Stieg Larsson's worldwide bestselling "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy revealed one of the most fascinating female protagonists in recent fiction. In this article, I offer a unique view of Lisbeth Salander.
I've always marveled that some children reared in wretchedly dysfunctional families grow up to be marvelous, well-adjusted human beings. Others born into loving homes and Western-style comfort and privilege choose an opposite path, living their lives in seemingly self-inflicted misery. Those who have scratched their way to maturity--even happiness--against the odds now have a new model and patron saint in Lisbeth Salander, the female protagonist of the late Stieg Larsson's internationally best-selling Swedish trilogy: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
Purists will argue that a literary (and now film) character cannot qualify as a saint. There was a time when I, too, delimited my understanding of the spiritual world along the boundary lines of fact and fiction. A crack appeared in my dualistic (either/or) thought processes in 1969, when the Catholic Church admitted that only shaky evidence existed to support the historicity of some saints who had long enjoyed their special annual feast days. Among those demoted was everybody's favorite co-pilot, St. Christopher.
Archbishop Jacopo de Voragine, author of The Golden Legend, a thirteenth century compilation of saints' lives, set off a seven-hundred-year run of popular devotion to the muscular Christ-bearer. Over the past three decades, the saint's medals and dashboard bobble heads have virtually disappeared. What became of those billions of prayers sent heavenward by travelers who relied on him for protection? Jesus assures us, as he did the people of his own day, that our God wastes nothing: "Your faith has saved you" (Luke 7:50).
Humans, whether religious or not, have always drawn inspiration from legends, as well as from certifiably historical people and events. So, why not adopt Larsson's protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, as a saint for our time, especially as a model for young adults? I won't give away the details of her life story here. There just might still be a few people on the planet who have not read the books (or not yet completed the trilogy). Personal discovery of her inner life, values, and unique, but finely tuned, morality is one of the trilogy's great rewards. But I give nothing away by saying that the Universe dealt Salander one of the worst hands of any child, fictional or real.
Canonizing Salander does challenge us to shift our understanding about what is moral and what is not. By rigid Judeo-Christian standards, the behaviors that enable her to survive as a functioning human being are immoral. But behavior alone is not the ultimate determiner of morality. For me, the most sensible and hallowed definition of morality is enshrined at the core of my own tradition. For Catholics, individual conscience is the final arbiter of morality, superseding everything else. The essence of morality is being human in the best sense, according to each person's unique capability at any given moment in life. Since we are made in God's image, whatever attitudes and behaviors help us to grow emotionally and spiritually--and thus become more like God--are moral. An intentional decision or action is immoral to the extent that it causes us to be less than the person God created us to be.
In The Girl Who Played With Fire, co-protagonist Mikael Blomkvist says of his friend Lisbeth, now a murder suspect, that she possesses a highly developed sense of morality. By this he means that her moral compass is a trustworthy guide and that she consistently operates from that core principle. In view of that, by what right does anyone judge her or condemn her choices? This is especially so, in light of the abuse she has suffered as a child and teen from the very adults responsible for guiding and protecting her (mother, father, legal and social welfare systems, and government at the highest levels). That she survives and arrives at womanhood as a still-moral human being is miracle enough to merit this fictional character the titles of role model and patron saint for the twenty-first-century.
(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
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