“Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?”1Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” in The Canterbury Tales Complete, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000), I.692.,2“Who painted the lion, tell me, who?” Translated from Middle English by the author. runs Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous allusion to Marie de France’s fables in The Canterbury Tales. The question refers to the idea that any story is shaped dramatically by its author—had a lion painted the picture in the fable, the valiant lion would have been defeating a vicious human opponent, not the other way around. The same holds true for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Each major character—Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth Salander, and Henrik Vanger among them—is engaged in a struggle to control the story they are a part of. In other words, they are attempting to gain the authority, a word whose root is significantly related to the word “author,” to shape their own and others’ stories. Likewise, the villains of the piece are countering throughout with their own edits, attempting hostile takeovers of either the main storyline or a variety of smaller storylines through their own individual power channels. Once Larsson’s book is viewed within this context of literary power struggles, two particular sub-patterns become apparent. The first of these is that there are two types of relationships in this story war: allies and enemies. The second is that, of all the would-be author figures in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is the only truly original author; that is, she wants only to write her own life story. This paper will follow each individual character in their journey through this battlefield, focusing particularly on what type of player they are in the war, what their relationships with other characters are, and what ultimately happens to their authority over the stories they take part in.

The first, and most obvious character to focus on is Mikael “Kalle” Blomkvist. His relationship with story ownership and authorship are necessarily significant because he enters The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a failed writer, having not mastered what might be called authorial gamesmanship. In other words, he has been duped by Hans-Erik Wennerström in a thoroughly literary way by losing both his credibility as a writer and his control over the Wennerström scandal story to Wennerström trump: charges of libel. That he has in fact lost control of his authority itself is apparent in several instances, not least of which is that Henrik Vanger is able to push him around: with the hook tale of the missing Harriet Vanger, Henrik uses a story to push Blomkvist to ghostwrite his autobiography. Vanger is “an excellent storyteller,”3Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 103. so why have another writer take over the telling? The answer is that Henrik is in the business of acquisitions, not writing, as becomes evident when he says to Blomkvist “I want to buy a year of your life,”4Ibid., 128. and offers to pay for it in both money and a story. The passive nature of ghostwriting, too, seems to imply that Blomkvist has no ability to use his authorial talent except in the service, and under the name, of another man. Incidentally, that other man will acquire one story and, he says, pay for it with another. The trajectory of Blomkvist’s journey is then set: he must redeem himself somehow, and working for Vanger is the first step to learning to successfully take the offensive in his story war against Wennerström.

Blomkvist’s next step is amassing his allies, or those who will work with him to produce the two stories he is now responsible for: the Vanger family and Harriet’s, and Wennerström’s. His most evident allies are Erika Berger and, later, Lisbeth Salander, with each woman respectively co-authoring one of the two stories (for the most part). This bunkering down and readying for a comeback is less a moment in the book than it is the entire middle section: time and time again, Blomkvist re-iterates to Berger the need to “get out of the spotlight.”5Ibid., 74. Interestingly, at least in the context of authority to write a story, Blomkvist’s amassing of allies parallels the time when Larsson unloads the bulk of the information about Wennerström, the Vanger family, and Salander unto the reader’s plate. In this, Larsson himself parallels Henrik Vanger, so that it seems as if Larsson is giving his readers a similar relationship to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as Vanger is giving Blomkvist to Harriet’s story. This positioning is managed through the exchange of what might be called authorial currency: information. Because of that parallel, Blomkvist’s education in the world of story-warfare is the reader’s education, his discoveries are the reader’s discoveries, and his eventual triumph is the reader’s triumph as well.

It is that triumph that ultimately defines Blomkvist’s role in the story wars of Larsson’s book. He is at the core an author, not because he started as one, but because he failed and learned and seized control of both the Vanger story and the Wennerström story. His hyper-speed writing and manipulation of the Wennerström story is evident enough: Blomkvist and Berger give the mole Dahlman a false story of Millennium‘s impending collapse, and after the release of the special issue Blomkvist plays the media circuits with a finesse he could never have displayed at the beginning of his journey. If information were money, which it is to an author, then Blomkvist has learned to counterfeit and gamble better than Wennerström. Mikael Blomkvist’s seizure of Vanger’s story, on the other hand, was messier: he suffered a nearly-fatal blow when Henrik’s lawyer Dirch Frode reveals that the payment story that Henrik offered him is “worthless;”6Ibid., 562. counterfeit currency. Oddly, and somewhat troublingly in the warlike climate of Larsson’s book, the story is eventually given to him as a gift of friendship by Harriet Vanger herself. That particular loose end will be discussed later in this paper, but let it suffice here to say that Blomkvist learned enough and gained enough authority to become the writer and owner of both stories.

If Kalle Blomkvist is the most prominent author figure in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is easily the most interesting. She alone is completely original in her manipulation of her world and her story; she allows no other entity to retain control over it, and though she manipulates others’ stories with ease, it is her own story that is her main interest. Because of her photographic memory, her “delinquent child’s take on morals and ethics,”7Ibid., 420. and her status as “an information junkie,”8Ibid. Salander is rich, and affluence always lends power. That is, she holds the key to authorial power because she has unlimited access to information. The tidiest example of her ability to put a stop to outside manipulation of her story, and turn it to an advantage over another’s story is the case of her relationship with Advokat Nils Bjurman. Their struggle for the power in the relationship is directly related to who has the most authority, or as Bjurman points out, “It would be your word against mine. Whose word do you think would carry more weight?”9Ibid., 244. So, fittingly, it is with words that Salander strikes back; words backed up by the authority of the information saved on the disc of Bjurman raping her. And in the most physical representation of this war of words in the book, Salander tattoos Bjurman’s offense across his belly: “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST.”10Ibid., 288. With these words Salander recovers control over her own life story and puts her signature of control over Bjurman’s story on his body. She has quite literally written the story on his flesh herself. To return somewhat savagely to the earlier metaphor, she has definitely answered the question of who painted the lion—by forcing her “painting” to become a permanent part of him.

Erika Berger, the second person who could reasonably be called Blomkvist’s ally in a narrative-producing sense, functions mainly as Mikael’s sidekick. Her importance lies in her role as an aid to Blomkvist’s journey more than anything. As such, it is difficult to identify any particularly important control-taking moments that can be attributed solely to her. There is, however, one instance in which her part as Robin to Blomkvist’s Batman is reversed. The moment when she takes control of bringing Millennium into an alliance with the Vanger Corporation Erika Blomkvist’s turn in the metaphorical author’s spotlight. It begins with the stripping of Blomkvist’s authority—both in the literary (“author”) and business meaning of the word—when “signals passed between them [Berger and Vanger] that Blomkvist could not interpret.”11Ibid., 224. The sense of Blomkvist’s authorial impotence and Berger’s rising power becomes explicit with “the whole conversation was a discussion between Berger, on one side, and Henrik and Martin Vanger on the other. No-one asked Blomkvist what he thought,”12Ibid., 229. and when Berger connects his surrender of editorial power at Millennium with deserving “to be treated like an idiot.”13Ibid., 230. The business world, however, is really the only sector in which Berger ever assumes the author’s role. And even then she is still helping Blomkvist to win a battle in the larger Blomkvist-Wennerström war.

Of the characters who might be considered the “good guys” of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the two remaining author-like figures are Henrik and Harriet Vanger. Both present problems to the enemy-ally dichotomy in the production and ownership of stories: Henrik is a capable writer (as discussed above), but chooses to be an acquirer of writers and stories instead. And Harriet, also mentioned above, seems to play no Machiavellian power games with her story. She simply entrusts it to Blomkvist, and then to Berger. As a seemingly savvy player in the business world and in story world (she did, after all, manage to quickly alter the perceptions of her own “murder” story so that she could escape Hedeby), it is downright confusing that she should thus relinquish authorial control. My only explanation for the strange behavior of these apparently benign Vangers, though perhaps hard to support textually, is that they are simply tired of the game. Henrik is retired, and only brought from his retirement to make one last attempt at Harriet’s story, and Harriet has had years of purely her own fiction to live through. Ever since she left Hedeby, she has lived entirely in a world of her own determination: an existence, rather than just a nom de plume.

As far as false lives go, the word of the day is fiction with Hans-Erik Wennerström and Martin Vanger. In other words; enter, the villains. As Blomkvist deals in two narrative power struggles, there are naturally two main antagonists to match. The first of these, if for no other reason than that he appears chronologically first, is Hans-Erik Wennerström. Wennerström’s path through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the inverse of Blomkvist’s. He begins by manipulating stories in the newspapers and in the hands of Blomkvist, and ends by being thoroughly undone by Blomkvist’s printed matter. The balance of power tips when Salander hands off the kind of authorial currency that she, his ally, specializes in: information.  When Salander breaks into Wennerström’s computer, she has effectively stolen his story—she is him more than he is when she assumes control of his computer, seeing what he sees and more. Blomkvist and Berger then destroy the fiction he created for himself through their well-publicized scrutiny of the information that Salander gathered. Finally, by stealing Wennerström’s money from the Cayman Islands account, Salander has effectively stolen his ability to manipulate the world around him. His story is therefore written for him by Blomkvist and Salander in the same way he attempted to write the story of the failed journalist Mikael Blomkvist earlier, except their story is not a building of fiction. It is based in reality—a reality, which due to a change in authorship quickly spins out of Wennerström’s control.

Martin Vanger follows much the same pattern as Wennerström: here is a man accustomed to creating a public fiction for himself while maintaining a hobby that is, essentially, the manipulation and theft of women’s life stories. As he says, “the excitement comes from planning a kidnapping. They’re not done on impulse . . . I have to identify with my prey, map out her life, who is she, where does she come from . . .”14Ibid., 489. The questions that Martin asks himself as he plans the kidnapping of women are strikingly similar to the method of an author plotting a story line: identify a plot, fill it with a character, give that character a background. His interest in women as sexual objects is actually eclipsed by his interest in narrative control over them. Martin Vanger is a rogue author, attempting to seize control of the stories of real people while keeping his public CEO persona (a fiction in its own right) intact. And just as in Wennerström’s case, Martin’s undoing is that he pitted himself against a team with more information currency, more authority, than him. Salander and Berger, the endless information bank and the pen with which to record it, are a wrecking ball to fiction facades. And in Martin’s case, the breaking of that illusion of authorial control (over others and himself) actually leads to his physical body being wrecked as well.15Ibid., 501.

One interesting general pattern that emerges is that surprisingly often an authorial power struggle is mirrored by a similar struggle for sexual control. Bjurman and Salander struggle both sexually and in a literary sense, Blomkvist has sexual encounters with most of his interlocutors (allies and enemies), and Harriet has fought the sexual and authorial control over her life exerted by both her brother and father. The connection may seem arbitrary at first, but after more consideration, what more obvious metaphor for the ultimate power over another’s story is there than control over their body itself? Chaucer noted the similarity between literary production and sexual activity in several of his Tales, and Stieg Larsson is no different except that he deliberately reverses the scenario with the Salander-Bjurman storyline. Usually, the conquered sexual body, identified as female in the statistics which accompany the beginning of each part of the book, acts as parchment to the dominant sexual body’s pen (Freud is not the only one who would imagine phallic imagery there). With Salander and Bjurman, connection is viciously (and satisfyingly) turned on its head because Salander takes up another writing instrument, a tattoo needle, in order to take both sexual and authorial control over the way the Bjurman episode ends. It might be said, then, that all authorial power struggles—and particularly those relationships, which portray a definite dominant-passive dichotomy—are sexual by the natures of both authorship and sex.

The fight to control the portrayal of a story, which this paper has discussed in terms of authority and authorial power, is one and the same as the fight to create one’s own fiction—one’s own utopia. Just as the painter in the fable of the lion controls the picture that others see, so each would-be “writer” in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo attempts to create for themselves and for others a picture that paints them in a good light. Our heroes succeed in writing the story of what happened in Hedeby in 1966, and what would happen in present day Stockholm and Hedeby; Martin Vanger and Wennerström do not, and it cost them their lives. It is therefore not insignificant that the proverb goes “History is written by the victors:” so is the present and future. He who writes last, writes best. Because, as the fable implies, the final perception is ultimately more real than the endless flood of information, significant or not, which constitutes the unabridged story of real life.



Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” In The Canterbury Tales Complete, edited by Larry D. Benson, 87-98. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000.

Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

References   [ + ]

1. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” in The Canterbury Tales Complete, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000), I.692.
2. “Who painted the lion, tell me, who?” Translated from Middle English by the author.
3. Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 103.
4. Ibid., 128.
5. Ibid., 74.
6. Ibid., 562.
7. Ibid., 420.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid., 244.
10. Ibid., 288.
11. Ibid., 224.
12. Ibid., 229.
13. Ibid., 230.
14. Ibid., 489.
15. Ibid., 501.