Apr 1, 2012

What can Lisbeth Salander teach you about writing?


Lisbeth Salander, portrayed by Rooney Mara in
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Lisbeth Salander is a fictional character in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy of crime/thriller novels.[1]

She is magically adept with computers and earns a living as an investigator for a private company. Her computer wizardry is not, however, matched by her social skills -- or is it? Lisbeth is also a master of disguise, so I am tempted to think that her punk-rock persona is just that; a persona. A defense mechanism.

Mikael, the co-protagonist, is one of the few to win her trust. How does he manage that? At one point, Mikael Blomkvist (“flower-branch”) asks Lisbeth to help him catch a killer of women. Maybe she starts to open up to Mikael at that point.

Legend has it that Stieg Larsson wrote the Millennium Trilogy to make up for that time he witnessed the gang rape of a young girl and did nothing to stop it. Rape and violence against women figure prominently in the narrative. Lisbeth is a victim of sexual and psychological abuse, albeit one that learns how to defend herself. Past wrongs have warped Lisbeth Salander’s emotions. You could say that she’s become a dragon, a chimera.

Salander speaks to our obsession with hybrids and outlaws. With masks and disguises. These things are roundabout paths to the truth.

Are you ready for the truth about Lisbeth Salander?

The Fire Within: 
Woman as Psycho-Alchemical Agent and Process

As a person, Lisbeth is an odd specimen. As a symbol, she is a lot stranger. Let me throw some Latin at you:

Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem.

This is the alchemical motto known as VITRIOL. Hope that didn’t give you a headache. Me, I find it beautiful. It means “Visit the interior parts of the earth; by rectification you will find the hidden stone.”

Which is to say, the Philosopher’s Stone.

Now, C.G. Jung and others have argued that the true purpose of alchemy had nothing to do with breeding artificial people in jars, constructing brass heads to channel wise beings from other planes of existence, or even turning lead into gold. (A rather prosaic goal if compared to creating life or assembling a device to communicate with spirits.)

Descent into the Well of Wisdom

Alchemy was about improving yourself -- through knowledge, not necessarily good deeds. Practical alchemy was about burning, distilling, transforming raw material. These physical actions had parallels in the inner world of the spirit. Our heroine is a seeker after truth, i.e., real knowledge. Information is her currency. She knows where to find it and where to get it. In fact, she employs rather subterranean methods to get said information.

Together, Lisbeth and Mikael go digging in the muck, dredging up the unsavory past of a rich family. The pair dig deep, working downwards to reach a corrupted Philosopher’s Stone.

Trying to uncover the truth about a string of murders, Lisbeth and Mikael (a man and a woman) represent the alchemical union of opposites as they draw closer.

“When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female (…) an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].”
Gospel of Thomas, 22

The union of opposites was every alchemist’s dream, the Great Work or Magnum Opus.
But the most astonishing thing is if you consider Lisbeth through the prism of alchemy, her words, deeds and looks combine the original four stages of the Great Work:
  • Nigredo, blackening -- hair dyed black.
  • Albedo, whitening -- Lisbeth is pale.
  • Citrinitas, yellowing -- in the American film adaptation of the first Millennium novel, her eyebrows are bleached (yellowed); in the actual novel, the narrator mentions a wasp tattoo on Salander’s neck. Common European wasps are black and yellow, a typical warning sign in nature: “Don’t mess with me.” 
  • Rubedo, reddening -- signified by Lisbeth’s real hair color and the violence in her life.

Hold on. We’re only halfway through the enchanted woods.

Lisbeth is symbolically connected with fire. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reveals that she’s got red hair, though she dyes it black, and the reader is told about the dragon tattoo over Lisbeth’s shoulder blade.

Lisbeth’s surname, Salander, is only a syllable away from salamander. As described by Paracelsus, the salamander was the elemental spirit of fire. It’s no coincidence, on the symbolic plane, that Lisbeth Salander forges a relationship with journo Mikael Blomkvist. Michael is the archangel of fire.  

Fire is the great cleanser. It purifies. It sterilizes. Lisbeth wields the power of symbolic castration.

An Alien Serpent Among Us: 
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

From the Nine Dragons Handscroll

Dragons are creatures of the air. The Chinese pair the dragon with the fenghuang, the phoenix, a mythical bird that over the centuries has become male and female. Now take a look at the impressive title sequence that David Fincher commissioned for his movie adaptation (click here to see it on YouTube). What is that creature at the 1:09 mark?



Lisbeth, the androgynous dragon/phoenix girl has built a defensive wall around herself. She is in the world but not of it, a punishing angel with her own agenda. Therefore, Lisbeth needs a complement, a fellow traveler… Someone to help her blossom. Lisbeth is the dragon, Mikael is the phoenix.

Nor was Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” selected on a whim. An immigrant is a stranger in a strange land, someone who was driven from home -- sent on a quest, you might say.

Who is Lisbeth Salander?

Swedish actress Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander.
Note that she is crested like a bird, an allusion to phoenix-like powers
of transformation and rebirth.

The girl with the dragon tattoo is a reservoir of creative energy. She has the strong core of a survivor and the power to inhabit any identity of her choice.

Salander demonstrates time and again that the self is fluid, not confined to a single persona.

Larsson imagined Lisbeth as an adult Pippi Longstocking, a magical, self-made orphan. The tattooed girl strikes the reader as a magic personality on the threshold of…

life and death,

day and night,

male and female,

sanity and madness,

… and no less as a broken bird fighting to regain equilibrium.

The Take-Away:

Your protagonist, or protagonists, deserve as much care as you can give them. Developing a layered character takes a lot more -- if you really commit, that is -- than listing their favorite movies, colors and drawing up a character arc.


The oracular power of technology.
In short, there is nothing new under the sun. Culture is 99% recycled. Having said that, I’ve got a question for you. Do you honestly think historical research is only for historical novelists?

Hope you said no.

Stieg Larsson clearly drew on ancient sources for inspiration. There’s a grain of Persephone in Lisbeth Salander, and more, so much more. There is a fire in her that’s been burning for six thousand years. Don’t be fooled by her waifish looks. Lisbeth is old.


Click here to watch this trailer on YouTube.

FOOTNOTE
[1] Writing about crime is quite popular in Sweden and Norway. In Sweden, they call crime fiction deckare -- “detective” -- whereas a genre like science fiction is plainly referred to as “science fiction.” Yes, in English.
This speaks to the popularity of the crime/detective novel in Scandinavia.Norwegians now have an Easter tradition all their own: retiring to a mountain cabin with a bagful of detective novels. Publishing houses go all-out pushing the genre to voracious readers this time of year. As a punter noted, maybe crime fiction is tremendously popular in Scandinavia because there seems to be so little crime.


***
What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Read more in this series.

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