Norwegian literature

From Academic Kids

Norwegian Literature


Early Influences

Around 1030, Christianity came to Norway, bringing with it the Latin alphabet, which supplanted the runic alphabet. Norse or Norwegian literature began shortly afterward with Snorri Sturluson, also legitimately claimed as an Icelandic historian, poet and politician. Snorri sailed the summer of 1218 from Iceland to Norway, invited by King Haakon to Norway on his promise to bring Iceland under Norwegian over-lordship. He was proclaimed the King’s representative or lendermand over Iceland, but was not effective in consolidating his power, and became involved in numerous unsuccessful political intrigues. None-the-less, his recognition as the initial great in Norwegian literature is well deserved, based on his recording Norse mythology in the form of the Younger Edda or Prose Edda, and the Elder Edda, a book of poetic language providing an important understanding of Norse culture prior to Christianity. He was also the author of the Heimskringla, a history of the Norse kings that begins, in the legendary Ynglinga saga and continues to document much of early Norwegian history.

This period continued down through the 14th century. A continuation of the Heimskringla, a history of Norway’s kings down to Magnus Law-Mender, was prepared by Sturla Thordson. The Norse Saga literature of the era (a saga is a historical tale) which has not been attributed to any specific author, captured what was previously an oral record.

Four Hundred Years of Darkness

Norwegian literature was virtually nonexistent during in the period of the Scandinavian Union and the subsequent Dano-Norwegian union (1387 - 1814). Ibsen characterized this period as "Four Hundred Years of Darkness." During the period of union with Denmark, Danish replaced Norwegian. The university and cultural center of Denmark-Norway was Copenhagen, where young men went to study. Norway's written language became closely related to Danish. The literature became essentially Danish. One of the very first names in Danish literature, Peder Claussøn (1545-1614), was Norwegian born. Other important ‘Danish’ authors of the period, Norwegian by birth included Ludvig Holberg (Bergen, 1684 - 1754), Christian Tullin (Christinia, 1728 - 1785), and Johan Wessel (1742 - 1785).


Two major events precipitated a major resurgence in Norwegian literature. In 1811 a Norwegian university was established in Christiania (later named Oslo). Seized by the spirit of revolution following the American and French Revolutions, as well as bridling as a result of the forced separation from Denmark and subordination to Sweden subsequent to the Napoleonic wars, Norwegians signed their first constitution in 1814. Virtually immediately the cultural backwater that was Norway brought forth a series of strong authors recognized first in Scandinavia, and then worldwide.

Henrik Wergeland is generally recognized as the father of a new Norwegian literature. The enthusiastic nationalism of Wergeland and his young following brought conflict with the establishment, which was unwilling to accept everything as good, simply because it was Norwegian.

This period also saw collection of Norwegian folk tales by Peter Asbjørnsen and Bishop Jorgen Moe. This collection, which paralleled those by the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark, captured an important overview of the folk culture of the mountains and fjords.

At least as important in the creation of a Norwegian literature was the effort to introduce a pure Norwegian language, based on the dialects spoken in the areas more isolated from capital. The genius of Ivar Aasen (1813-1898), was at the heart of this effort. Ivar Aasen, a self-taught linguistic scholar and philologist, documented a written grammar and dictionary for the spoken Norwegian folk language, which became Nynorsk (New Norwegian) – the “speech of the country” as opposed to the official language largely imported from Denmark. Nynorsk is one of the two official Norwegian languages to this day.

National Romantic Period

By the late 19th century, in a flood or nationalistic romanticism, the four great emerged, Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Alexander Kielland, and Jonas Lie. A unity of purpose pervades the whole period, creation of a national culture based on the almost forgotten and certainly neglected past, as well as celebration of the Bonde Kultur or Norwegian farm culture. The realism of Kielland (e.g., Skipper Worse) gave way to the romantic and nationalistic spirit which swept Europe rekindled and the Norwegian interest in their glorious Viking past (e.g., Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland), the struggles of the middle ages (e.g., Ibsen’s Lady Inger of Østeraad), peasant stories (e.g., Bjørnson’s A Happy Boy) and the wonders of myths and folks tales of the mountains (e.g., Ibsen’s Per Gynt) and the sea (e.g., Lie’s The Visionary).

Transiton to Realism

Although a stong contributor to early Norwegian romanticism, Henrik Ibsen is perhaps best known as an influential Norwegian playwright who was largely responsible for the popularity of modern realistic drama in Europe, with plays like The Wild Duck and The Doll's House. In this, he built on a theme first evident in Norway with plays like Bjørnson's A Bankruptcy.

Emigration Literature

Although a side note to the mainstream of Norwegian literature, the literature which documents the experience of Norwegian emigrants to American is as important as the Norwegian immigrants became to the growing America of the 19th century. Two authors are recognized in this genre; Ole Rølvaag wrote about immigrants, while Johan Bojer wrote about emigrants. Ole E. Rølvaag, who immigrated to America, experienced life in the prairies, and rose to become professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, provided a strong record of the joys and pains of the immigrant in adapting to the harsh realities of and carving out a new life in a wild new country. Norwegian author Johan Bojer provided a mirror image, depicting the struggles and processes which led to the decisions to emigrate.

The Twentieth Century

In the Twentieth Century Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset won Nobel prizes in literature in recognition of their strength. Other important authors of this period include Jens Bjørneboe, Olav Duun, Jon Fosse, Arne Garborg, Aksel Sandemose and Jan Kjærstad.

See also: Norway, Literature, List of Norwegians


The Literary Masters of Norway, with Samples of Their Works; introduced by Carl Henrik Grøndahl and Nina Tjomsland; Tanum-Norli, Oslo 1978

A History of Norway by Karen Larson, Princeton University Press, 1948

The History of the Norwegian People by Knut Gjerset, MacMillan, 1915

Scandinavia; at War with Trolls by Tony Griffiths, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004 ISBN 1-4049-6776-8

Norwegian Life edited by Ethlyn T. Clough, Bay View Reading Club, 1909

de:Liste norwegischsprachiger Schriftsteller eo:Norveglingva Literaturo no:Liste over forfattere


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