The New International Encyclopædia/Norwegian Literature

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The New International Encyclopædia
Norwegian Literature
Edition of 1905. Written by William Henry CarpenterSee also Norwegian literature on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

NORWEGIAN LITERATURE. Norwegian literature is commonly considered to have begun with the separation of Norway from Denmark and the adoption of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814. The history of literature in Norway, however, reaches back a thousand years before this time to Bragi (c.800), the first skald who is historically known to have composed poetry in the Old Norse language. His principal poem is the Ragnarsdrapa, which owes its preservation, in common with much of the skaldic petry of old Norway, to the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, who incorporated it in his Snorra Edda.

There are a number of other poets in this and the succeeding period in Norway. After Bragi, the next in importance is Thjodolf of Hvin (c.855-930), whose principal poem is the Haustlöng, also contained in the Snorra Edda. Besides this poetry by known authors, most of the anonymous poems of the Elder Edda, composed, it is thought, between 877 and 1025, are doubtless ultimately of Norwegian origin. To the Old Norse prose literature of the thirteenth century Norway also made important contributions. At the head of these works stands the Thidrekssaga, the story of Dietrich of Bern, written about 1250 by an unknown author, and extremely valuable as a storehouse of Germanic legend. The Karlamagnussaga, the story of Charlemagne, from this same century, and the narrative of Barlaam A and Josaphat, Barlaamssaga ok Josaphats, are also by Norwegian authors. There are in addition to these several old law codes of value as historical material, and the unique dialogue between father and son, the Konungsskuggsja, or Speculum regale, written in the reign of Sverre (1184-1202), and possibly by the King himself.

After the accession of Olaf, the son of Margaret, in 1380, Norwegian history for four centuries becomes Danish history. Under Danish rule Norway underwent complete national extinction and became but a province of Denmark. Even the Reformation failed to arouse her from this lethargy, and not until 1814, when Norway was ceded to Sweden by the Peace of Kiel, was there evidence of a national awakening. The literary history of this whole period in Norway coincides with the history of Danish literature, with which it is inseparably connected.

After the Eufemiarisur of about 1300, so called from the German queen of Haakon Magnusson, who had these paraphrases of German originals — Iwein, Duke Frederick of Normandy, and Flore and Blancheflur — made in the Norwegian language, there is no poetry until the period of learning subsequent to the Reformation. The first names at this time are Peder Dass (1647-1708), and Dorthe Engelbrechtsdatter (1635-1716). The former, a Norwegian clergyman, wrote secular and religious poems which have made him to this day the favorite poet of the common people of Norway. The names that follow are those of Norwegians, but, as has been indicated, their place is in Danish and not in Norwegian literature. This is true of Ludvig Holberg (1084-1754), the father of the Danish drama; of Kristian Biaumann Tullin (1728-1765), the poet of nature; of Johan Herman Wessel (1742-1785), the dramatist and poet, after Ewald, the second great name in the literature of the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment.’

An important factor in the development of a national Norwegian literature, as it was a matter of the greatest significance for Danish literature itself, was the formation of the Norske Selskab, or ‘Norwegian Society,’ in Copenhagen, in 1772. The intentions of the ‘Society’ were by no means to make propaganda for things Norwegian, as opposed to things Danish, but it is interesting to note that among its members are a number of poets who already exhibited a distinctly national feeling, which in choice of material and natural environment, and in inherent spirit, is not Danish, but Norwegian. The Norwegian poets of the period — Johan Nordal Brun (1745-1816), who wrote Zarina, the first Danish tragedy produced on the stage, and some of the most popular of the patriotic songs of Norway; Claus Fasting (1746-91), distinguished for his epigrams and criticism; Claus Frimann (1746-1829); Envold Falsen (1755-1808) — important as they were, have but little meaning at the present time. Edvard Storm (1749-94), who wrote ballads and songs in Norwegian peasant dialect, some of which are known throughout Norway to this day, was the only Norwegian writer of importance who held to the Danish side of this controversy, which so strikingly marks the last days of what may be called the Danish period in the literary history of Norway.

The actual history of Norwegian literature as a product in Norway of purely national conditions finds its beginning at the time of the separation of the Kingdom, in 1814, from Denmark. The ‘Norwegian Society’ presently changed the scene of its activity from Copenhagen to Christiania, but, although its traditions subsequently influenced popular taste, it never afterwards played an active part in literature. The first poetry which arose under these new conditions in Norway was vehemently patriotic, and is called by the Norwegians themselves, from the day of the adoption of the Norwegian Constitution, Syttendemai-Poesi, the ‘poetry of the 17th of May.’ From among the numerous writers of the time three only, the so-called ‘Trefoil,’ may be mentioned as of especial significance, the lyric poet C. N. Schwach (1793-1860), the poet and dramatist H. A. Bjerregaard (1792-1842), and the novelist Mauritz Christoffer Hansen (1794-1842), whose best work is contained in his stories of peasant life. The first great poet of modern Norway, Henrik Wergeland (1808-45), became, as no other writer in Norway before him, the poet of the people. His first great success was achieved with a volume of lyrics, published in 1829. In 1830 appeared the long dramatic poem Skabelsen, Mennesket og Messias, “The Creation, Man, and Messiah,” which drew out, in 1832, a pamphlet on “Henrik Wergeland's Poetic Art and Poetry,” by Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807-73), mercilessly attacking him for his sins of poetical commission. The controversy between the two poets, at first personal, subsequently assumed a wider character and presently divided the whole country into a national and a critical faction, the one the embodiment of the pro-Norwegian spirit of the 17th of May, the other the party of ‘intelligence,’ which looked to perpetuate what were in reality the hereditary tendencies of the ‘Norwegian Society,’ and to develop Norwegian culture harmoniously with that of Europe and especially that of Denmark. The contest was waged even more violently after the publication, in 1834, of Welhaven's polemical poem, a cycle of sonnets called Norges Dæmring, “Norway's Twilight,” in which he vigorously censured the mistaken zeal of the ultra-national faction which Wergeland represented. The battle was ultimately to Welhaven and his followers, who had, in point of fact, revolutionized the æsthetic taste of Norway, and by the introduction of a sound criticism had determined the direction of its future literary development. Welhaven, between 1830 and 1850. published numerous lyrical poems. His critical prose is among the finest that Norway has ever produced. Wergeland's best work was done after the downfall of his fortunes and his popularity. His last poem, Den engelske Lods, “The English Pilot,” is his greatest. Andreas Munch (1811-84), poet and dramatist, followed the direction pointed out by Welhaven. His first work of importance was the romance Den Eensomme, “The Solitary,” published in 1846. His Billeder fra Nord og Syd, “Pictures from North and South,” is considered one of the best prose works in the language.

Important for its bearing upon the development of a national literature in Norway was the attention that was presently paid to the wealth of native material contained in the old folk-tales and popular poetry, which has been preserved among the peasantry in great abundance, and under the peculiar conditions of the country has retained an essentially national character in manner and matter. The principal workers in this field at the beginning were the naturalist Peter Christian Asbjörnsen (1812-85) and Jörgen Moe (1813-82), who published conjointly, in 1841, Norske Folke-Evenlyr, “Norwegian Popular Tales.” Asbjörnsen published subsequently Norske Huldre-Eventyr og Folkesagen, which contains descriptions of his own of natural scenery and popular life. The recognition of this material pointed out a new direction in Norwegian literature and has had a profound effect upon latter-day writers.

The present period of Norwegian literature, and the period of its broadest development, begins with Björnson and Ibsen, the greatest writers that Norway has produced. With them literature enters upon a new era of productivity at home, and, what had not been the case before, of influence abroad; for the work of these two poets, even at an early time in their career, had carried the name and fame of Norwegian literature far beyond the confines of Norway and of Scandinavia, until now, and principally through them, it has become in the widest sense a living and forceful part of the literature of the world. (For details see Björnson; Ibsen.) Jonas Lie (b.l833), who plainly shows the influence of Björnson, has written sea-stories that have attained great popularity. His first novel, Den Fremsynte, “The Visionary,” appeared in 1870. His most successfxil and widely known novel is Lodsen og hans Ilustru, “The Pilot and His Wife.” He attains, however, a higher artistic result in his later novels of modern social life, Livssalen, “The Life Convict;” Familien paa Gilje, “The Family at Gilje;” En Malström, “A Maelstrom;” and others that have been written since 1883. Anna Magdalena Thoresen (1819-1903) also shows the influence of Björnson in her tales of nature and popular life. Her Billeder fra Midnnatsslens Land, “Pictures from the Land of the Midnight Sun,” is possibly her best work. The most original of the woman writers of Norway is Camilla Collet (1813-95), the sister of the poet Wergeland, whose most important novel is the realistic Amtmandens Dottre, “The Magistrate's Daughters.” After Ibsen, Björnson. and Lie, the fourth great name in Norwegian literature of the present period is Alexander Kjelland (b.l849). Although his subjects are exclusively Scandinavian, he belongs, more than any of his countrymen, in his literary affinities less to Norway and more to Europe, whose general cultural tendencies he reflects. Kjelland's best work is contained in his short stories, the first volume of which appeared as Novelletter in 1879. His novels, the greatest of which is Skipper Worse, whose theme is the pietistic movement in Norway, are all novels of tendency.

Learned literature in Norway, although it has made important contributions to theology, to the physical sciences, and to philosophy, has found its highest and most characteristic expression in history. The founder of historical writing in Norway was Rudolf Keyser {1803-64), who wrote Norges Histtorie, “History of Norway;” Den norske Kirkes Historie, “History of the Church in Norway;” and other works on the history and antiquities and literature of his native country. His pupil, Peter Andreas Munch (1810-63), wrote, as his most important work, Det norske Folks Historie, “History of the Norwegian People.” In collaboration with Keyser and with Carl Richard Unger (1817-97), he also did philological work of value in editing Old Norse texts. Johan Ernst Sars (b.1835), in his Udsigt over den norske Historie, “Review of Norwegian History,” has produced one of the most notable prose works in the language.

In every field of literary activity modern Norway has unfolded, and is still unfolding, an extraordinary development, and this not only from the point of productivity, but in the quality and character of the work produced. The most distinct tendencies in Norwegian literature of the present period are the pessimistic-naturalistic direction originally pointed out by Ibsen, and the optimistic-realistic direction of Björnson and his followers, but there are writers who belong to neither school. Other writers than those mentioned have made a name outside of Norway, as well as at home. Among them are Aasmund Olafsson Vinje (1818-70), Kristoffer Janson (b.1841), Arne Garborg (b.1851), Amalie Skram (b. 1857), and still more recently, Knut Hamsun, Gabriel Finne, and Vilhelm Krag.

Consult: Horn, History of the Literature of the Scandinavian North, trans. by Anderson (Chicago, 1884); Gosse, Northern Studies (London, n. d.); Schweitzer, Geschichte der skandinavischen Litteratur (Gera, 1896); Jager, Illustreret Norsk Literaturhistorie (Christiania, 1896); Halvorsen, Norsk Forfatterlexikon, 1814-56 (ib., 1881).