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The Brothers Lionheart

Jessica Brown

When little, bed-bound Rusky Lionheart realizes he is going to die, he talks with his beloved older brother Jonathan, and Jonathan comforts Rusky with strange, magnificent words: “It’s only your shell that lies there, you know? You yourself fly away somewhere quite different.”

From Rusky’s point of view, the conversation continues:

“Where?” I asked, because I could hardly believe him.

“To Nangiyala,” he said . . .

"Nangilyala?” I said. “Where’s that?”

Then Jonathan said that he wasn’t quite certain about that, but it was somewhere on the other side of the stars. And he began to tell me about Nangiyala, so that one almost felt like flying there at once.

“It’s still in the days of camp fires and sagas there,” he said, “and you’ll like that.”

All the sagas came from Nangiyala, he said, for it was there that everything like that happened, and if you went there, then you could take part in adventures from morning till evening, and at night too, Jonathan said.

“You know Ruksy,” he said. “That’ll be different from lying here and coughing and being ill and never able to play, won’t it?”

When I first read these lines, there came that bright-dark flash that happens when you read something extraordinary, when you stumble upon a jewel, which turns into a window, which turns into—I don’t know—flight, or a sense of expanse, or the feeling of cold night air in a dark room.

I found The Brothers Lionheart in one of my favorite places, Arcadia, a little nook of a bookstore in Oxford. Years ago, I had spent hours slowly sifting through the precarious stacks of neatly bound plastic-wrapped old books. In January I returned with a friend and was looking for some gem that would be hard to discover elsewhere. That’s when I spotted the 1975 edition of Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart. I didn’t know Pippi Longstocking’s creator wrote fantasy. The cover illustration reminded me of my Narnia books back home, and the title gave me a thrill: I love stories about lion-heartedness. I bought the book and happily tucked away my delightful find.

Reading it later, I found The Brothers Lionheart to be one of those generous tales about the adventure of learning to be brave. It’s also a gentle meditation on death and afterlife—allegorically, themes of purgatory and heaven might very well be present. But what it offers to me now, when I hold the story in my head and mull it over with my heart, is—via epic, mythic, fantasy form—a narrative of eternal identity.

A vital aspect of our eternal identity is how we think about it now: it’s a concept that acts like a compass, and when we learn to allow the significance of eternity into our personhood, our imagination is blessed with the chance to envision our character within the depth and dynamism of an enduring, even everlasting, context. It’s like light moving across water, or water saturating soil.

It’s like when Jonathan describes Nangiyala as the place where the big stories are, where we get to be part of the big stories as never before, and I find the chance, now and here, with my own small struggles and long journeys, to become, even if a little more, lion-hearted.