The soul of the north
This enormously entertaining, fact-jammed, and digressive tome about two millennia of Scandinavian history and culture starts out in a most unexpected way. It’s 1969, and the author and his buddy—mostly penniless and starving—retreat back to England after a horrendous stay in Copenhagen (the buddy is deported for stealing cheese).
Not a great start, you might think. But Robert Ferguson’s fascination with Scandinavia and his kaleidoscopic array of factual (and personal) knowledge of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden all demonstrate a “from the ground up” understanding of these northern cultures and their histories. And Ferguson’s vividly pictorial prose style, as well as his admiration and wonderment at the region’s history and culture, make Scandinavians an enthralling read.
An Englishman who has lived in Norway for three decades, Ferguson has an insatiable curiosity about his adopted region and a wealth of information—sometimes an overwhelming wealth—about it. The genius is in the details, as the author pauses to consider in more depth a particularly telling episode of medieval or modern history. One gripping example: the Danes’ near-miraculous achievement during Nazi occupation in the autumn of 1943, when the vast majority of Denmark’s Jews were spirited across the water to sanctuary in Sweden.
There is a narrative in Scandinavians, sort of, but it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the book piecemeal. There are little sidelines everywhere: notes on the Norwegian rat (rattus norvegicus); an extended rewrite of Henrik Ibsen’s drama Ghosts; observations about Sweden’s remarkable 17th-century Queen Kristina; the author’s determination that “Yorick” (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) really was the Danish name “Georg”; and the story of a Norwegian skier named Tryggve Gran who, more than a century ago, was among the searchers for the lost South Polar explorers led by Captain Robert Scott. (Gran and his team found the frozen-solid Scott and his party, as Ferguson tells in the kind of vivid detail that makes you hop up from your reading chair in quest of a nice hot coffee and perhaps some alcoholic additives. There is a heart-warming postscript: Gran left his skis in a “cross” position outside Scott’s frozen tent and wore Scott’s own skis on the return home so “they at least would complete the journey.”)
These anecdotes only begin to suggest the array of Scandinavian information—some, though not all, of it chronological—that the author possesses. We hear about ancient battles and 20th-century wars, nautical explorers and seafarers, runestones (including Ferguson’s determination that Minnesota’s Kensington Runestone was “an intricate and extremely successful practical joke”), birth statistics, alcohol consumption, the fate of early Viking settlers in Greenland, and occasional rhapsodic observations about important football (soccer) matches.
There’s even a “Scandinavian Timeline,” starting with the (approximate) years AD 400-800 when the picture-stones of Gotland, Sweden, were created, and extending through 2016, when Swedish golfer Henrik Stenson won the Open Championship at Royal Troon. And there is no discussion whatsoever of the over-explored, over-analyzed, warm-and-fuzzy concept of contemporary Nordic coziness, hygge. For this alone, Ferguson deserves a medal or two.
Scandinavians by Robert Ferguson was published by Overlook Press in June 2017.
Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s 50-year history book.
This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.