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Literature / The Tales Of Ensign Stål

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"Our land, our land, our Fatherland!
Ring out, dear word, oh sound!
No rising hill, or mountain grand,
No sloping dale, no northern strand,
There is, more loved, to be found,
Than this — our fathers' ground."
—First verse of "Our Land," the book's prologue and later national anthem of Finland.

The Tales of Ensign Stål (Swedish title: Fänrik Ståls sägner, Finnish: Vänrikki Stoolin tarinat) is a Finnish collection of poems written in Swedish by the poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg and published in two parts, the first in 1848, the second in 1860. The poems tell the story of the disastrous Finnish war (1808-1809), a part of The Napoleonic Wars where the Russian Empire defeated the Swedish armies and conquered Finland, which had been a part of Sweden since the middle ages. Finland would not become a independent nation until 1917, but during the Russian domination, both Finnish and Swedish speaking Finns developed a strong sense of nationalism. In the genre of this nationalistic Finnish literature, The Tales of Ensign Stål is second only to The Kalevala.

The frame story of the book tells of a young, nameless Finnish student (implied to be a young Runeberg) who befriends an old ensign named Stål, who starts telling the man tales from the Finnish war. Some of the poems talk of real historical people, others about fictional characters. The main theme of the story is a nationalistic love of Finland and a celebration of the bravery of the soldiers in the war. Interestingly enough, the Russian enemies are not demonized, but Runeberg is instead deeply critical of some of the Swedish commanders like King Gustav IV Adolph, or field marshal Mauritz Klingspor, pretty much blaming the disastrous end of the war entirely on them.

Contains examples of:

  • Berserk Button: For most characters, being called a coward is by far the worst insult imaginable. Also, God have mercy on the enemy whose salvoes ruined lieutenant colonel von Törne's new coat.
  • Dirty Coward: The book accuses the Swedish commander Carl-Olof Cronstedt, who surrendered the fortress of Sveaborg to the Russians, of being this. Ensign Stål even refuses to say his name, considering it to be too shameful to speak out loud.
    • Cronsted is somewhat subject to Historical Villain Upgrade. He overestimated the hopelessness of his situation and the Russian forces.
    • The boyfriend of Girl of the Croft, who has deserted because of her mother's advice.
  • Camp Follower: The sutler Lotta Svärd.
  • Framing Device: The poems are all stories told by Ensign Stål.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Many of the poems have this as a main theme, most famously Sven Dufva and The Cloud's Brother.
  • Meaningful Name: Many characters have Swedish "soldier names" where the soldier was named after something military sounding or after something describing his personality. Ensign Stål's last name for example literally means "Steel."
  • Shout-Out: Lotta Svärd lent her name to various Women's Auxiliary organisations, both in Sweden and Finland.
  • Upper-Class Twit: King Gustavus IV Adolphus. Just like in real life, he is obsessed with matching the exploits of his predecessors with none of the ability that made things work for them.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: The two dragoons Lod and Stål, who are just as willing to risk their lives to save each other as they are to risk their lives to show each other up.
    • Major von Konow and Corporal Brask have saved each others' lives multiple times, and settle down together after the war. None of which stops them from bickering Like an Old Married Couple.
  • War Is Glorious: Another theme of the book, though how straight it is played is the topic of much academic debate. While the narrative exalts the deeds of certain fighters, the general tone also indicates that all that courage was ultimately abused
  • While Rome Burns: Field marshall Sandels, a Big Eater who does not let reports of the Russian army moving in stop him from enjoying his breakfast. That is, until one of the messengers accuse him of being a coward, which makes him leap into action.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Russian officer Yakov Kulnev, one of the most popular Russian military leaders at the time is described as this. It is noted that he is a lovable Boisterous Bruiser and Chick Magnet that is even liked by his enemies.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: The book contains a classic and rather interesting example of this. One of the poems tell the story of the brave but incredibly stupid soldier Sven Dufva who, in the middle of a battle against the Russians misunderstands an order to retreat and instead attacks the enemies in front of him. He single handedly manages to hold a bridge until reinforcements can arrive, sacrificing his life in the process.