By Rick Steves
To learn about Scandinavia past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
For a solid grasp of Scandinavia’s past, try A History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland (Derry) or Scandinavia Since 1500 (Nordstrom). The history of the Swedish people from feudalism to democracy is recorded in Sweden: The Nation’s History (Scott). The Vikings (Else Roesdhal) offers a Scandinavian perspective on this complex Nordic society.
For insight into Hans Christian Andersen, try his autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life, and Jens Andersen’s biography Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life. Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales (Boos) is a good compilation. In My Childhood, Roivo Pekkanen perceptively recalls his family’s working-class life in early-20th-century Finland. Peter Tveskov combines historical fact with childhood memories of Denmark under German occupation during World War II in Conquered, Not Defeated. Norwegian biologist Thor Heyerdahl records his historic 1947 journey from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa-wood raft in Kon-Tiki.
Read a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tales: The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and many more. Also beloved by children of all ages are the Pippi Longstocking books by Sweden’s Astrid Lindgren.
Swede Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1909) for her fantastical children’s novel, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Nobel Prize winners by Norwegians include Knut Hamsun’s influential Growth of the Soil (w. 1920) and Sigrid Undset’s epic Kristin Lavransdatter (w. 1928).
Music and Silence by Rose Tremain captures 17th-century Denmark through the eyes of a lute-player at court. The Emigrants is the first of Vilhelm Moberg’s four-volume epic about Swedish immigrants settling the American frontier. The multigenerational saga Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson traces a Swedish family from the 1870s through World War II. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s controversial plays explore the role of women in the 19th century (try A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler). A 19th-century Frenchwoman takes refuge in Denmark in Babette’s Feast by Karen Blixen.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) — with its themes of violence against women and government corruption — put Swedish crime fiction on the map. His bestselling novels have been translated into some 30 languages. Other thrillers include Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Dane Peter Høeg, and Faceless Killers, the first of several Kurt Wallender mysteries by Swede Henning Mankell. Sophie’s World by Norwegian Jostein Gaarder is a metaphysical mystery wrapped in the history of philosophy.
Watch any of Oscar-winning Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s films, especially The Seventh Seal (1957, a knight questions the meaning of life), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955, turn-of-the-century frolic), and Fanny & Alexander (1983, children overcome father’s death).
Song of Norway (1970) is a musical based on the life of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Bergman alums Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann star in The Emigrants and The New Land (1971, 1972) based on the Moberg novels. The bittersweet My Life as a Dog (1985) shows Sweden in the 1950s, while the “original foodie movie,” Babette’s Feast (1988), is set in rural 19th-century Denmark (and based on the book by Karen Blixen cited above). Pelle the Conqueror (1988) examines Swedish immigration to Denmark in the 19th century, and Kristin Lavransdatter (1995) is a much-condensed version of the epic novel. The midnight sun plays a role in the Norwegian thriller Insomnia (1997, later adapted by American filmmakers). A young Finnish boy is evacuated to Sweden during World War II in Mother of Mine (2005).
Julia Ormond plays the title role in the dramatic film adaptation of Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997). For lighter fare, try comedies such as Italian for Beginners (2000, Danish thirtysomethings learn Italian), Together (2000, life in a 1970s Stockholm commune), Elling (2001, oddballs make it on their own), and Dalecarlians (2005, big-city sister returns to rural hometown). The quirky Cool & Crazy (2001) is an uplifting documentary about a Norwegian men’s choir, while As It Is in Heaven (2004) recounts a Swedish conductor’s search for happiness. The Singing Revolution (2006) is an enjoyable documentary about Estonia’s musical fight for freedom.
Norway’s resistance against the Nazi occupation is dramatized in Max Manus (2008), which traces the exploits of the Norwegian war hero and his comrades in Oslo during World War II. Trolls wreak havoc in modern-day Norway in Trollhunter (2010), a fun fantasy-thriller that explains the real purpose of those power lines in the Norwegian mountains.
Legendary Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl epically crossed the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft in 1947 (he wanted to prove the possibility of South American settlement of Polynesia). Norwegian filmmakers have catalogued his exploits in two films called Kon-Tiki: an Academy Award–winning documentary (1950) and a blockbuster historical drama (2012).
Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma in, 2008), a Swedish vampire flick, is becoming a cult classic — especially for anyone who’s dealt with a bully. The Swedish film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels (with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth) are as compelling as the novels. Hollywood released its version of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.