Sweden modern, democratic, cutting-edge, yet a monarchy still reigns. Crown Princess Victoria and Daniel Westling’s Royal Wedding celebration in Stockholm this Saturday has unveiled the love-hate affair Swedes have with their royal family.
“People relate to the royal family as a symbol of the Swedish national community, but the paradox is that to be meaningful the royals need to be above the community in some way,” says Mattias Frihammar, who has a doctorate in Ethnology from Stockholm University and recently presented his dissertation on modern royalty in Swedish society.
This contradiction also holds for Crown Princess Victoria’s wedding, he says. “People want to have a royal couple, but they also want to view the royal family as equals. They don’t want to feel oppressed in any way.”
Frihammar recently completed seven years of research to produce his timely doctoral dissertation “From the depth of the Swedish Heart: Reproduction of Contemporary Monarchy in the 21st century.” When he began his research in 2003 he set out to answer a number of questions, among them how royalty gets its extraordinary character, the ways in which royals are different than non-royals and how royalty is reproduced in modern Sweden.
At the heart of his argument is the improbable relationship between Swedish citizens, who value democracy and equality, and the royal family, which is by nature undemocratic and hierarchical.
According to the latest poll, 56 percent of Swedes still support the royal family, down from 68 percent in 2003. Although not known for their patriotism, many Swedes regard the monarchy as a national symbol that honors their Swedish traditions. Others say it’s an archaic and undemocratic institution that has no place in modern Sweden.
“Most recently there has been an eruption of royalism,” says Frihammar. “You don’t always see it, but when you have these types of events, like a wedding, it erupts. But people aren’t hot royalists; they just accept it as a part of their lives.”
Swedes have the reputation of being rational and self-controlled, but not on questions concerning the monarchy, he says. “The royal family and their traditions aren’t rational. In the past you had to accept that they were high beings. Now we know these are just normal people. On the surface people accept them as equals and want to approach them like anyone else, but when they meet the royals they use words like ‘your majesty’. Every day people do things that are irrational even though they think they are rational. In this case, people are doing things that are irrational and they know it.”
Frihammar uses the metaphor of the theatre to describe “the magic” that surrounds royal families. “Actors say playing the king is always the easiest part because it is up to everyone around the king to make him powerful,” he explains. “The king doesn’t have to say anything. That is what’s happening right now in Stockholm. We are making the city a stage – to appear royal – even though we no longer believe in royal blood.”
And so this Saturday, the curtain will open in Stockholm. Thousands of people will jam onto the sidewalks, peering behind police barricades to see that royal blood in the flesh, as they pass by in horse and carriage. The spectators won’t feel oppressed, nor will they care if the entire scene is absurd. Therein lies the magic, at least for half of the Swedish population.
“The institution of the monarchy is obviously not democratic — that’s the point,” says Frihammar. “In a way, the monarchy is like the one magic piece in the rationale jigsaw that makes up people’s lives.”