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  • “To Die for King and Country”:Nationalism and the Citizen Subject from a Perspective of War in Three Poems in Runeberg’s Fänrik Ståls sägner1
  • Caroline Haux

Published in two parts (1848 and 1860), Fänrik Ståls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål) is a cycle of epic war poems by Swedish-speaking Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877). This article looks at the citizen subject as an effect of structures of power in three poems from this influential work of nineteenth-century Scandinavian literature. Written in Swedish and firmly rooted in both the Finnish and Swedish canons, Fänrik Ståls sägner remained central to nationalism in both Finland and Sweden for at least a hundred years after its first publication.2 The cycle aroused strong patriotic feelings in both countries, commemorating the war of 1808–1809 wherein Sweden lost Finland, which was perceived to be the eastern half of the realm, to Imperial Russia, and after which Finland had to yield to a new imperial power. The poems glorify heroism and sacrifice, unconditional brotherhood, and absolute loyalty to the right commander, but they also contain streaks of humor and stinging satire, particularly of so-called [End Page 187] traitors and weaklings.3 The strong emotions the cycle invoked in each country were born out of two different viewpoints, although the Swedes did not quite grasp this at the time. Indeed, some Finnish researchers insist that the first part of the work in particular expresses loyalty toward the Russians, although this, to a certain extent, may have been a result of Russian censure (Klinge 2004; Bjelobaba 2014). Insofar as Finnish nationalism was conceived in tense relation to the country’s shared history with Sweden, Finland also had its own national agenda, which involved close ties to the Russian tsar, of which the Swedes were not always aware.4 The 1830s signalled the breakthrough of nationalism in Finland with the publication of Kalevala (1835) and the strife to raise Finnish to the status of national language becoming a key issue for the Fennomans. Runeberg, Zacharias Topelius (1818–1898), and Sara Wacklin (1790–1846) were among the Swedish-speaking authors who wanted to promote the Finnish language, an approach that can be seen throughout their literary works (Ehn, Frykman, and Löfgren 1993).5 Several scholars have noted that after the war, Runeberg separated himself from the Swedish literary establishment, regardless of how it might have affected his future career (Klinge 2004; Bjelobaba 2014; Wrede 2005).6

Published in 1848, the first edition of Fänrik Ståls sägner was an effect of the debates on nationalism and revolution permeating Europe as a [End Page 188] consequence of liberation movements, culminating with the French February Revolution in the same year. The cycle’s introductory poem, “Vårt land” (Our Country), was written to be Finland’s first national anthem, and the edition was published (rather hastily) in part to promote this specific poem (Klinge 2004, 315–7). Some scholars claim the first edition was published precisely to calm an overheated political climate in Finland. Notably, young Finnish students were affected by the revolutionary ideas of the time, and the cycle was meant to stabilize the situation––under the kindly eye of the tsar––as well as to advocate a Finnish “national character” distinguished by patience, consistency, and perseverance, which were qualities suitable for critical times (Klinge 2004; Wrede 2005, 2010).7 From a Russian perspective, the first edition of the cycle was seen both as potentially calming during unruly times and as a means to further separate Finland from its former ally Sweden. From a Swedish standpoint, however, the cycle has been read as an epic tale of the disaster in which nearly half of the country was lost––an Iliad from the perspective of the Trojans. In Sweden, discourses on the war, and particularly Fänrik Ståls sägner, served to strengthen nationalism through nostalgia and feelings of revanche.8

The political precursor to the second part of the cycle, the 1860 publication, was clearly different. The weakening of the tsarist regime by its defeat in the Crimean War...


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