Norwegian literature is literature composed in Norway or by Norwegian people. The history of Norwegian literature starts with the pagan Eddaic poems and skaldic verse of the 9th and 10th centuries with poets such as Bragi Boddason and Eyvindr Skáldaspillir. The arrival of Christianity around the year 1000 brought Norway into contact with European medieval learning, hagiography and history writing. Merged with native oral tradition and Icelandic influence this was to flower into an active period of literature production in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Major works of that period include Historia Norwegie, Thidreks saga and Konungs skuggsjá.
The period from the 14th century up to the 19th is considered a dark age in the nation's literature though Norwegian-born writers such as Peder Claussøn Friis and Ludvig Holberg contributed to the common literature of Denmark-Norway. With the advent of nationalism and the struggle for independence in the early 19th century a new period of national literature emerged. The dramatist Henrik Wergeland was the most influential author of the period while the later works of Henrik Ibsen were to earn Norway a place in Western European literature. In the 20th century notable Norwegian writers include the two Nobel Prize winning authors Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset.
The earliest preserved examples of Old Norse literature are the Eddic poems
, the oldest of which may have been composed in early 9th century Norway drawing on the common Germanic tradition of alliterative verse
. In the 9th century the first instances of skaldic poetry
also appear with the skalds Bragi Boddason
, Þjóðólfr of Hvinir
and the court poets of Harald Fairhair
. This tradition continued through the 10th century with the major Norwegian poet being Eyvindr skáldaspillir
. By the late 10th century the tradition of skaldic verse had increasingly moved to Iceland and Norwegian rulers such as Eiríkr Hákonarson
and St. Olaf
employed mostly Icelandic poets.
In pagan times the runic alphabet
was the only one used in Norway. The preserved inscriptions from that time are mostly short memorial dedications or magical formulas. One of the longest inscriptions is that on the 8th century Eggjum stone
, containing cryptic religious or magical allusions. Around the years 1000 to 1030, Christianity became established in Norway, bringing with it the Latin alphabet
. The oldest preserved Norwegian prose works are from the mid-12th century, the earliest are Latin hagiographical and historical texts such as Passio Olavi
, Acta sanctorum in Selio
, Historia Norwegie
and Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium
. At the end of the 12th century historical writing expanded to the vernacular with Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum
followed by the Legendary Saga of St. Olaf
Medieval Norwegian literature is closely tied with medieval Icelandic literature and considered together as Old Norse literature. The greatest Norse author of the 13th century was the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. He recorded Norse mythology in the form of the Prose 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 detailed history of the Norwegian kings that begins in the legendary Ynglinga saga and continues to document much of early Norwegian history.
The period of common Old Norse literature continued up through the 13th century with Norwegian contributions such as Thidreks saga and Konungs skuggsjá but by the 14th century saga writing was no longer cultivated in Norway and Icelandic literature became increasingly isolated.
"Four Hundred Years of Darkness"
Norwegian literature was virtually nonexistent during 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.
The reformation was imposed on Norway in 1537 and the Dano-Norwegian rulers used it to also impose Danish culture; this was effected through the pulpit as well as through written records, as pastors were trained in Copenhagen. Thus, written Norwegian became closely related to Danish, causing the literature to become essentially Danish. Geble Pedersson (c.1490—1557) was the first Lutheran Bishop of Bergen and a man of broad humanistic views; his adopted son, Absalon Pederssøn Beyer (1528—1575), followed in his footsteps as a humanist and a nationalist, writing an important historical work, Concerning the Kingdom of Norway (1567). Peder Claussøn Friis (1545—1615) was also a humanist who both revived the Heimskringla by translating it into the language of the period and wrote the first natural history of Norway as well as an important topographic study of Norway.
The seventeenth century was a period of meager literary activity in Norway, but there were significant contributions. Petter Dass (1647—1707) wrote Nordlands Trompet (The Trumpet of Nordland) which described in graphic verse the landscape, mode of life, conditions and character of the northern Norwegian people. Two other authors merit mention. Dorothe Engelbretsdotter (1634—1713), was Norways first recognized woman author who wrote powerful religious poetry. Her first work, Siælens Sang-offer, was published 1678. Taare-Offer was her second collected works and was published for the first time in 1685. Another gifted poet was Anders Arrebo who translated the Psalms into Norwegian and composed the creation poem, Hexaemeron.
Norway also contributed significantly to the joint literature of Denmark-Norway. One of the very first names in Danish literature, Peder Claussøn Friis (1545—1614), was Norwegian born. Other important Norwegian by birth ‘Danish’ authors of the period included Ludvig Holberg (Bergen, 1684—1754), Christian Tullin (Christiania, 1728—1785), and Johan Herman 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 Jørgen 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. 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 of nationalistic romanticism, the great four
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 Peer Gynt) and the sea (e.g., Lie’s The Visionary).
Transition to Realism
Although a strong 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 A Doll's House
. In this, he built on a theme first evident in Norway with plays like Bjørnson's A Bankruptcy.
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. Three authors are recognized in this genre; Ole Rølvaag
wrote about immigrants, while Johan Bojer
and Ingeborg Refling Hagen
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. Ingeborg Refling Hagen, having two brothers and a sister in the United States
contemplated the emigrant's longing for home and their harsh struggle "over there" in a known collection of emigrant poems from 1935
The Twentieth Century
After the death of the great four and Amalie Skram
, a new period of Norwegian literature took place. The year 1905, when Norway was free from the union with Sweden, marks a new period in the history of Norwegian literature. In the twentieth century three Norwegian novelists won the Nobel prize
in literature. The first was Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
, whose prize reflected work of the previous century. The second was awarded to Knut Hamsun
for the idealistic novel Markens Grøde
(Growth of the Soil
, 1917) in 1920 and the third Sigrid Undset
for the trilogy of Kristin Lavransdatter and the two books of Olav Audunssøn, in 1927.
Knut Hamsun was especially criticized because of his sympathy for Nasjonal Samling, a Norwegian Nazi-party, during the Second World War.
Other important Norwegian writers are Jens Bjørneboe, Agnar Mykle, Olav Duun, Cora Sandel, Kjartan Fløgstad, Arne Garborg, Aksel Sandemose, Tarjei Vesaas, Lars Saabye Christensen, Kjell Askildsen, Johan Borgen, Dag Solstad, Herbjørg Wassmo, Jon Fosse, Hans Herbjørnsrud, Jan Erik Vold, Roy Jacobsen, Bergljot Hobæk Haff, Hans E. Kinck, Olav H. Hauge, Rolf Jacobsen, Gunvor Hofmo, Arnulf Øverland, Sigbjørn Obstfelder, Olaf Bull, Aasmund Olavsson Vinje, Tor Ulven, Torborg Nedreaas, Stein Mehren, Jan Kjærstad, Georg Johannesen, Kristofer Uppdal, Aslaug Vaa, Halldis Moren Vesaas, Sigurd Hoel, Johan Falkberget and Axel Jensen.
- Blankner, Frederika (1938). A History of the Scandinavian Literatures. Dial Press Inc., New York.
- Clough, Ethlyn T. (editor) (1909). Norwegian Life. Bay View Reading Club.
- Gjerset, Knut (1915). The History of the Norwegian People. MacMillan.
- Griffiths, Tony (2004). Scandinavia; at War with Trolls. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 1403967768
- Grøndahl, Carl Henrik and Nina Tjomsland (editors) (1978). The Literary Masters of Norway, with Samples of Their Works. Tanum-Norli, Oslo.
- Larson, Karen (1948). A History of Norway. Princeton University Press.
- Naess, Harald S. (1993). A History of Norwegian Literature. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-3317-5