Norwegian Literature

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I INTRODUCTION  Norwegian Literature, literature of the Norwegian people, dating from about AD 800 to the present. This literature may be grouped into three periods. In the first period (c. 800-c. 1400), Norway largely shared its literature with Iceland; in the second (c. 1400-1814), it generally shared its literature with Denmark; in the third (1814 to the present), Norway developed an independent literature.


(c. 800-c. 1400). The Old Norse (early Norwegian and Icelandic) literature is essentially a product of the Viking age. The deeds, beliefs, history, and lore of the Norwegian Vikings who settled Iceland at the end of the 9th century found expression in poems, tales, and legends. These were transmitted orally but not written down until the 13th century, chiefly in Icelandic manuscripts. See Icelandic Literature.

The oldest literature extant is the group of poems called the Poetic Edda. These famous poems tell the tales of Norse and Germanic gods and human heroes. Another type of poetry more complex and metaphorical, known as the skaldic poetry, was composed to be performed by skalds (bards or court poets). The earliest known skald was a Norwegian, Bragi Boddason, who lived in the first half of the 9th century. When skaldic poetry ceased in Norway, it continued in Iceland. A somewhat later development of Old Norse literature is the saga, a prose epic or narrative. The sagas were told by the Icelanders but were not concerned solely with Icelandic events. For example, the renowned Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson is a 13th-century history of Norwegian kings. In general, the sagas are built on and carry forward Norwegian traditions.

In the 13th century the religious and courtly literature of continental Europe reached Norway through translations and adaptations of homilies, legends of saints, and tales of such heroes as Arthur, Charlemagne, and Theodoric. Of prime importance as a Norwegian literary creation was “The King's Mirror”, a didactic treatise in verse on manners and morals. Ballads also entered the literary tradition in the 13th century; they had flourished in Norway centuries before they were put into writing.

III NORWEGIAN-DANISH PERIOD  (c. 1400-1814). At the end of the 13th century, Norway entered into a union with Denmark that lasted more than 400 years. The flowering of Old Norse literature had come to an end, and for two centuries little literary writing was done in Norway. After the Reformation literary activity slowly resumed, with a simultaneous growth of Danish influence. Books printed in Copenhagen made their way to Norway, which had no printing press until 1643. When Danish became the official language in Norway, it was adopted by Norwegian writers. The influence of humanism was discernible in the writings of Absalon Pederssøn Beyer and Peder Claussøn Friis in the 16th century. Friis's translation of Snorri's Heimskringla stirred patriotic feelings. In the 17th century, the clergyman Petter Dass wrote “The Trumpet of Nordland”, a long topographical poem describing northern Norway.

During the 18th century Norway contributed significantly to the common literature of the twin kingdoms. The leading writer was Ludvig Holberg, who was born in Norway and retained many of his Norwegian characteristics, although he wrote all his major works in Denmark. Having travelled widely in Europe, he brought to the Nordic countries impulses from French rationalism and English deism. Holberg wrote important historical works, satirical poems, and moralistic essays, but he became most famous for his comedies, classical plays that are still performed in both Norway and Denmark. Among Holberg's successors, Johan Herman Wessel, known for his tragicomedy Kiaerlighed uden strømper (Love Without Stockings, 1772), was the most outstanding. Other writers of the period were the poets Christian Braunman Tullin and Johan Nordahl Brun and the critical essayist Claus Fasting.

(1814 to the present). As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Norway became separated from Denmark and united with Sweden, with qualified independence. Although Norway did not break its cultural ties with Denmark completely, a strong movement for the creation of a national Norwegian literature arose. It was encouraged by the Romantic Movement, then dominant in Europe, and led by the poet and dramatist Henrik Arnold Wergeland. As an editor and educator who fought the Danish tradition, he is considered the founder of Norwegian literary culture. His ideological opponent, the poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven, became a spokesman for the continuation of Danish culture.

Nationalism and Romanticism led to the discovery of the oral popular literature, exemplified in the collection of folktales gathered by the poets Peter Christian Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. The linguist Ivar Aasen began the study of Norwegian dialects, and the poet and journalist Aasmund Olafsson Vinje proved that country speech was well suited for poetry. The glories of early Norwegian history were extolled by the historian Peter Andreas Munch. The novelist Camilla Collett, on the other hand, foreshadowed literary realism in Amtmandens døttre (The Governor's Daughters, 1854-1855).

A new generation of writers, headed by the great dramatist Henrik Ibsen and the writer, theatre director, and political leader Björnstjerne Björnson, reflected nationalism and Romanticism in their early works but later turned to realism and social criticism. Ibsen probed human aspirations and limitations in historical, poetical, realistic, and symbolic plays, gaining world fame with such masterpieces as Brand (1866), Peer Gynt (1867), A Doll's House (1879), and The Master Builder (1892). Björnson, a public-spirited reformer and a writer of boundless vitality, attacked complacency and injustice in stories, novels, plays, and poems.

Other outstanding representatives of Norwegian realism were Jonas Lie, a novelist whose style ultimately took an impressionistic turn, and Alexander Kielland, whose novels and short stories display debonair wit. Naturalistic pessimism characterizes the novels of Amalie Skram, and a profound concern for rural life and tradition was voiced in the novels and poems of Arne Garborg.

In the 1890s a neo-Romantic movement began. Lyric poetry came to the forefront, exemplified in the works of Nils Collett Vogt, Vilhelm Krag, and, especially, Sigbjørn Obstfelder. Artistic individualism and satire are predominant in the plays of Gunnar Heiberg. In short stories and novels Hans Kinck stressed the interplay of the individual, race, nature, and society. The outstanding writer of the period was Knut Hamsun, an individualist of exceptional sensibility, whose solitary, capricious heroes have an affinity with nature and the irrational.

The peaceful dissolution of the union of Norway with Sweden in 1905 inaugurated a period of rapid progress. Important new writers emerged, most of them following a resurgent realism marked by a concern with social problems. Olav Duun reached his zenith with Juvikfolke (The People of Juvik, 1918-1923), a series of novels of rural life. Johan Bojer wrote novels on the new industrial morality. Johan Falkberget depicted mining life and was praised for his epic work Christianus Sextus. The most significant recognition, however, came to Sigrid Undset, whose trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922; trans. 1923-1927), for which she received (1928) the Nobel Prize, made medieval Norway come alive through characters drawn with modern psychological insight. Among outstanding poets of the period are Herman Wildenvey, Olaf Bull, Olav Aukrust, and Olav Nygard.

The new generation of writers active between the two world wars was much affected by ideological conflicts and international tensions. The tone was set by the poet Arnulf Øverland; the novelist Sigurd Hoel in his satirical, realistic novels such as Meeting at the Milestone (1947; trans. 1952); and the dramatist Helge Krog. The internationally known writer Tarjei Vesaas wrote short stories, drama, and novels with a strong psychological undercurrent, such as the novel The Bridges (1966; trans. 1970). His poetry, breaking with traditional forms, shows a lyric sensitivity to nature. The Danish-born Aksel Sandemose was celebrated for his searching psychological novels. Nordahl Grieg, a novelist, dramatist, and poet, reflected the fluctuating moods of the inter-war period. Like Øverland he wrote poems against the German occupation during World War II.

After the war ended, its origins and meaning, and especially the theme of the psychology of traitors, were vigorously explored in many novels, by such writers as Odd Bang-Hansen and Kåre Holt. Such themes gradually evolved into general social criticism—as in the naturalistic work of the novelist and poet Jens Ingvald Bjørneboe. Other post-war fiction turned towards existential concerns. A probing examination of personal identity unifies the diverse work of Johan Borgen. The suspenseful psychological novels of Åge Rønning raise metaphysical questions of good and evil. Other prominent novelists include Finn Carling, Axel Jensen, and Sigbjørn Marius Hølmebakk. Post-War Norwegian poetry has tended to reflect the experimental trends of international modernism. Leading poets of the period include, besides Vesaas, Paal Brekke, Peter R. Holm, Stein Mehren, and Jan Erik Vold.1


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