When I say that I live in Oslo, it does not tell you much beyond the fact that I make my home in the capital city of Norway, a distinction I share with about half a million people. Far more interesting are the stories this city can tell.
Norwegian fairytales and folklore tell of mystical creatures inhabiting the countryside – trolls, fairies, gnomes and others. Whether they were benevolent helpers, scary monsters or a little bit of both, these creatures mark the boundaries between the familiar and safe and the unknown and potentially dangerous. When the cities began to grow and people moved away from the countryside, where did these creatures go? I believe some of them tagged along to the city. Here, they live in the stories side by side with their city-born cousins.
The skeleton of the city’s public transport system is the metro. All the metro lines meet in a set of tunnels underneath the city centre. These tunnels are gloomy and dark and something of a fire hazard, since they are cramped enough that if one train breaks down inside the tunnel, the trains behind it are stuck until it can be moved out of the way.
According to some stories, these tunnels are the domain of the god Metron. It is not known where Metron holds court, but you can sometimes catch glimpses of him and his followers on the platforms of the abandoned station a couple of minutes in from the western entrance to the tunnel. Sometimes these platforms are brightly lit, catching your eye when they burst out of the darkness as your train is passing. Then you can spot strange shapes on the walls and platforms that must belong to the ever-changing advertising boards, or so you convince yourself.
I’m not talking about fairies now, but about the Norwegian royal family. The Royal Palace, prominently situated on a slight rise in the city centre, is the home of the King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway. The current king’s grandfather, Haakon, came to Norway in 1905 when we gained our independence from Sweden, after first demanding a referendum to ensure that the Norwegian people in fact wanted a monarchy. Subsequently the history of the Norwegian royal family in the twentieth century has gained its own mythology.
Like many of his fellow countrymen, the late King Olav, son of Haakon, enjoyed skiing in the forests of Oslo. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, there was oil rationing in Norway, and it was forbidden to drive a car during the weekends for a short period. The King, rather than giving up his skiing trips or taking advantage of his royal status, took the metro to the forest on Sundays like everyone else. On one of these trips, some press photographers had asked to come along, and the resulting photographs have become iconic.
King Olav’s grandson, Crown Prince Haakon, married his fiancée, then Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, in 2001, in a modern-day fairytale in which Everywoman meets and marries her Prince. During the period of their engagement, there was some concern about whether she would be an appropriate consort for the future king of Norway. Not only was she a single mother, but she had been part of the rave scene in Oslo, which was associated with drug use. However, Mette-Marit has later proved the sceptics wrong, and fulfils her role as Crown Princess beautifully.
While I feel sorry for the Royal Family because they have been born into a role where the media and public demand insight and access to their private lives, I am grateful for their contribution to the stories of my city.
One of my favourite places in Oslo is the Vigeland Park, in which some 200 sculptures by Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland are displayed. It’s a strange place. The sculptures are very life-like, and show people in all sorts of situations – a boy throwing a tantrum, a father holding his children in the air, two youngsters embracing, an old woman comforting a young girl, two girls standing on their head. It’s a place of imagination, each statue the seed of a story.
According to one version of the story of how these statues came into being, the head of Medusa was kept somewhere in Oslo for a while when the park was being built, sometime during the first half of the twentieth century. While it is several thousand years since Perseus killed Medusa by chopping off her head, it is said that her head retains, at least intermittently, the power of turning those who looked at her into stone. Me, I don’t believe this, since I’m not in the habit of blaming immigrants for everything bad in this country.
Nowadays I favour the idea that the Vigeland Park is the churchyard of the trolls. Trolls are a familiar antagonist from Norwegian fairy tales. They are often portrayed as big, ugly, scary and stupid, and are usually tricked by the hero into staying outside until they turn to stone in the sun. The trolls who moved into the city have adapted in different ways. One group became the models for the cutesy troll figurines that the tourists buy.
The other group looks like regular people on the outside. However, they are still made of stone on the inside, and they remain vulnerable to the sun. As a consequence, they are forced to work nightshifts and part-time during summer, so that they have the time to get home from work before sunrise. Trolls can live for a very long time, but sometimes they step out into the sun, by accident or because they lived for too long in the darkness. The statues that result are put on display in the park.
During summer, the city has a music of its own. People chat, laugh and dance in the pubs, the restaurants and the clubs, picnic outside at the beach and sit up and read far into the night, because the light lingers for so long that even if you could shut it out behind dark curtains, you don’t want to, because you’re starved for light after the long, dark winter.
Accompanying the rhythm of the city in summer is Nøkken, water spirit and master fiddler. In earlier days, he lived in rivers and lakes and would lure people, frequently young women, into the water to drown. He caught you perhaps with his music, or by taking the shape of a white horse you couldn’t resist riding. He could teach you to play the fiddle if you were courageous enough, in exchange for booze, blood or a promise of salvation.
He now inhabits the many fountains of the city. Having grown more subtle, he will no longer try to get you into the water. Rather, he lowers your inhibitions with his music as you walk past in order to feed on your memories and your emotions. When there is a fountain next to a place where people gather at night, such as a taxi stand, arguments may escalate towards violence much faster than otherwise because of his music.
In winter, the fountains are either emptied out or frozen to the bottom. I do not know if Nøkken leaves the city or not during the winter season; all I know is that I cannot hear his music through the ice.