The motto "Art and War," under imposing statues of Minerva and Mars, has graced a cartouche over the entrance to Stockholm's Riddarhuset — the House of Nobles — since 1647. Those words struck a powerful chord while doing research for my novel, The Stockholm Octavo. Providing a factual core for the story was Gustav III, arguably Sweden's most fascinating and controversial king. Aristocratic conspirators from the Riddarhuset assassinated Gustav in 1792 at a masked ball, a perfect example of the struggle for progress and power that "Ars et Mars" represented.
My fictional characters inserted themselves into and beside Gustav's late 18th century drama with plots and counterplots of their own that took on the theme as well. The two female adversaries, Mrs. Sparrow (fortune-teller and card-sharking Royalist) and The Uzanne (ruthless Patriot aristocrat) became art and war amplified to a fictional frenzy, and I returned to the idea many times as characters made choices for one over the other. "Ars et Mars" was a phrase deserving of a title page! (Page three in the galley, to be exact.) Maybe buttons and T-shirts for the launch! Thank you, Riddarhuset, for presenting me with this fabulous fact I could use to build my fictional world! And so, on a recent visit to Stockholm, I went to pay homage.
Digital camera in hand, I clicked my way through the town, stopping to take numerous shots of the magnificent Riddarhuset edifice: front entrance, back entrance, long shot, details, low angles, close-ups. It was not even during this extensive photographic love fest, but later that night reviewing the images, that I realized the Riddarhuset motto (carved in stone) read "Arte et Marte," not "Ars et Mars." The translation — Art and War — was the same, but this error triggered a twisting stomachache. The Stockholm Octavo had gone to print.
I do not remember if I cried immediately, but I did lie down and try to understand what I had done. It was as though my brain had chemically altered the inscription on the initial uptake and storage, aligning it with more familiar phrases (Ars longa, vita brevis!) or with a childhood spent reading mythology (Mars = God of War; Marte = ? Girl from Denmark?). Perhaps the change was defensible. A novel is not a textbook or a tourist guide, and fiction grounded in history ranges from Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies to Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I do not believe that historical fiction can ever be 100 percent accurate; when a writer gives a historical character a thought, inserts dialogue, adds motives and details like weather or how someone liked the pudding, imagination takes over. On the other hand, I wanted a solid, believable foundation for The Stockholm Octavo, upon which the story (however playful) could be built. Without that foundation, the ability of the reader to suspend disbelief and inhabit my fictional world would be lost. "Ars et Mars" was the banana peel at the entrance to the book.
Survival instincts kicked in shortly after that initial defense was shot. Maybe no one would notice. (Ha. It's on the title page of Part I in large type.) Or perhaps I could spin some cock-and-bull story about translating the archaic Latin to a more accessible "modern" form (Catholic Mass pre-Vatican II…). Then Photoshop came to mind; I would feature a "corrected" image on my website for the vast majority of readers who were not visiting Stockholm anytime soon.I went to sleep in a feverish state of duplicitous scheming. The next morning there was a large red blemish on the center of my nose. The body does not lie, and she said: you are busted.
I prepared for an onslaught of mockery and derision, and noted the barely disguised looks of horror (followed by murmured condolences) that met my confession. While composing my letters of apology (first to the entire nation of Sweden), the narrator of The Stockholm Octavo came to mind. Emil Larsson begins the novel with a commentary on how history is woven from memory, which is faulty and fragile and fluid. Even in the age of instant information download and documenting absolutely everything to death, this can be the case. We get things wrong. Like Emil, I used the memories I had gathered to create my version of the truth. Like Emil's, that version was flawed. It took several weeks, but I attained a calm that sometimes overtakes the doomed. I had used the Riddarhuset motto to create Arte and would stand by my book, errors and all. Mea culpa, Minerva et Mars. Go ahead and shoot.
Enter Mercury, the messenger of the gods, in the form of a breezy email from my editor's assistant: "Also — good news: we're able to make all the text changes we've discussed for the first printing! We just found out that we had enough time to quickly pull the relevant pages back from the printer…" There is no statue of Mercury at Riddarhuset, but he deserves one now as far as I'm concerned — right next to Fortuna. I was lucky; the gods were forgiving and taught me a valuable lesson about inspiration and rigor. The truth behind Art and War is something the House of Nobles has known for centuries. As wise Minerva might put it: Arte et Marte isn't a choice. My dear, you're going to need both.
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Karen Engelmann lived and worked in Sweden for eight years. She has an MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. She currently lives in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Karen Engelmann is the author of The Stockholm Octavo