Dragons, Sweden and Misogyny: A look back on Stieg Larsson

The Millennium Trilogy of books (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) are some of the highest selling Scandinavian books of all time, each one being a best seller at release. They were unique in that they were crime thrillers that managed to gain a high amount of critical acclaim. A fourth book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, has just been released, starring the Girl herself, Lisbeth Salander, timed in accordance with the series’ ten year anniversary. It is notable for being the first book in the series not to be written by Stieg Larsson, rather a man named David Lagercrantz. This calls for a reflection on Stieg Larsson, and his legacy.

Stieg Larsson published all the novels in the original trilogy posthumously, as he had had a heart attack a few months after he turned 50 in 2004. He had written the first two books (and parts of the third) when he first submitted their manuscripts to publishers. When he died, he had an estimated three quarters done of the fourth book. This almost finished book was not seen by the author of the currently released fourth book, and does not relate to The Girl in the Spider’s Web in any known way.

Millennium character Lisbeth Salander, portrayed by Rooney Mara, Photo: gokul-r.blogspot.com
Millennium character Lisbeth Salander, portrayed by Rooney Mara, Photo: gokul-r.blogspot.com

Born Karl Stig-Erland Larsson in Umea, Sweden in 1954, Stieg Larsson had what can only be described as a dismal childhood. He grew up in Vasterbotten County in the north of Sweden. His long term partner Eva Gabrielsson called the northern areas “godforsaken places at the back of beyond”. Larsson’s family had a tradition of dying young, with his grandfather dying at 50 due to a heart attack (in what can only be described as dark foreshadowing) and his mother died when Stieg was 37, due to complications pertaining to breast cancer and an aneurysm.

Stieg became a journalist after serving time in the Swedish military and training a squad of female Eritrean freedom fighters. He specialized in writing about far-right and white power groups, for which he received death threats near constantly. He later founded the Swedish Expo Foundation, a foundation devoted to counteracting the growth of right wing extremism in Swedish youth.

The reason behind Stieg’s writing of the series is believed to be a mixture of guilt and anger. When Stieg was just a teenager, he witnessed a 15 year old acquaintance of his being gang-raped. Overcome with the bystander effect, Stieg did nothing to stop the rape. Several days later, wrought with guilt, Stieg told the girl what had happened, including that he did nothing to stop the incident. He begged her for forgiveness, and she refused. It is believed Stieg never really got over this, and started to write stories about a character who was a rape survivor. He even named the girl after his acquaintance, Lisbeth.

Cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Photo: suze.co.uk
Cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Photo: suze.co.uk

Another primary reason for writing the Millennium series was Stieg’s anger at society’s attitudes towards politics, other people and in particular towards women. Two murders in 2001 and 2002 are believed to have additionally inspired him. One involved a woman being killed by her boyfriend, another a Swedish-Kurdish woman murdered in an honour killing. Stieg saw very little difference between the crimes, viewing them both as symbolic of society’s “systematic violence” towards women.

Eva Gabrielsson, wrote,

“[T]he trilogy allowed Stieg to denounce everyone he loathed for their cowardice, their irresponsibility, and their opportunism: couch-potato activists, sunny-day warriors, fair-weather skippers who pick and choose their causes; false friends who used him to advance their own careers; unscrupulous company heads and shareholders who wrangle themselves huge bonuses…. Seen in this light, Stieg couldn’t have had any better therapy for what ailed his soul than writing his novels.”

While The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may not seem a provocative title, or even indicative of the book’s themes (all it tells us is that there is a girl who possesses a tattoo of a dragon) it’s Swedish title is far more revealing. It’s original name is Man som hatar kvinnor, literally “Men who hate Women”. One can see what really motivated Stieg.

Larsson’s books have sold over 80 million worldwide. Each one has garnered critical acclaim, winning two Glass Key awards and one award for the Best Swedish crime novel. The books talk about dark subjects such as kidnapping, rape and the sex trade. They are certainly not for the light of heart.

Author of the fourth Millennium novel, David Lagercrantz. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org
Author of the fourth Millennium novel, David Lagercrantz. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

David Lagercrantz has big shoes to fill, writing the fourth book in the Millennium trilogy. Whether or not he can fill them will be up to the fans and critics alike. Stieg Larsson’s legacy may not be a bright one, but it is certainly a big one with many points raised, be they out of guilt or anger.

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