Not quite heaven

It amuses me when journalists seem rather surprised by the market for Scandi-noir especially on TV. Where have all these people come from, who enjoy foreign language TV? they wonder. I suspect that many of the enthusiastic viewers are 40- or 50-somethings, who, like me, grew up with lots of TV shows that were made on the continent. It seems to be largely forgotten now that continental TV was a staple of British children's TV through the 1960's and '70's. Subtitles were largely unknown but I happily enjoyed the sometimes rather unintentionally comic voice-overs.

Flashing Blade, White Horse, and Belle and Sebastien (with friend)

Many of the series were staggeringly brilliant, and are still much loved, and not just for their nostalgia value - Magic Roundabout  from France, beautifully re-written and voiced by the wonderful Eric Thompson (father of Emma), heart-wrenching and surprisingly modern Belle and Sebastian (I loved the dog), White horses (a German-Yugoslavian co-production), mesmerising Robinson Crusoe (also from France), the original Vicky the Viking (Germany-Austria-Japan) and magical Barnaby the Bear (Colargol in his native France, and later known as Jeremy, when he appeared on Irish TV), and then of course there was my favourite, the series that inspired a deep love of history, the unmissable Flashing Blade -  history, swashbuckling and a hint of  Berlioz, all made for enthralling viewing.

The last of these dubbed series that I can remember seeing on the BBC was shown in the early '80's; and until very recently, I had no idea what it was called. All I could remember was that it was about two young boys trapped by a fire, who entered a fantasy land of the Nordic sagas. A query on the Internet Movie DataBase revealed that it was a Swedish TV show called The Brothers Lionheart, which was based on a novel by the well known children's novelist, Astrid Lindgren, so of course I had to read the book...

To start with, it wasn't quite as I remembered it, though the novel does owe much to the sagas (there are dragons and warriors and sea-serpents), but it's actually a rather different story; and at times, especially considering it's a children's book, I found it very uncomfortable reading.

The brothers Lion live with their mother in a small town. Older brother, Jonathan, is good-looking and well-liked, younger brother, Karl, is a sickly child, who is about to die. Jonathan comforts his little brother by telling him tales of Nangijala, an adventurous version of Heaven; when Jonathan unexpectedly predeceases his little brother, he has already spent time in Nangijala before Karl arrives there. Nangijala is perfect in many ways, but evil has already entered in the form of Tengil, a Hitler-like figure, who holds the formerly happy Wild Rose Valley in an iron grasp. 

The people though are not cowed so easily despite terror and the insidious work of collaborators. Jonathan and Karl set out to rescue the leader of the group who opposes Tengil, but peace will come to the valley at a terrible price, and young Karl is forced to perform a massive act of trust and courage to save his brother.

Initially I found it extremely difficult reading, the death of a child is never going to be an easy subject, and felt even less so in the context of a children's book. I did wonder how I would have reacted to the same book, had I read it at a younger age. As the novel moves into the world of Nangijala and  the fight against Tengil, it effortlessly takes the reader with it. Lindgren is a truly beautiful writer, and the novel is effortlessly translated by Joan Tate. I saw this section, the main thrust of the book, as an allegory of the Second World War, though it could equally be seen as an allegory for any society living under the rule of a dictator. But at the end, as Karl ends up in what is effectively a suicide pact with his brother, I found it very difficult again. It was compelling reading, but somehow seemed all the more awful and upsetting because of that. 

At the time it was published it divided critics. Perhaps unsurprisingly the very black and whiteness of the story appealed to children. Lindgren said that "Right now I am swamped with letters from children - from several countries - that love the Brothers Lionheart. Never before have I received such a strong and spontaneous reaction to any book", but critics were shocked by the cool acceptance of suicide as a panacea, and some worried at how the book would be received by handicapped children. 

I think Lindgren was astonishingly brave, and extremely respectful of her child audience, in tackling the subjects that she did in Brothers Lionheart. All the big themes are here - love and loss, family and loneliness, illness and death, liberty and betrayal, and love - love, beauty and sheer joy of life are also essential elements. This children's novel is not the easiest of reads, it is, at times, extremely challenging, but it's a rewarding read.

Oddly the week that I finished Brothers Lionheart was also the week when the 2017 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award was announced (the biggest book prize in the world of children's books). It was won by German author and illustrator, Wolf Erlbruch (who shamefully is still awaiting translation into English). Erlbruch, like Lindgren, is not afraid to deal with big scary themes. I think it's these themes that make literature so important.


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