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The Brothers Lionheart

· Best wishes to the Pope through Astrid Lindgren’s book ·

If you walk into Rome’s Feltrinelli bookshop and ask for The Brothers Lionheart, you will get it immediately. For it is a classic that is never out of print. Written by Astrid Lindgren and first published in Swedish in 1973, it has been translated into a great many languages. The Italian paperback edition now available is in its seventh reprint.

This is a story written for children, but like all good children’s stories it contains wisdom that speaks to everyone. It is a story of adventure to be sure — of wild rides, of crawling through underground passages, of hanging from willow trees and bathing in waterfalls, of hiding breathlessly in secret rooms while evil soldiers barge through the house searching for you.

But it is also a story of the human condition. Of suffering, of inadequacy, of fear. Of resourcefulness in the face of danger, of the yearning for freedom, of rebellion against oppression. Of treason. But also of joy, of trust and of obedience to a higher calling. Of death and of overcoming death. Of the eternal struggle of good versus evil, and of the ultimate triumph of good.

The brothers Lionheart, Jonathan and Karl (nicknamed Rusky), arrive in Nangijala, a land “still in the age of campfires and sagas”. But there is a threat. Tengil, the evil tyrant, is set on destroying Nangijala. He has already, aided by the monster Katla, enslaved one half, Wild Rose Valley. Jonathan, the older brother, knows that he has come to help the people of Nangijala and their leader, Sofia, in their liberation struggle. Gradually, little Rusky realizes that though Tengil and Katla frighten him almost to death, there is no alternative but to confront them.

As the title suggests, The Brothers Lionheart is a story of love between two brothers. It is also a story about courage. Not the kind of courage that never knows fear, but the courage that consists in doing the necessary, of confronting evil in spite of your fear. The most famous quote from the book is: “There are things you have to do, even if they are dangerous, because otherwise you are not a human being but just a bit of filth”. It is the kind of thing that could have been said by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives in Budapest at the end of the Second World War, or by his equally brave Vatican colleague Mons. Gennaro Verolino. It could have been said by Michele Amitrano, the 10-year-old hero of the Italian writer Niccolò Ammaniti’s book I am not afraid , who tries to save a boy kidnapped and imprisoned by a group of men which includes his own father.

The Brothers Lionheart has much in common with C.S. Lewis’ equally classic Narnia books. Less so with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. No magic wands or spells exist to help Karl and Jonathan on their quest to free Nangijala. The brothers have to rely on mutual love and trust, on human friendship and loyalty. But there is something more. In moments of extreme danger, miracles occur.

Much has been written about Astrid Lindgren’s relationship to Christianity. In life, she called herself an agnostic. She herself certainly never intended to preach, but it is impossible not to notice the parallels that do exist between many aspects of The Brothers Lionheart and the Christian message. Though he supports his friends in the final, tragic, battle, Jonathan is incapable of killing. He saves the life even of his enemies. “If everyone were like you, evil would triumph”, says his comrade Orvar. “No”, thinks his brother Karl, “if everyone were like Jonathan, there would be no evil”.

With this small text I wish, respectfully, to congratulate Pope Benedict XVI on his 85th birthday. Perhaps he already has the book on his bookshelf.


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