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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 ninth and tenth 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 twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Major works of that period include Historia Norwegie, Thidreks saga, and Konungs skuggsjá.
The period from the fourteenth century up to the nineteenth 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 nineteenth 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 twentieth 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 ninth 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 tenth century with the major Norwegian poet being Eyvindr skáldaspillir. By the late tenth 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.
Old Norse poetry encompasses a range of verse forms written in Old Norse, during the period from the eighth century (Eggjum stone) to as late as the far end of the thirteenth century. Most of the Old Norse poetry that survives was preserved in Iceland, but there are also 122 preserved poems in Swedish rune inscriptions, 54 in Norwegian and 12 in Danish.
Poetry played an important role in the social and religious world of the Vikings. In Norse mythology, Skáldskaparmál (1) tells the story of how Odin brought the mead of poetry to Asgard, which is an indicator of the significance of poetry within the contemporary Scandinavian culture.
Old Norse poetry is characterized by alliteration, a poetic vocabulary expanded by heiti, and use of kennings. An important source of information about poetic forms in Old Norse is the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson.
Old Norse poetry is conventionally, and somewhat arbitrarily, split into two types; Eddaic poetry (also sometimes known as Eddic poetry) and skaldic poetry. Eddaic poetry includes the poems of the Codex Regius and a few other similar ones. Skaldic poetry is usually defined as everything else not already mentioned.
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 eighth 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-twelfth 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 twelfth century, historical writing expanded to the vernacular with Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum followed by the Legendary Saga of St. Olaf and Fagrskinna.
Medieval Norwegian literature is closely tied with medieval Icelandic literature and considered together as Old Norse literature. The greatest Norse author of the thirteenth 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 thirteenth century, with Norwegian contributions such as Thidreks saga and Konungs skuggsjá, but by the fourteenth century, saga writing was no longer cultivated in Norway and Icelandic literature became increasingly isolated.
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 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, and 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 around the world.
Henrik Wergeland is generally recognized as the father of a modern 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 remains one of the two official Norwegian languages.
By the late nineteenth 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 (for example, Skipper Worse) gave way to the romantic and nationalistic spirit which swept Europe rekindled and the Norwegian interest in their glorious Viking past (for example, Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland), the struggles of the Middle Ages (for example, Ibsen’s Lady Inger of Østeraad), peasant stories (for example, Bjørnson’s A Happy Boy), and the wonders of myths and folks tales of the mountains (Ibsen’s Peer Gynt) and the sea (Lie’s The Visionary).
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. Ibsen is held to be, alongside Knut Hamsun, the greatest of Norwegian authors and one of the most important playwrights of all time, celebrated as a national symbol by Norwegians.
In plays like A Doll's House, a scathing criticism of the blind acceptance of traditional roles of men and women in Victorian marriage, and Ghosts (1881), another scathing commentary on Victorian morality in which a widow is encouraged by her pastor to marry a philandering fiancé, which results in her son's syphilis. Even the mention of venereal disease was scandalous, but to show that even a person who followed society's ideals of morality had no protection against it, that was beyond scandalous. Hers was not the noble life which Victorians believed would result from fulfilling one's duty rather than following one's desires. Those idealized beliefs were only the Ghosts of the past, haunting the present.
In An Enemy of the People (1882), Ibsen went even further. In earlier plays, controversial elements were important and even pivotal components of the action, but they were on the small scale of individual households. In An Enemy, controversy became the primary focus, and the antagonist was the entire community. One primary message of the play is that the individual, who stands alone, is more often "right" than the mass of people, who are portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. The Victorian belief was that the community was a noble institution that could be trusted, a notion Ibsen challenged. An Enemy of the People was written as a response to the people who had rejected his previous work, Ghosts. The plot of the play is a veiled look at the way people reacted to the plot of Ghosts. The protagonist is a doctor, a pillar of the community. The town is a vacation spot whose primary draw is a public bath. The doctor discovers that the water used by the bath is being contaminated when it seeps through the grounds of a local tannery. He expects to be acclaimed for saving the town from the nightmare of infecting visitors with disease, but instead he is declared an "enemy of the people" by the locals, who band against him and even throw stones through his windows. The play ends with his complete ostracism. It is obvious to the reader that disaster is in store for the town as well as for the doctor, due to the community's unwillingness to face reality.
Ibsen completely rewrote the rules of drama with a realism that was to be adopted by Chekhov and others and remains an important part of the theater to this day. From Ibsen forward, challenging assumptions and directly speaking about issues has been considered one of the factors that make a play art rather than mere entertainment. 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 nineteenth 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.
After the death of the great four and Amalie Skram, a new period of Norwegian literature developed in the twentieth century. The year 1905, when Norway was free from the union with Sweden, marks the beginning of this new period in the history of Norwegian literature. 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. Hamsun was a key transitional figure between nineteenth century realism and the subjectivism of modern prose, such as the irrational world of Franz Kafka. He was noted for his insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature. Many modernists embraced the modern, urban culture, but Hamsun shows it to be a terrifying place, devoid of the certainties and securities of pre-modern life. He showed the darker, irrational side of "human progress" at a time when its virtues were largely trumpeted by other modern artists.
The third was Sigrid Undset. Her best known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a modernist trilogy about life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. The book was set in medieval Norway and was published from 1920 to 1922, in three volumes. Kristin Lavransdatter portrays the life of woman from birth until death. Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for this trilogy as well as her two books about Olav Audunssøn, published in 1925 and 1927.
Undset experimented with modernist tropes such as stream of consciousness in her novel.
Other important Norwegian writers are:
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