Of all the chapter books we read this summer, the strangest two were by Astrid Lindgren.
Lindgren wrote Mio My Son in 1955. It involves what Freudians call a “family romance,” which means a child’s fantasy that his parents are imposters and that he has real (and likely royal) parents elsewhere, who will eventually come for him. Apparently lots of children fantasize along these lines from time to time, but there are two ways to put it into a story. One is to tell a story in which the hero leaves home and finds his real family, or his proper place in the world – a buildungsroman would be a loose example of a family romance especially if, as in Oliver Twist and many other novels, the hero does eventually find a rich relative. The other is to tell a story in which the hero has the fantasy. This is what Lindgren does in Mio My Son. Except that we don’t actually find out until the last page. We have hints of it, yes. But it’s not until the final paragraph that we know for certain that the boy has been sitting the whole time on a bench in the park, unwilling to go home to his truly awful life.
“Perhaps that’s where [Aunt Hulda] thinks I am, watching the houses where there are lights in the windows and children are having supper with their mummies and daddies. And I suppose she’s cross because I’m so long coming home with those buns. But Aunt Hulda is wrong! She’s absolutely wrong! There’s no Andy on any seat in the park. He’s in Farawayland, you see. He is in Farawayland, I tell you. He’s in a place where the silver poplars rustle… where the fires glow warm at night… where there is Bread that Satisfies Hunger… and where he has his father the King who loves him and whom he loves. That’s how it is. Karl Anders Nilsson is in Farawayland with his father the King, and all is well with Mio.”
It was heartbreaking, for me, though Eila didn’t notice; she was still caught up in the real story, which is excellent though also a wee bit sappy and the-stars-are-god’s-daisy-chain-ish.
Then, twenty years later, in 1975, Lindgren decided to do it over again and produced The Brothers Lionheart. In many ways it’s a better book. The adventure, though pretty much exactly the same, is more exciting, and all the sappiness is expunged for a hard-hitting, forthright tale of danger and honour. But here’s the thing. The new book is the other kind of family romance. The boys (there are two this time) really are there, really having the adventure. And why? Because they are dead! They have died in our world, and gone to Nangiyala, which is a lot like Farawayland only real. It still works for readers as a family romance, only now it has a religious overtone: Nangiyala is some sort of heaven.
For all I liked Brothers Lionheart, I can’t help thinking that Lindgren got mixed up somehow. I don’t think you can fight evil tyrants after you die. I don’t think you can die after you die. I think she’s been misled by a religious allegiance to pretend to a concreteness that can only serve to confuse.