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Were the Brothers Lionheart gay?

June 5, 2010

I have a beautiful old hardback copy of Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart with the well-known illustrations by Ilon Wikland.

Many people and possibly every Swede who grew up since the novel was first published in the 70s know this children’s story.  It’s told by Karl, a boy who adores his big brother Jonathan, about the adventures he has with Jonathan when they both die and go to the magical land of Nangiyala.  They battle evil forces, get separated, find each other, and end up facing the dreadful beast Katla.  She comes for them, and they think they’re done for, but Jonathan will do anything to protect his darling brother and throws a rock which sends the beast to her doom.  At the end of their adventures, when the dragon has been slain, Jonathan is mortally hurt.  Rather than be separated by death again, the brothers cast themselves together over the cliff into the even more special land of Nangilima.  And presumably that’s where they live together ever after, in love and happiness and adventure.

The cliché ‘heartwarming’ is often used to describe The Brothers Lionheart, and it’s deserved.  The book has also been criticised for seeming to applaud youth suicide, a dark theme that is seen as perhaps marring this lovely story.  I don’t think anyone has so far suggested that the love between the brothers is other than platonic.  For these reasons, I’m nervous about outing Karl and Jonathan, but I have to be honest.  To me, the relationship between the boys is clearly a love affair.  They are dedicated to each other above all else, treat each other with the greatest physical and emotional tenderness, and will and do die to stay together.  Platonic love can be like this – I know, I know.  At least in stories.  But Jonathan is so physically beautiful, and they hug each other all the time, and their love is so strong.  Wikland’s illustrations, which continue to be published with the story, show the boys gazing into each other’s eyes, embracing, stroking hair, riding off into the distance in the same saddle…

Look, if you don’t believe me, you have to check out the illustration of the brothers after they’ve been swimming together.  It’s on page 133 of my copy (Hodder & Stoughton, 1976) and page 129 of the recent soft cover edition (Oxford University Press, 2009).  I can’t show you the picture here in the context of this post for reasons that will be obvious when you see it for yourself.

Anyway, the story is one of my favourites of any genre, and I simply wish to uncover a poignant aspect of it.  In fact, I’ve been so moved and influenced by The Brothers Lionheart that it’s a major source for my own latest novel.

Go on.  Get to your nearest library or search your shelves for it.  Look at that picture, reread and think about it, then tell me if I’m wrong.

My online novel:

My website for other writing:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tricia Bertram permalink
    June 9, 2010 2:12 am

    Fran I have never heard of this book before. I will have to get me a copy.


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