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Bröderna Lejonhjärta

A children's book by Astrid Lindgren, published in Sweden in 1973 (USA, 1975). It tells the story of two young boys (app. 8 and 15 years, we are never really told), Jonathan and Karl Lejon, who, when they die, come to the land of Nangijala. Here they experience many adventures, and meet both nice people and bad people - who, true to Astrid Lindgren's way of describing the world, are not always what they seem to be.

Spoilers ahead:

The story in brief
Jonathan and Karl Lejon are brothers. Jonathan very much loves his younger, sickly brother, and tells him stories of the land Nangijala (Nangiyala), where they will go when they die. There, he says, in the land of sagas and campfires Karl's legs will not be crooked and useless, and his racking cough will go away. Karl - or Scotty1, as Jonathan calls him, - will go there first, and Jonathan will follow when his time comes.

But Jonathan dies first, saving Scotty's life when their apartment catches on fire. In a heartbreaking scene Jonathan manages to whisper to Scotty, that they will meet in Nangijala - and then he dies. The papers call him "Jonathan Lionheart" (lejon = lion), and everyone says how sad it is that it was Jonathan and not Scotty...

Well, Scotty dies some months later. And sure enough he goes to Nangijala and is reunited with Jonathan. The cherry trees are in bloom and it is summer; the boys have ponies to ride, and friends and neighbours who help them. Everything is perfect. Only in Astrid Lindgren's books there is no such thing as a perfect world, and in Nangijala not all is as it seems...

The two boys experience many adventures in Nangijala, where an evil "overlord", Thengil, oppresses the people with the help of a black dragon, Katla. Jonathan has actually joined the group of rebels who try to overthrow Thengil, but he tries to keep Scotty out of it. When Jonathan is betrayed and captured, and sentenced to be fed to the dragon, Scotty must try to save him.

In the end Scotty manages to get Jonathan out of the prison in Katla's den, and Thengil falls prey to his own evil pet. The dragon, too, dies, and the Lionheart brothers escape. They have freed Nangijala from the tyrant and they are together again. Sitting by the edge of a cliff, resting, they look at the stars, and Scotty is already looking forward to riding his pony again in the now peaceful Cherry Valley.

That's when Jonathan tells him that he is dying. He was caught by a trickle of Katla's flame, and that is enough to paralyze and kill. He, Scotty, will soon be alone again. Unless... Unless Scotty takes Jonathan on his back, and jumps off the cliff. Then they will both go to Nangilima, a land where there is no evil, a land of sagas and campfires. And so they do.2

My humble opinion - and that of my kids
I read this book when I was a teenager, and I loved it. It is dark and extremely sad in places. It tells of friendship, of trust and betrayal; hate and love, hope and despair. The ending is one of both grief and happiness, and I remember not wanting to put the book aside, imagining the two brothers' arrival in Nangilima (and, being a very romantic teen, I was in love with Jonathan).

Years later, when I was reading it for my two kids, I found that I still loved it. My children were younger than I had been when I first experienced the novel, but they were very enthusiastic. They got angry, sad, vengeful, thoughtful, and happy as the story unfolded. They didn't want it to end, and I knew just how they felt.

I shall not try to dissect or interpret the novel (it is not something I do well anyway). But I would recommend anyone who has not yet read it, to go and do so. To a grown-up it may well seem a little... naïve, but take it for what it is: a children's adventure, albeit a deep and sombre one.

  1. In the Swedish book Karl is nick-named Skorpan. A "skorpa" is a rusk. In the British translation he is called Rusky, but this is changed in the American edition to Scotty, (from "biscotti"), maybe because it was thought that the American readers wouldn't know what a rusk was.
  2. When confronted with the fact that some critics found the ending, where the boys die again, to be too sad, Astrid Lindgren said that children had actually thanked her for making the ending a happy one.

Check out http://www.astridlindgren.se/index_1024.htm for a great Astrid Lindgren 'timeline'.

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