Astrid Lindgren was one of my favourite authors when I was a child (many moons ago). Her Pippi Longstocking books are justly considered children’s classics, and have never been out of print since they were translated from the Swedish into English during the 1950s’. Her other books have been less consistently popular and have been in and out of print for years. Her work is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity and a lot more of her novels are currently back in print.
Mio’s Kingdom is a case in point. This is not a book of Lindgren’s I read as a child, so when I came across it recently, I was delighted to review it, to see if I loved it as much as her other books.
One of the things I really love about Lindgren’s work is her sense of fun and mischief. Pippi Longstocking is a wonderful, ebullient anti hero of a character, and the books brim over with humour. Emil, the naughty boy who lives on a farm is similar, as is the peculiar Swedish super hero, Karlsson.
In this book, there really isn’t any humour to speak of, and the book is very different in style and tone to anything else I have ever read by Lindgren.
The story is much more traditional, for a start. Karl Anders Nilsson is an orphan, farmed out to a foster family who hate him. He spends his life trying to be with them as little as possible, and envying his best friend Ben, who has the family and life that Karl Anders, or Andy as he is called, dreams of.
One evening, Andy is sent to the bakery by his foster carer, Aunt Hulda. He meets Mrs Lund, a lady who feels sorry for Andy, and gives him a magical apple that sets in train a series of events that transform Andy’s life forever.
Stopping in the park to eat his apple, Andy notices a beer bottle on the ground with something trapped inside it. It turns out to be a genie. Andy frees the genie and is granted a wish. He doesn’t know what to wish for until the genie spots the magical apple in Andy’s hand, and realises that Andy is really the lost son of the King of Faraway Land.
The genie magics Andy to Faraway Land where Andy meets his father and realises that he is really Prince Mio.
The story is written by Andy/Mio, and tells of his delight in finding that in Faraway Land, Mio has all the things that Andy dreams of back in Sweden. Mio’s life directly echoes the life Andy dreamed off when he watched Ben and his family together in the past.
Mio’s life becomes fraught with danger when he understands, after some time in Faraway Land, that his father’s subjects are living under the curse of the evil Sir Kato, a man with a stone heart and an iron claw, who steals children away from their parents and turns them into magically bewitched birds with eyes full of sorrow.
Mio has to go on a quest with his horse Miramis, and his friend Pompoo, to save his father’s land and reunite all the lost children with their parents.
The story takes the traditional quest format of so many fairy stories, and it can be read as such by a child reader.
As an adult I found it slightly unsettling and deeply sad. The quest story is ring fenced by Mio/Andy commenting on his life back in Sweden as an unloved orphan, and you do wonder, when the story ends with:
‘Sometimes I also think about Aunt Hulda and Uncle Olaf and I’m not angry with them any more. I only wonder about what they said when I disappeared. They never worried about me, maybe they didn’t even notice I was gone. Maybe Aunt Hulda believes that she only has to go to Tegnerlunden Park to look, and she’d find me sitting on a bench. Maybe she believes that I’m sitting there on a bench under a street lamp, eating an apple and playing with an empty bottle…’
Whether that is actually where Andy is, and the story about his other life as Mio, where his kind father measures his height against the kitchen door, and has all the time in the world to play with him, is just the fantasy of a sad and lonely boy.
The whole story is shot through with sadness, from the loneliness of the childless parents, and the misery of the lost children, to the frightening experiences of Mio and Pompoo as they journey through their quest. The quest adventures are all filled with the fear of loneliness and the fear of impending death, and this somehow makes them too sad to be excited about, even when Mio finds a way to cheat death on several occasions during the story.
The style and content reminded me rather of one of Hans Christian Andersen’s more melancholy stories.
The book is translated into rather old fashioned English, and despite its shortish length, the story is quite slow and old fashioned in content. I would hesitate to know what kind of child to recommend this too, unless you have a child who is very keen on the classics of children’s literature, as it is much more in this sort of vein than many modern books.
It is suitable for boys and girls. Although there are very few girl characters in the book, the story, I think, would appeal to girls more, because the action is quite lugubrious in style, and it takes rather a long time for anything exciting to happen. Most boys I know would not be prepared to wait until half way through the book to get gripped by the story.
It is really only suitable for confident readers, as the language and the concepts discussed are quite tricky. It isn’t violent, and as such would be suitable for children of about the age of seven and up, should you be able to interest them in it. It would make a good guided reader in class, as it really needs exploring with an adult, and might work better as something that a child has to work on, rather than something they read alone.