Bear traces: a study of the bear in national romantic literature around the Baltic Sea
The bear is the Nordic region’s largest predator and at the same time one of its most mythical animals. The bear has left traces in ancient religion, place names, linguistic expressions, and literature. Nature and animals can, therefore, be said to play a role also in the formation of “imagined communities” (Anderson 2006) of the north. The bear’s unique place in the culture of the Baltic Sea region is reflected in its recurring presence in literature, particularly in national romantic literature around 1900. This project will study bears in national romantic literature from Estonia, Finland, and Sweden written during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. The project hypothesizes that the bear served to create a masculine gender-coded nationalism with magic overtones. Bear metaphors, talking bears, shape-shifting into bears, and bear parables occur in a number of literary works of great national significance. In this literature mythology and the emerging national romanticism merge with a post-Darwinian image of man as animal and beast. This project argues that bears played a central role in national romantic literature, in order to legitimize, and naturalize a mythical connection between people and land in the formation of the national states in Finland, Estonia, Latvia 1918 and Sweden 1905. The project is inter-disciplinary, based on the fields of comparative literature, studies in nationalism, gender studies, and animality studies. The project approaches the bear as a literary and cultural trope. Unlike the biological, or in a wide meaning ethnological, previous research on the bear this project is cultural theoretical and focused on literature. The project approaches questions such as: In what sense could the bear as a metaphor, naturalize a belonging to the country? How could the post-Darwinian image of man as ‘beast’ be used to strengthen a masculinized, national identity rooted in nature? And how did women writers use the same connections of man, bear, and nature to criticize a national political structure where only men were citizens? The project’s ambition, with its focus on bears in literature, is to further the understanding of the bear's important cultural role in the Baltic Sea region. The project’s outcome will be at least three articles in international journals and one longer Swedish article. An international symposium will be held at Södertörn University and will result in an anthology based on the symposium.