Important disclaimer: Similar to my Norwegian history post, this post is not aimed at distilling the incredibly long history of Sweden into one easy-to-read narrative. I'm good, but I'm not that good, and I would do an excellent country a disservice. That's not what I'm here for!
I spent much less time in Sweden than in Norway (5.5 days rather than 14), and this blog post will inevitably reflect that. While I bring some background information to the table from growing up among Swedes, I’m still doing my best based on what I actually saw and experienced while there. While this post is not supposed to be a compare-and-contrast with Norway, I probably will end up doing some of that just because the differences (or perceived lack thereof) between the two countries are a popular subject of debate.
Should We Fear the Mountains? (No.)
As I mentioned in my previous post, Sweden and Norway are two very geologically distinct countries. Sweden may have much smaller mountains, but its geography and geologic history has created its own unique problems in terms of getting from place to place. The abundance of forests (53 to 69 percent of the country, depending on the source) has in many cases kept towns from being easily connected with one another.
While mountains are often seen as the primary barrier to access and communication between groups of people, in Sweden this is not so much the case. The mountains are an obstacle, but they don’t shut things down for months (like in Norway, for example). Their lower elevation and gentler slopes mean less rock falls, easier road building, and the potential for larger-scale ski resorts – in modern times, Swedish mountains are often an asset, rather than a hinderance. Mountains are a big source of Swedish tourism, and drive innovation in the form of famous outdoor-oriented companies like Peak Performance, Helly Hansen, and others.
With the mountains as a relatively small issue, the biggest problem would-be travelers have in moving through Sweden is the forests. They cover a majority of the country, and are generally composed of very dense pines, firs, and similar. In pre-industrial times travel took place by boat in the Baltic Sea with most large Swedish settlements positioned along the coast, largely because the forests were such an impediment to travel.
To this day, most trains and roads run along the coast. Towns and villages that existed either far to the west or north were often left isolated for long stretches since they were too far from the coast to warrant the effort. Norrland (translation: the Northlands), largest “land” of Sweden with 60% of the total territory, is also the least densely populated at around 12% of the total. The term Norrland is historical rather than technical, used by the southern Swedish kings. Despite being historically considered a no-man’s land due to their relative inaccessibility, the northern forests actually hold the most diversity in terms of languages and culture in all of Sweden, from a Norrland accent that southern Swedes find hard to understand to the long history of the Sami and the Finns that withstood centuries of attempts by southern kings to Christianize the region.
The Forest in Myth
Because the forests were (and still are) such a huge part of life in Sweden by dominating where people could or could not go, it should come as no surprise that they also dominated intellectual life and mythology. The Swedish forest Kolmården appears as Mirkwood (Myrkviðr in Old Norse), the infamous “dark forest” of legends. Tiveden, another large forest in southern Sweden, gained a reputation as unnaturally wild and dangerous, the haunt of real-life outlaws and devious fairies like the Nix. Many myths include the lone traveler who is taken advantage of or led astray by tricksters both real and imaginary.
Overall, forests were alternately depicted as places of terror and mystery and/or sources of worship, sacred grounds of the old Norse gods where rites could be performed. The advent of Christianity saw an assault on the concept of the holy forest and the myths of the fairies (the Nix, trolls, and others) that called it home, and the concept of the forest as a place for heathens and pagans increased its sense of dread for many.
Such depictions continue to this day – Norrland as a whole is often characterized in modern media as dark, cold, and full of isolated, sleepy townships. Detective series and thrillers often use these towns as settings to contrast with more urban environemtns like Stockholm; a well-known example of this would be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as the main character travels from Stockholm to the sleepy (and fictional) town of Hedestad with its dark secrets. While there is certainly some truth to the concept of a dark, empty Norrland, most Norrlanders live in and around the coastal cities in the east, which are quite large.
While in Norway the easiest – and cheapest – way to get around is definitely to fly, in Sweden it’s the trains. On a side note, if you are ever tempted to get a sense of how big Sweden actually is, take a train. I took the train from Stockholm to Åre, and it took me two trains (a night train and a regional train), a two-hour wait in between 3 and 5 am, and 9 hours total time in order to do it. Most trains run alongside rivers and streams, because (as pointed out in my last post) many of them keep fairly straight courses and cut either parallel or perpendicular to the length of the country. Additionally, from a construction standpoint building near streams and rivers minimizes the amount of dense forest that needs to but cut down and worked through.
The conditions of the Swedish train and road system can be traced back to what I’ve been stressing throughout the post; namely, that the forests continue to impede connecting towns in the interior of Sweden with the eastern coast. There’s several different train companies, and there are some really old trains out there. If you’re used to trains with Internet and built-in televisions, the night train may not be for you (though you’re supposed to sleep, so there’s not really an issue from my perspective).
The Great Northern War
And now for an anecdote worthy of way, way more than the space I’m giving it here – the Great Northern War. I use this as an example because a) I saw a memorial to Swedish soldiers during my time in Åre and Duved and I’ve been thinking about that memorial ever since, and b) it is a good way of tying together what I’ve been talking about so far. The Great Northern War is not often touched on in school, or at least it wasn’t for me. In high school it was mentioned in my World History and European History classes, but only barely, and the History Department at Rice didn’t have anyone who focused on Scandinavian history. What you’ve seen here is my self-taught knowledge, from my brain to yours.
The Great Northern War (1700-21) was long, dirty, and had massive consequences politically in the Baltics, with the Russians ousting the Swedish Empire as the dominant power in the region. Sweden lost large swathes of land as well as its absolute monarchy, ushering in the Age of Liberty (parliamentary governance and increased civil rights).
That’s not why I want to talk about it, though. All that stuff is important (Sweden’s trajectory as a country changed completely), but I want to talk about war in Scandinavia, the north in particular, and how political ideals run up against difficulties unimaginable when put into actual terrain. The monument I saw was a monument to dead Swedish soldiers, crippled by deadly winter slowing down retreat in the Norwegian phase of the war (1716-1718). The decision to invade Norway was questionable and its results disastrous for the Swedish army, culminating with the death of King Charles XII and Swedish retreat.
One such retreat that occurred is known as the Carolean Death March, part of which is memorialized near Duved, where I stayed. After a failed campaign to take Trondheim and the recent death of the king, the lieutenant general in charge decided to retreat in the most direct way possible – across the Tydal mountain range in January, buoyed by the mild winter the troops had experienced so far. 5,800 men, mostly Finns, set out for what they thought would be a two-day march when a blizzard hit, lasting for three days and destroying both visibility and shelter in its wake. The rivers were frozen solid and the forests were nigh impenetrable. The soldiers burned local trees and eventually their own wooden supplies (sleds and rifle butts), but many soldiers froze to death on the short journey to Duved. 2,100 survived.
The Great Northern War was devastating in many ways, largely because the countries fought against each other but also the land itself. The Swedish mountains and forests, and their long winters, could bring terror to those who took them lightly, though they could also be deceptively mild. Short distances even today can be very difficult as a result, especially in Norrland, and it’s hard to forget that winter can turn cruel quickly. After watching and learning about Sweden, it’s easy to see why the landscape itself is memorialized in myth as such a powerful force: because that’s exactly what it is.
The Great Northern War is so called for many reasons (the first being that it was an actually terrible experience for all involved except Peter the Great of Russia, who was stoked), but mainly because it was the first (and last) big, modern war in Scandinavia. And ultimately modern warfare’s tools were no match for the terror that the earth itself could inflict on its victims.
I’m not ending this post with a story about war to depress people, but I was personally struck by the confluence of human conflict and the evolution of the land over which said humans fought. There’s no moral here – except maybe that Sweden and Scandinavia in general are one hell of a place to fight a war.
Sweden has an absolutely massive history. Like so many of my posts, I’m barely skimming the surface of what this country has to offer. It was an amazing place to be. When I visited the royal palace and saw the changing of the guards, I was struck by the feeling of awe I had, and how different it was to be in a place with kings and queens, even if they weren’t mine. The geology and the country are old souls, full of highs and lows to learn about. I didn’t get to say this in the meat of my post, but Stockholm is in my top three most beautiful cities ever and y’all should totally visit.
Thanks for sticking with this long blog post! Next up: Italy.