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EILEEN BATTERSBYponders Scandinavian trolls and Kenneth Branagh

Darkness and light: with a grasp of the present rooted in respect for the past, the robust Scandinavian casts a deservedly ironic glance at the world. He knows what real winter is and smiles at the upheaval minor snowfalls create in washy-washy western Europe.

Trolls first emerge in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. They prefer darkness so they can deal with winter and if they tend to be regarded as bad guys, well, no one is perfect. Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) softened some of folklore’s menace with his Peer Gynt (1876), composed for the verse drama written by fellow countryman Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) in 1867. Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) took the internal psychological narrative honed by Dostoyevsky a step further with Hunger (1890), in which the individual in isolation is a major theme.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) celebrated Finland’s landscape and legends in a series of symphonic poems, including Finlandia (1899), while his notoriously difficult violin concerto, of which there are two versions, is among the glories of 20th-century classical music. Finnish by birth, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) wrote in Swedish and created the Moomin creatures, who defy life’s hardships. In this the centenary year of August Strindberg’s death, the society that shaped him is evoked in a magnificent volume, The Worlds of August Strindberg, from Stockholm publisher Max Ström.

Film-maker Ingmar Bergman, revered for Wild Strawberries (1957) and the autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982), also wrote intensely intimate fiction based on his parents’ marriage.

Contemporary Scandinavian writing is graced by Roy Jacobsen, Dag Solstad and Per Petterson. Yet it is the Nordic crime writers who best capture the elegant despair and philosophy honed by months spent seeking the sun. The existentialist plight of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander has found expression in Belfast’s world-weary Kenneth Branagh, his finest hour framed by dusky shadows.

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