Mio My Son/ Brothers Lionheart

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.

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4 thoughts on “Mio My Son/ Brothers Lionheart

  1. Hello, Oonae.

    Yes, if you read the “Brothers Lionheart” as some religous text, or even as “reality fiction”, then yes: Lindgren would be nuts.

    But the “Brothers Lionheart” was really not so much a fantasy story, which already would be enough to explain her strange cosmology (you die in “our world”, and wake up in a place that seems like some kind of “Paradise” at first; only to find out that half of it is subjugated by some evil tyrant, and before long, you’re in worser straits then you were in the world you had been “saved” from??).

    No, “Brothers Lionheart” is really the tale of a dream the little boy had just before he died in the real world.

    Btw: Astrid Lindgren once stated that she didn’t believe in Heaven– that’s just a lie for the children, so that they might have something to believe in.

    But it’s interesting that you think “Brothers” was the better book. You’re probably right. But as a child, I always loved “Mio, my Son” more than the book version of “Brothers”. Just so we understand each other, I like the movie of “Brothers” more than the book version of “Mio”– but just going from the books themselves, I just loved “Mio” more. I could immerse myself to no end in the story of Mio, whereas “Brothers” seemed (as a book) rather boring to me! Strange, huh? Because “brothers” really is the meaningfuller story…

  2. There are many ways to interpret the books mentioned, even literally, which I, as an avid fairytale fan, do. That’s what’s so great about the books, I think, everyone’s allowed their own interpretation. :)
    I just wanted to add that a lot of people also believe Mio died in the beginning of the book, and that he, as you feel Rusky (I think, in English?) does, is hallucinating just before the point of death.
    The Brothers Lionheart is not Lindgren’s first foray into explaining death to children, she has written many lovely short stories on the subject, or flirting with the subject. Junker Nils av Eka (trans Young master Nils of Eka), who lies deathly ill in a fever, the cause of which is living in two worlds. In the other world, he and his lord are caught by the enemy, and Nils claims to be the lord, and is executed, while the real lord is set free. As Nils dies in the other world, he wakes up from his illness in this one.
    Another of my favourites is Sunnanäng (Suthlea, I guess, in old English); two orphans work to the bone everyday, the manditory school their only escape. As they walk through the snowy woods, they see and follow a red bird, which leads them to a gate in a wall. On the other side it is summer, and children invite them to play and join them for pancakes their mother has made. The orphans protest, saying she is not their mother, but the children say she’s everyone’s mother. They are invited back, but are cautioned to never shut the gate all the way, because once it is shut, you can never open it again. Yeah, you can guess the end. :)
    Sunnanäng might partly work with google translate, here: http://www.astridlindgren.se/lekstugan/las/325

    I don’t know if you know, but Astrid Lindgren had a child out of wedlock when she was very young, and she had to give him up to a family in Denmark, and every penny she earned went to train tickets to visit him. Thus the abundance of abandoned children in her stories…

  3. I don’t think it is obvious that the entire story of “Mio, my son” is a result of Mio’s/Bo Wilhelm’s imagination, due to his difficult situation, although it is as likely an interpretation as the one about Rusky fantasizing about Nangiyala after his beloved brother Jonathan has died, and he himself is waiting to die (possibly from TB).

    One of the strengths of both stories is just this; the possibility of interpreting them in more than one way; as children’s fairytales/fantasy stories (which is how children perceive these stories), and from an adult, much darker perspective. In fact, if you don’t buy the child’s interpretation of Brothers Lionheart, then the story becomes relentless and very dark indeed: Rusky escapes a reality which is to hard for him ro cope with (he is dying and his beloved brother has died).

    If you like to use a religious interpretation on Brothers Lionheart, then perhaps Nangiyala could be seen as a kind of Purgatory (because Tengil would hardly make to heaven, would he?), and then Nangilima could be regarded as heaven. But then again, as someone above pointed out, Lindgren herself was not very religious, and Brothers Lionheart serves as an alternative for those children who are not Christians.

    All in all, the language of Mio, my son is marvellous, and its story is a classic fairytale story. Brothers Lionheart is in some ways more complex and at the same time more realistic and political (anti-tyranny, anti-dictatorship, pro-democracy, pro-freedom)

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