Scandinavia is possibly the one place in the world where tragedy really seems sublime. Maybe it’s the fjords, the marriage of ice and beauty, the dark winters and the chilly summer nights, aglow with lingering fire. Maybe it’s the tall, pale northerners themselves, fierce stock descended from Viking kings, with the reserve and hunger of a lifetime spent in the cold. Whatever the case, the world has recently caught on; the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while more messed up than any best-selling novel ever, is outrageously popular. Translated from Swedish, it’s set in the remote wintery landscape and remote wintery ethics of Scandinavia — very much like Let the Right One In, another dark Swedish story being re-told less persuasively in an American context.
Musically, the Swedish Katatonia can really do charming things with death metal… and the also-Swedish post-industrial Blindside, perhaps because of this seriousness, can pull off the ethereal. They do not seem like melodramatic dopes for singing “I washed my wounds with tears of hope.”
And it is not a new phenomenon. C.S. Lewis was enamored of Scandinavian mythology, particularly the story of Balder, the beloved and sunny-faced, falling dead from a dart of mistletoe shot by his blind brother. People the world over have been enchanted by the morbid fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Even Shakespeare, it is rumored, was inspired to write Hamlet after hearing tales of a Danish castle looking northward to Sweden.
I didn’t quite get this until I visited the northern spaces myself. Though it may be because it is the home of my ancestors, alone, there is something of immortality in the long shadows of the long twilight sinking fragrant into night, and it is far more persuasive than the youthful, drunken half-forgotten Catholic immediacy of the places farther south. The Germanic tribes were pagan, then Protestant, then Atheist, looking over their shoulders to reference Paradise Lost and the sweep of the mountains, and to sink again into blue-eyed despair.