Saturday, March 13, 2010

Karlsson on the Roof, Gabriel on the Strand

Djurgärden-Nacka Strand, Sweden

On my first day in Sweden, I was too tired after 16 hours of travel to do more that take a first ramble around the Old Town and enjoy köttbullar and beer at the old tavern known as the Golden Peace. So in the middle of the night, lying in bed, I decide to give myself a quick tour of the fourteen islands on which the city of Stockholm stands, and perhaps the archipelago beyond, by taking a conscious dream flight over the whole scene. It is brisk and cold as I sail over the night city, swooping down from time to time to inspect a locale more closely. It occurs to me that I am surely not alone as I ride the astral winds above this city of the sea. I sense huge sea birds and winged creatures like stork-men flying around me. A goddess-like figure soars through the night sky in a chariot pulled by what could be great flying cats. Can she be Freya?

Then a chubby little fellow buzzes up in front of me, with something like a tiny aircraft propeller on his back. I recognize Karlsson, a character in beloved children's books created by Astrid Lindgren. I am incredulous, of course. "You're not really Karlsson," I tell him. "Of course I am Karlsson, the best Karlsson in the world," this roly-poly character insists with an air of pompous irritation. "The imagination of the Swedish people is full of me."

This confirms my plan to take the ferry across to Djurgärden, the "Island of Animals" in the morning and visit Karlsson and Astrid Lindgren's other characters in the Junibacken, a museum devoted to the fantasy world she created for the child in all of us.


Ice cakes bang and clang against the ferry's hull during the morning crossing. It has been a very long winter in Stockholm. I slither along icy paths from the Djurgärden ferry dock, dodging great potholes full of melted ice, and trucks that throw up icy jets.

I pause at the Vasa Museum, devoted to a great 17th century vessel built for an imperial-minded King of Sweden, Gustavus Adophus. This 64-gun warship was designed to be the largest and most powerful naval vessel in the world, and to overawe enemies, foremost among whom, in the contemporary struggle for the Baltic, was Poland. When the gunports were opened, huge wooden lion heads, teeth bared, appeared above the mouths of the cannon. A springing lion, the king's personal symbol, decorated the prow. The statues of thirty Roman emperors, plus gods and sea-spirits, gargoyles and monsters, bible heroes and warriors of all periods, added to the imaginal freight of the Vasa.

Almost lost among these garishly painted figures, at the stern, was the memento mori of a pale head with snakes slithering in and out of all the orifices - eyes and ears, nose and mouth. Proud Hercules stood atop this head, promising victory over death, but the promise was soon dashed. On the Sunday in 1628 when the Vasa left the dock on her maiden journey, the ship rolled over and sank in a modest squall, drowning fifty seamen and vanishing from the world until she was salvaged in the 1960s. Naval historians think that what sank the ship was a relative lack of ballast - not enough down below to balance all that top-heavy firepower and vainglory. For me, this is a ship that died of pride. What a cautionary tale about the price of hubris!


On across the ice and snow and through a dense forest of prams to the Junibacken, where I am given a ticket for the train ride through Astrid Lindgren's imaginal worlds. On the way to the train, excited children are jumping in and out of the pages of a giant book, stood upright. Soon I am transported, with an eager little Danish boy and his parents, into landscapes of enchantment, thrills and delight. Through a series of wonderful dioramas, we enter the landscapes of Pippi Longstocking, who flouted conventional notions of how children ought to behave by lying with her feet on her pillow. Then the commentator asks, "Do you see that you are flying?" Indeed we are. The sensation is remarkably vivid, almost as vivid as my astral flight the night before. Far below, above the lights of a night city, a chubby figure is buzzing around over the rooftops. "Karlsson!" the boy beside me exclaims in delight, hissing the Ss. Now we are in Karlsson's messy house on the roof. Can't stay there for long.

It's in the world of the Jonathan and Karl Lejon - the Lionheart brothers - that the full scope of Astrid Lindgren's gift to children comes home to me. The Brothers Lionheart was not part of my boyhood reading (it was published in 1973) and I have to intuit much of the story as we enter the scenes. It involved the tragic death of one brother, followed by the death of his younger sibling. So death is not kept off-stage here, but put in front of young readers, where it needs to be, however reluctant many adults may be to face it themselves or talk about it with children. Not only is death featured, but we are given a tour of possible afterlife locales. Soon we are flying over a beautiful world of green meadows and flowering cherry trees, a happy afterlife. But on its borders is a dark and sinister prison world, ruled by a cruel tyrant whose will is enforced by a she-dragon. The brothers go to war to help free the captives. I am deeply stirred by these glimpse of life beyond life in Nangijala, Astrid's name for the region of the afterlife she evoked. It has entered so deeply into the collective imagination that now it is not unusual to say of a child's death, in Sweden, "She went to Nangijala". The Brothers Lionheart has replaced the mystery novels on my list of my next Swedish must-reading.


On to Nacka, a commune on a large island south of Stockholm, where my weekend workshop will be held. I check into the beautiful Hotel J, where they advise me to walk down to the water, turn left and walk for five minutes to get to lunch at their restaurant on the Strand. By following these directions quite literally, walking with care on deep ice, I find myself at the end of a narrow spit of land that ends at a great metal beam soaring up against the sky, curling over at the top like a giants diving board. High above, a heroic figure in flashing silver seems to be playing a starry constellation like a washboard. At the base of the metal pillar, right next to me, is a winged figure about my size, holding a single star. A grounded angel, or an angel who came down to catch a falling star?

I am eager to know the story. In the restaurant J, before I look at the menu, I ask the waitress if she knows. It seems the sculpture is famous in Sweden. Designed by Carl Milles, it was intended to decorate the United Nations in New York, but the religious element was considered incorrect, so its full realization came about here. In English, the title of the sculpture means God the Father on the Rainbow. What about the winged figure on the ground. "Ah, that is the Archangel Gabriel," I am told. You just met the Archangel Gabriel.

I am wildly happy to think that I met Gabriel by straying slightly from my directions, here on a snowy beach in Sweden. This bodes well for the dream adventures I will be leading soon. For all three people of the Book - Jews, Christians and Muslims - Gabriel is the archangel of dreams, the patron of astral travel and a primary messenger and mediator between the divine realm and that of humans. A dreamer's kind of angel.


Louisa said...

Vasa the skinny-tailed warship graces the keychain on the main set of keys to the six apartments in which I have lived over the past decade since my trip to Sweden. The ship and its story impressed me so much that I bought this little memento. Every time I take my keys out, Vasa reminds me that big ambitions must rest on a wide and heavy bottom.:)

Robert Moss said...

Very nicely put, Louisa. Great ambitions must indeed rest on enough bottom! You remind me of the old English expression that so-and-so "lacks bottom". I bet there's a Swedish equivalent since the Vasa went down.

Wanda said...

What a fabulous journey into the imagination - I felt I was traveling with you. I have so many beautifully illustrated Astrid Lindgren stories - but not the Brothers Lionheart. I, too, would like to read that.

When I first became interested in historic interiors I loved the illustration of houses decorated with fantasy elements of the Arts and Crafts period uniquely influenced by imaginative Swedish design; and now, reading your excursion, I understand a bit more the mind of a Scandinavian neighbor [artist] who celebrate holidays with enormous bonfires. He and a Swedish friend [art professor] work on them for days, creating towering twig sculptures of gods, sky-wheeling creatures, and one year a rearing lion, paws extended into the sky, topping the twigged base of other fantastical creatures. The food offering that year was a peculiar extravagance of fish heads and bodies baked in a crust with heads peering out. They called it a "star gazy" pie and offered it to the spirits of the New Year.

Your incredible visual journey into the art, landscape and culture of the Swedish Imagination helped me visualize the interior imagination that creates such fabulous excursions into worlds that transcend childhood and speak to the adult imagination that still remember.

And how magical - to access some part of those worlds on a train!

And I would love to see a drawing you might create of your encountering Gabriel on the Strand - !

Alla said...

Thank you for your wonderful reports, Robert! I’ve never been to Sweden, but I feel as if it could be a very breathtaking country. I’m glad that you are having wonderful time there! Do you see anything runic around, by chance?

One of the most favorite books of my childhood was the one of Scandinavian myths. In my early years, I read dozens of books with myths and fairy tales of different nations and found Nordic stories absolutely special and fascinating. Also, I saw a cartoon long time ago, where old Scandinavians could send messages to each other, writing them on a fish. :-)

There was another great writer in Sweden - Selma Lagerlöf, who wrote a wonderful tale for children named “Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige”, or “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils”, which was, actually, an enthralling training aid on Swedish geography for the little ones. Swedish Ministry of education announced a contest for the writers of the best manual for the students of 9-11 y.o. Before creating her book, Selma had a 3-year research not only of different sciences and wildlife, but also folklore and legends.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda, I love your description of the Swedish bonfires in the New World. I gather that prime time for such activities here in Sweden is around May Day.

My adventures in the world of Astrid Lindgren are deepening, and I'll report on that here soon. I'm acquiring new writing assignments along the way!

Robert Moss said...

Alla, on my plane to Stockholm I was surrounded on all sides by young giants in muscle shirts, proudly displaying runic tattoos. The runes have not (yet) been speaking to me on the ground in Sweden. On the other hand, Odin with his two ravens was a powerful presence in the weekend workshop and I am reminded that he was a shaman before he became a god, and operated like a shaman even when promoted to the ranks of the gods.

I love the image of the Swedes sending each other fish letters. Lots of fishy stuff going on here since my original sighting of the dodgy fish sign. More of that in future reports.