Studying the Nordic Culture in CollegeJune 27, 2016
During my junior year of college, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized my school, the University of Colorado at Boulder, offered a “Tolkien’s Nordic Sources” class.
I signed up for the course and dove deep into the world of Middle Earth, Elrond and Mordor, learning about the myths and characters that shaped the British author’s famous books, particularly “Lord of the Rings.”
Later, I discovered that the university went even deeper on the Nordic theme, offering a minor in Nordic Studies. As a Scandinavian mutt of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish decent, I decided that I should pursue the study of my motherland.
I read Icelandic Sagas, studied the Swedish language, and learned all about the fairy tales and heroic legends of the North. I even wrote a term paper comparing the imagery of the IKEA catalog to Carl Larsson paintings of domestic life for my Modern Nordic Societies class.
Since graduating, I’ve used my Nordic knowledge here and there – when traveling throughout Scandinavia or at home when trying to impress people with random “LOTR” facts.
Recently I noticed that CU’s Nordic Studies program has grown immensely.
“There has been increasingly more and more interest in Nordic studies, and I’m sure that has something to do with popular culture these days,” said Mathias Nordvig, assistant professor of Nordic Studies, who is visiting from Denmark and is a specialist in Old Norse Mythology.
This should come as no surprise to those who are tuned into the golden era of television. The Nordic world confidently is making its way into pop culture more and more with shows like Vikings on the History channel, Game of Thrones on HBO and Marvel’s three major motion pictures on Thor.
As viewers of these shows, we are sponges sucking up all of this cultural goodness and entertainment. But, in the end we are left with questions: what are these epic legends, and who are the great heroes that influence modern-day masterpieces we are watching on the big screen? CU’s Nordic Studies program can answer.
“It really inspires students to learn more about the north,” Nordvig said. “There’s just a surge of interest in the Nordic region in general.”
While colleges and universities across the United States offer various courses in Nordic or Scandinavian studies, not many offer majors or minors in the subject.
The University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, University of California Berkeley and University of Texas all have a department of Scandinavian Studies where undergraduate students can major in the Nordic region. Schools like Harvard University offer a concentration in Scandinavian Studies.
“Big state schools have some programs here or there, all related in different ways to the north,” Nordvig said. “But specific programs that give you a full minor [or major] in Nordic studies, there are very few.”
The Nordic Studies classes in high-demand at CU-Boulder include Tolkien’s Nordic Sources (they recently had to add a third section) and its course on the Vikings (130 students are enrolled for this fall). Literature classes include Norse Mythology, Nordic Fairly Tales and a 19th and 20th century literature class.
Class offerings run the gamut from language (Danish, Finnish and Swedish) to courses that address politics and modern-day society in the Scandinavian countries. In Introduction to Modern Nordic Culture and Society, students study everything from arts and music to the birth of the modern nation states, and how the invention of the welfare state consolidated the north.
“I’m sure that the fact that the Nordic countries’ welfare models have been mentioned in the political debates lately also adds to it,” Nordvig said. “Students pick up on that and think to themselves, ‘What is this interesting region in the world that American politicians are speaking about?’”
Outside the classroom, the program has created a social network to facilitate student involvement. Nordic Club hosts monthly film nights and events that celebrate the big Scandinavian holidays like Swedish Midsommarfest, Swedish Waffle Day and Danish Carnival.
There also is an organized Fika (Swedish coffee break), where students hang out, drink coffee and practice their Swedish with one another. Dedicated students can study abroad at Uppsala University in Sweden, and CU has an exchange program with the University of Copenhagen, educating Danish students.
In 2017, the department will cross-list a class on the Nordic region with international affairs, where students will learn more about Greenland and Iceland, while also studying political and social issues.
“We tend to think about the Nordic region as this distant place that has culture, but in a greater geopolitical sense it is a very important place,” Nordvig said. “The countries play a major role in the NATO alliance. And, in terms of economy size, it is a very big power. When doing a minor in Nordic Studies you can use it if you are interested in political science and working with that region. In different ways, it is an important part of our world and the U.S.
“And, we should not forget that Finland has the highest amount of metal bands ever,” he added with a laugh. “It’s an interesting little fact.”