Understanding Stieg Larsson’s Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
The enormous vogue for the crime novels of the Swedish author Stieg Larsson has subsided a little. But if the second American film of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, will come out, the Larsson maelstrom may start swirling all over again. Unfortunately he did not live to see his triumph.
Triumph it is, affecting book sales of Swedish or Scandinavian crime overall and even travel patterns; case in point, our presentation of Swedish Literary Destinations Also, check our film clip on the movie character turned trendsetter overnight: Lisbeth Salander: Trendsetter? (Also available on www.youtube.com/nordstjernan)

The tragic and premature death of Stieg Larsson in 2004 was the greatest calamity for Swedish culture since the death of Gustav III. But during his life Larsson was a little-known crusader against right wing hate groups in Sweden. Many Americans are unaware that in the 90’s, camps for foreign asylum seekers in Sweden were attacked; a notorious racist sniper called the Laser Man terrorized Stockholm; in the heart of the capitol, skinheads and neo-Nazi thugs put on violent demonstrations, tolerated by the police, against foreign immigrants. Larsson wrote articles condemning these groups in an obscure magazine, Expo.
While his anti-racist efforts were laudable, Stieg Larsson did not win international renown until he wrote a remarkable trilogy of detective novels, featuring Lisbeth Salander, a tiny, bisexual computer hacker with a terrible past. She instantly became one of the most extraordinary female characters in literature. Larsson made his main character rebellious, mischievous and self-sufficient, much like Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, but grown up to the age of 25.
In English the first volume of this trilogy was given the title “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” Lisbeth has a large tattoo of a dragon over her back and neck. The dragon as a symbol of evil goes back very deeply in Swedish culture. In old Norse mythology the hero Sigurd (Siegfried in German) is known as the Dragon Slayer. In the late Middle Ages, Denmark struggled to maintain its hegemony over Sweden with such brutal tactics that the Danes seemed to incarnate evil. The Swedes called for revenge, and in 1471 in the Battle of Brunkeberg the Swedish hero Sten Sture defeated the Danes and asserted Swedish sovereignty. To celebrate his victory, Sture had a famous German sculptor create the statue of St. George slaying the evil dragon representing Denmark, which is to this day in Stockholm Cathedral. So the dragon as a symbol of evil is deeply rooted in Swedish culture. It represents an evildoer against whom revenge must be taken.


Simple narrative based on an old theme
Although Larsson’s opus covers three large volumes and features many characters, plots, subplots and digressions, the reader can best understand it by dividing the work into two components: theme and narrative. Once all the extraneous elements are put aside, the narrative is very simple. It is a drama of revenge between Lisbeth Salander and her father Alexander Zalachenko. Zalachenko was a hit man for the KGB so violent, corrupt and out of control that they were about to liquidate him. To avoid this he defected to Sweden and was protected by a secret group within the Swedish Security Police because of the useful information he was providing. Zalachenko had a relationship with a Swedish woman and had twin daughters with her. He beat his wife so brutally that Lisbeth took revenge by pouring gasoline over him and lighting a match. He was horribly disfigured and maimed.
Eva Gabrielsson, Stieg Larsson’s life partner, notes in her book that Lisbeth Salander marks her body with tattoos as a reminder of all those who have hurt her and on whom she wishes to take revenge. Since her most striking tattoo shows a dragon, the symbol of evil, we can conclude that it stands for her hated father. To take his revenge on her and to silence her because she knew about his secret past, with the help of his Swedish Security Police contacts, Zalachenko had her committed to a mental hospital under the care of the psychologist Dr. Peter Teleborian, a sadistic child molester.
After years of torment, she is finally released into the guardianship of Holger Palmgren, a retired lawyer who is kind and helpful. Unfortunately he has a stroke and again, with the help of the secret group, Lisbeth is put under the guardianship of the lawyer Nils Bjurman, another sadistic sex pervert.
We can interrupt the account of Larsson’s narrative to point out, if need be, how totally over the top Larsson’s story is, where sick, violent monsters seem to lurk in every corner of the Swedish social welfare system. Lisbeth manages to avenge herself spectacularly on the lawyer Bjurman; Teleborian’s comeuppance will come later.
So, to make a long story short, the plot is firstly who will get revenge, the horribly burned father Alexander Zalachenko or the raped and tortured daughter Lisbeth Salander. The second drama of revenge is whether the tormentors Bjurman and Teleborian or their victim Lisbeth will succeed in getting revenge. The third drama of revenge is whether Lisbeth or Zalachenko’s brutal enforcers Niemenen, Lundin or Lisbeth’s own half-brother, the giant Ronald Niedermann will get revenge. Of course the good, like St. George, wins in the end, and when Lisbeth is informed that her father has been shot dead, her quietly triumphant smile is the true resolution of the drama even though she is then in a hospital bed and will soon be on trial for murder.

Violence against women
So, if the narrative is a rather simple drama of revenge, the other main component of Larsson’s classic work is thematic, the problem of violence against women. There are several very long digressions in the trilogy, like the episodes in picaresque novels, that have little to do with the central narrative, but they further the exposition of this theme.
The whole story of Harriett Vanger is a digression, pointing up the pervasiveness of murderous violence against women. The lengthy digression about Erika Berger as editor of the Stockholm morning newspaper shows workplace violence and oppression of women. The episode about the research of Mia Johansson and Dag Svensson and their murder is an opportunity to give an exposé of sex trafficking. Lisbeth’s trip to Grenada is a pretext to show spousal abuse. In discussing the theme of violence against women Larsson adopts in such a heartfelt way the point of view of women and the cause of womankind that one can say he is the first woman author of the masculine gender.
A good way to seek to understand Larsson’s vast creation is to ask the simple question “why the huge success?” During the period of the greatest popularity of Larsson’s books it seemed that every third person on a plane or in a park or in a café was reading them. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels had an unprecedented international success. Why?
One of the detectives that is working on the case of Zalachenko and Lisbeth Salander says that it is like a Greek tragedy. This is a key insight that serves as a door opened to reveal the book’s meaning. The iconic Greek tragedy is the drama of the family of the ancient Greek king Agamemnon. He was cursed by the goddess Artemis, who stopped the winds from blowing so his ships could not go to fight with the Greeks in the Trojan War. Homer tells about how, to appease the goddess, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. The goddess, then, allows the winds to blow, and the Greek king’s ships leave for the war. When Agamemnon returns from Troy, his wife Clytemnestra kills him to avenge their daughter Iphigenia. Then their son Orestes kills Clytemnestra to avenge his father. Harriet Vanger would have felt right at home in the Agamemnon family!
In ancient Greek mythology there were female creatures called the Erinnyes, Furies who punish mortals who had offended against the proper order of the world; they drive their victims insane. Since Orestes had offended against the piety due to one’s family these Erinnyes came pointing him out, pursuing him, shrieking and driving him insane.
In August 1990 the Drottningholm Court Theatre outside of Stockholm played the opera Iphigénie en Tauride by Gluck where Stieg Larsson could have observed the scene where the Furies scream at Orestes, “il a tué sa mère! Il a tué sa mère!” (He killed his mother! He killed his mother!) In Larsson’s trilogy Ronald Niedermann, Lisbeth’s half brother, takes on the role of Orestes. He “killed” and buried his half sister and the Furies torment him and punish him for his lack of respect for family unity: “From the very first day [Niedermann] had spent a considerable amount of time fending off the creatures that inhabited the building. They lived in the walls and came out at night. He could hear them wandering around the workshop. He barricaded himself in his room.…” (Hornet’s Nest, p. 552) "... [Lisbeth] was aware of Niedermann muttering something incoherent. He was speaking German. He was talking about a devil that had come to get him … He seemed to see somebody at the other end of the room. She turned her head and followed his gaze. There was no one there.” (p. 559)

Western story tradition and current events
This theme of intra-familial strife, murder and revenge comes up also in the Icelandic sagas which feature stories of murder and revenge as well as giants like Niedermann, dwarves like Lisbeth, magicians in their caves like Plague in his dark apartment and a shining hero, Sigurd (Siegfried), known as the Dragon Slayer, reminiscent of Blomquist.
Stieg Larsson’s partner notes in her book that they were very interested in Old Norse literature and had a large collection of books on the subject. In these stories there is a situation of equilibrium interrupted by a crime, which causes humiliation to the people affected; then they take revenge; only then is the equilibrium restored. At the end of the third volume of Larsson’s trilogy, Blomquist comes to Salander’s apartment and she lets him in, a sign of the return to equilibrium of the main characters.
One important reason, then, for the books’ unprecedented success is the depth of their rootedness in millennial archetypes of western civilization. Ancient Greeks were telling these stories of murder and revenge as were the Vikings on their long ships on the way to Greenland. Everyone who sees St. George slay the dragon in Stockholm Cathedral sees this age-old drama unfold. It resonates at the deepest level of the human psyche. Larsson’s trilogy affects us so intensely because it plucks primeval strings within us as old and deep as Homer, as the Norse sagas, as the story of St. George and the Dragon.
Another reason for the book’s enormous success is that, quite on the other hand, it reflects so vividly the current events of the society in which it appeared. The trilogy came out at a moment when the theme of revenge was pervasive in western culture. The events of September 11, 2001 called forth a campaign of revenge against Osama Bin Laden that cost the United States government countless billions of dollars. There had been a state of equilibrium interrupted by the crime of the Twin Towers, the humiliation of the United States, followed at long last, by revenge and the return to equilibrium.
This pervasive post-9/11 theme of revenge penetrated to popular culture. The film director Quentin Tarantino, who, if anyone, has the pulse of popular culture, made two films, one of which, Inglorious Basterds (sic) showed American Jews armed with baseball bats smashing the skulls of Nazis and a French Jewish woman burning alive a theater full of Nazis. The other film, Django Unchained shows slaves gleefully taking revenge on their masters by shooting them full of holes that spurt copious amounts of blood. As the masters are mowed down in rows, Django’s wife smiles the same beatific smile of triumphant revenge as when Lisbeth hears her brutal father has been killed.
So to answer the question why this huge success of Larsson’s trilogy, we see that he caused, on the one hand, to resonate within us the deepest archetypes of Indo-European culture and history, and on the other hand, he gave voice to the most intense current concerns of his contemporaries. Sweden will have to wait a long time before one of its children attracts so much passionate worldwide interest. But in the meantime we can read and reread the books, watch the movies and thrill to the spell they cast on us.

James M. Kaplan, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead

Dr. Kaplan will next speak on Swedish Humanitarians: Raoul Wallenberg and Dag Hammarskjöld on January 31, 2014 at 7:00 PM at the Scandinavian Cultural Center, 240 Plymouth St., Santa Cruz, starting with a social hour at 6:30. For further information call 831-464-3310 or see www.scc-santacruz.org This program is free.

NORDIC CRIME BIBLIOGRAPHY Compiled by James M. Kaplan Ph.D