!

It reminds me a bit of a German children's book my friend's husband had as a kid, where the little boy is told not to pick his nose or some evil little man will cut off his fingers or his hands or something. Then the parents go out to run errands and leave the boy alone, and of course he picks his nose, and suddenly there's the creepy little guy, looking like a dwarfish Freddy Kruger, and off comes the little boy's fingers, with spurts of blood and all. Ick!

Kind of makes you wonder what they'll look back on in children's books years from now and be baffled by!

valentina said...

Nymeth, it's also very strange for me to read other people saying it's a sad but uplifting story. Definitely not!

darla, glad to know you agree!
That german story sounds even creepier, OMG! i would have had nightmares for years and years!