The first literary text from Sweden is the Rök Runestone, carved during the Viking Age circa 800 C.E. With the conversion of the land to Christianity around 1100 C.E., during the Middle Ages Sweden's monastic writers preferred to use Latin. Therefore there are only a few texts in the Old Swedish from that period. Swedish literature only flourished when the Swedish language was standardized in the 16th century, a standardization largely due to the full translation of the Bible into Swedish in 1541. This translation is the so-called Gustav Vasa Bible. As with the rest of Europe, Christianization represented the most profound cultural influence from the Middle Ages through the era of Modernism, when it provided the basis of much of the critique leveled at traditional society.
From the seventeenth century several notable authors developed a secular literature. Some key figures include Georg Stiernhielm (seventeenth century), who was the first to write classical poetry in Swedish; Johan Henric Kellgren (eighteenth century), the first to write fluent Swedish prose; Carl Michael Bellman (late eighteenth century), the first writer of burlesque ballads; and August Strindberg (late nineteenth century), a socio-realistic writer and playwright who won worldwide fame. The early twentieth century continued to produce notable authors, such as Selma Lagerlöf (Nobel laureate 1909) and Pär Lagerkvist (Nobel laureate 1951). Between 1949 and 1959, Vilhelm Moberg wrote the four-book series The Emigrants (Swedish: Utvandrarna), often considered one of the best literary works from Sweden.
In recent decades, a handful of Swedish writers have established themselves internationally, including the detective novelist Henning Mankell and the writer of spy fiction Jan Guillou. Also well-known outside of Sweden is the children's book writer Astrid Lindgren, author of works such as Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Maple Hills, and others.
Most runestones had a practical, rather than a literary, purpose and are therefore mainly of interest to historians and philologists. Some runic inscriptions were used for magical or incantatory purposes. The most notable literary exception is the Rök Runestone from circa 800 C.E. It contains the longest known inscription, and encompasses several different passages from sagas and legends, in various prosodic forms. Part of it is written in Swedish alliterative verse, or fornyrdislag. It is generally regarded as the beginning of Swedish literature.
The Christianization of Sweden was one of the main events in the country's history, and had an equally profound impact on literature.
The Gök runestone demonstrates the influence; it uses the same imagery as the Ramsund carving, but a Christian cross has been added and the images are combined in a way that completely distorts the internal logic of events. The Gök stone illustrates how the pagan heroic mythos ultimately dissolved after the introduction of Christianity.
By 1200, Christianity was firmly established and a Medieval European culture appeared in Sweden. Only a selected few mastered the written language, but little was written down. Complete manuscripts are only found from the early fourteenth century, written in Latin. The earliest known complete books in the Swedish language are from the end of that century.
Most education was provided by the Catholic Church, and therefore the literature from this period is mainly of a theological or clerical nature. The majority of other literature written consists of law texts.
Swedish Reformation literature was written between 1526 and 1658. However, this period has not been highly regarded from a literary point of view. It is generally considered a step back in terms of literary development. The main reason was King Gustav Vasa's wish to control and censor all publications, with the result that only the Bible and a few other religious works were published. At the same time, Catholic monasteries were plundered and Catholic books were burnt. The king did not consider it important to reestablish higher education, so Uppsala University was left to decay.
There were comparatively few groups of writers during this time. The burghers still had little influence, while the Church clerics had their importance severely reduced. The Protestant Reformation of the 1520s left priests with a fraction of their previous political and economic power. Those Swedes who wanted higher education usually had to travel abroad to the universities of Rostock or Wittenberg.
Apart from Christian Reformation literature there was one other significant ideological movement, Gothicismus, which glorified Sweden's ancient history.
While contributions to Swedish culture were sparse, this period provided an invaluable basis for future development. The Swedish Bible translation of 1541, the so called Gustav Vasa Bible, gave Sweden a uniform language for the first time. Secondly, the introduction of the printing press resulted in the spread of literature to groups it had previously been unable to reach.
The period in Swedish history between 1630 and 1718 is known as the Swedish Empire. It partly corresponds to an independent literary period. The literature of the Swedish Empire era is regarded as the beginning of the Swedish literary tradition.
Swedish Renaissance literature dates from 1658 to 1732. In 1658 Georg Stiernhielm published his Herculus, the first hexametrical poem in the Swedish language.
When Sweden became a great power, a stronger middle class culture arose. Unlike the age of the Reformation, education was no longer solely a matter of ecclesiastical studies such as theology. During this era, there was a wealth of influences from the leading countries of the time, primarily Germany, France, Holland and Italy. It was symptomatic that the man who came to be known as Sweden's first poet, Georg Stiernhielm, was more acquainted with Ancient philosophy than with Christian teachings.
The eighteenth century has been described as the Swedish Golden Age in literature and science. During this period, Sweden produced authors and literature of a much higher standard than ever before. One key factor was the political period known as the Age of Liberty (1712–1772), and the first Swedish freedom of the press act written in 1766 (see Constitution of Sweden). These resulted in the creation of a secular literature.
The impulses that invigorated Swedish cultural life had their origin in the European Age of Enlightenment. The main influences came from Germany, England and France, and these were reflected in Swedish literature. The Swedish language became enriched by French words, and ideas of liberalization were based on the English model.
Swedish literature consolidated around 1750; this is considered the start of a linguistic period called Late Modern Swedish (1750 – circa 1880). The first great works of the age were those of Olov von Dalin (1708–1763), and in particular his weekly Then Svenska Argus, based on Joseph Addison's The Spectator. Dalin gave a sketch of Swedish culture and history using language which had an unprecedented richness of sarcasm and irony. In the 1730s and 1740s, Dalin was unrivaled as the brightest star in the Swedish literary sky. He was the first to refine the language for practical purposes, in comparison with the labored poetry of the 17th century, and he was the first author to be read and appreciated by the general public.
In the eighteenth century, Latin rapidly declined in popularity in favor of the national language. One of the first authors to aim his books directly at the general public was the world-renowned botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Later key figures included the poets Johan Henrik Kellgren (1751–1795) and Carl Michael Bellman (1740–1795).
In European history, the period circa 1805–1840 is known as Romanticism. Romanticism made a strong impression on Sweden, due to the strong German influence in Romantic thought and literature. During this relatively short period, many great Swedish poets emerged; the era is referred to as the Golden Age of Swedish poetry. The period started around 1810 when several periodicals were published which rejected the literature of the 18th century. An important society was the Gothic Society (1811), and their periodical Iduna, a romanticized look back towards Gothicismus.
One significant reason was that several poets for the first time worked towards a common direction. Four of the main romantic poets who made significant contributions to the movement were: the professor of history Erik Gustaf Geijer, the loner Erik Johan Stagnelius, the professor of Greek language Esaias Tegnér and the professor of aesthetics and philosophy P.D.A. Atterbom.
The period between 1835–1879 is known as the early liberal period in Swedish history. The views of the Romantics had come to be perceived by many as inflated and overburdened by formality. The first outspoken liberal newspaper in Sweden, Aftonbladet, was founded in 1830. It quickly became the leading newspaper in Sweden because of its liberal views and criticism of the current state of affairs. The newspaper played its part in turning literature in a more realistic direction, because of its more concise use of language.
Several authorities would regard Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793–1866) as the most outstanding genius of the 19th century in Sweden. Beginning in 1838, he published a series of socially and politically radical stories attacking both marriage and clerical institutions. Several of his works are still popular, in particular "Det går an" (1839) which reached the German bestseller list as late as 2004.
The last two decades of the nineteenth century in European literature was a period dominated by realism and Naturalism. In Sweden, the period starting in 1880 is known as realism. The 1880s saw a strong focus on social realism; the 1890s was a period of its own, the "90s poets".
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Scandinavian literature made its first and so far only significant impression on world literature. From Sweden, the main figure was August Strindberg, but Ola Hansson, Selma Lagerlöf and Victoria Benedictsson also attained wider recognition.
The breakthrough of realism in Sweden occurred in 1879. That year, August Strindberg (1845-1912) published his Röda Rummet, a satirical novel that relentlessly attacked the political, the academic, the philosophical and the religious worlds.
August Strindberg became world-famous for his dramas and prose, noted for his exceptional talent and complex intellect. He would continue to write several books and dramas until his death in Stockholm.
The Swedish 1890s is noted for its poetic neo-romanticism, a reaction to the socio-realistic literature of the 1880s. The first key literary figure to emerge was Verner von Heidenstam (1859-1940); his literary debut came in 1887 with the collection of poetry Vallfart och vandringsår (Pilgrimage and Wander-Years).
Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) was arguably the brightest star of the 1890s, and her influence has lasted into the twenty-first century. Two of her major works, which have been translated into several languages, are The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906-1907) and Gösta Berlings saga (1891), but she also wrote several other highly regarded works. Lagerlöf was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909, mainly for her storytelling abilities.
In the 1910s a new literary period began with the aging August Strindberg, who published several critical articles contesting many conservative values. With the advent of social democracy and large-scale strikes, the winds were blowing in the direction of social reforms.
The dominant form of literary expression became the novel. One of the earliest novelists was Hjalmar Söderberg (1869–1941). Söderberg wrote in a somewhat cynical way, at times with Nietzschean overtones, disillusionment and pessimism. In 1901 he published Martin Birck's Youth. It was appreciated by many for its literary qualities, but an even greater aspect was its depiction of Stockholm, which is widely regarded as the best portrait of Stockholm ever written. His most highly regarded work was yet to come however: Doctor Glas (1905), a tale of vengeance and passion, viewed by some as the best and most complete of all Swedish novels.Margaret Atwood, for example, has said of Doctor Glas: "It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since."
Swedish agriculture had a system with laborers called statare, who were paid in kind only, with product and housing, comparable with the Anglo-saxon truck system. Among the few people with this background who made an intellectual career were the writers Ivar Lo-Johansson, Moa Martinson and Jan Fridegård. Their works were important to the abolition of the system.
A well-known proletarian writer who gained fame after World War II was Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973). He usually wrote about the lives of ordinary people and in particular the peasant population. Moberg's monumental work was published shortly after the war: the four-volume The Emigrants series (1949-1959), about the Swedish emigration to North America. In this work, Moberg sentimentally depicted a nineteenth century couple during their move to the New World; and the many struggles and difficulties they had to endure.
In the 1930s a new awareness of children's needs emerged. This manifested itself shortly after World War II when Astrid Lindgren published Pippi Longstocking in 1945. Pippi's rebellious behavior at first sparked resistance among some defenders of cultural values, but eventually she was accepted, and with that children's literature was freed from the obligation to promote moralism.
Astrid Lindgren continued to publish many best-selling children's books which eventually made her the most read Swedish author, regardless of genre, with over 100 million copies printed throughout the world and translations into over 80 languages. In many other books Lindgren showed her fine understanding of children's thought and values; in works such as The Brothers Lionheart about death and bravery and Mio, my Mio, a fairy tale about friendship. But not all her stories had deep messages. Three books on Karlsson-on-the-Roof (1955, 1962, 1968) are about a short, chubby and mischievous man with a propeller on his back, who is befriended by a boy. Lindgren wrote 12 books about Emil of Maple Hills, a boy living in the Småland countryside in the early 1900s, who continuously gets into trouble because of his pranks.
One of few fantasy writers in Swedish literature was the Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001), who wrote, in the Swedish language, about the Moomins. The Moomins are trolls who live in an economically and politically independent state, without any materialistic concerns. The Moomins have appealed to people in many different countries and Jansson's books have been translated into over 30 languages.
Before World War II the Swedish detective novel was based on American models. After World War II, it developed in an independent direction. In the 1960s, Maj Sjöwall (1935–) and Per Wahlöö (1926–1975) collaborated to produce a series of internationally acclaimed detective novels about the detective Martin Beck.
The most successful writer of detective novels is Henning Mankell (1948– ), with his series on Kurt Wallander. They have been translated to 37 languages and have become bestsellers, particularly in Sweden and Germany. But Mankell has also written several other acclaimed books, such as Comédia Infantil (1995), about an abandoned street boy in the city of Maputo.
Several other Swedish detective writers have become popular abroad, particularly in Germany; for example Liza Marklund (1962– ), Håkan Nesser (1950– ), Åsa Larsson, Arne Dahl, Leif GW Persson, and Åke Edwardsson.
In the spy fiction genre, the most successful writer is Jan Guillou (1944– ) and his best-selling books about the spy Carl Hamilton, many of which have also been filmed. Of Guillou's other works, the two most notable are his series on the Knight Templar Arn Magnusson and the semi-autobiographical novel with the metaphorical title Ondskan (The Evil).
The Swedish ballad tradition had been initiated by Carl Michael Bellman in the late eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, poetic songwriting fell into decline with the rise of university student choirs, until it was again revived in the 1890s. Poets increasingly continued the tradition of having their poetry set to music to give it a wider audience. In the early 1900s, a lot of poetry of the 90s poets Gustaf Fröding and Erik Axel Karlfeldt had been put to music, and the popularity of those poets largely depended on the troubadours.
Arguably the most renowned Swedish troubadour of the twentieth century was however Evert Taube (1890–1976). He established himself as a performing artist in 1920 and toured Sweden for about three decades. He is best known for songs about sailors, ballads about Argentina, and songs about the Swedish countryside.
Between 1962 up until his death, the most highly regarded singer-songwriter in the Swedish ballad tradition was Cornelis Vreeswijk (1937–1987). His songs were initially leftist protest songs where he took it upon himself to speak for society's underdogs. After his death, Vreeswijk also gained appreciation for his poetic qualities.
In the 1930s and 1940s, poetry was influenced by the ideals of modernism. Distinguishing features included the desire to experiment, and to try a variety of styles, usually free verse without rhyme or meter.
The leading modernist figure was Hjalmar Gullberg (1898–1961). He wrote many mystical and Christian-influenced collections, such as Andliga övningar (Spiritual Exercises, 1932) and others. After a poetical break 1942-1952, he resurfaced with a new style in the 1950s. Atheistic on the surface, it was influential for the younger generation.
Gunnar Ekelöf (1907–1968) has been described as Sweden's first surrealistic poet, due to his first poetry collection, the nihilistic Sent på jorden (1932), a work hardly understood by his contemporaries. But Ekelöf moved towards romanticism and with his second poetry collection Dedikationen in 1934 he became appreciated in wider circles. He continued to write until his old age, and was to attain a dominant position in Swedish poetry. His style has been described as heavy with symbolism and enigmatic, while at the same time tormented and ironical.
Another important modernist poet was Harry Martinson (1904–1978). Harry Martinson had an unparalleled feeling for nature, in the spirit of Linnaeus. As was typical for his generation, he wrote free verse, not bound by rhyme or syllable-count. He also wrote novels such as the autobiographical Flowering Nettles, in 1935. His most remarkable work was, however, Aniara 1956, a story of a spaceship drifting through space.
Arguably the most famous Swedish poet of the twentieth century is Tomas Tranströmer (1931– ). His poetry is distinguished by a Christian mysticism, moving on the verge between dream and reality, the physical and the metaphysical.
Several dramatists surfaced after World War II. In the 1950s, revues were popular; some names of the era were the comedians Povel Ramel and Kar de Mumma. The Hasseåtage duo continued the comedic tradition in 1962 and became something of an institution in the Swedish revue world for 20 years, encompassing radio, television and film productions.
With the late 1960s came a breakthrough for alternative drama of a freer nature, and theater became more of a venue for popular tastes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the two most noted playwrights were Lars Norén (1944– ) and Per Olov Enquist (1934– ).
This literary period began in Sweden in the 1960s, influenced by artists from England and the U.S. At first, the literary quality in Swedish pop music was little more than an imitation of foreign models, and it took until the 1970s for an independent movement to emerge. In that decade, youth grassroots music reached unprecedented popularity, and opened the possibility for unestablished artists to have their music published. Because of the common political message these bands often presented, they are classified as Progg (short for "progressive"). While few Progg-artists actually produced anything worthwhile, there were some acts who stood out. Nationalteatern were significant because they were not only a musical group, but also theatre performers; and in the talented leftist artist Mikael Wiehe (1946– ) of Hoola Bandoola Band, there was a renewal of Swedish ballad writing, in the direction of high quality proletarian lyrics.
One of the rebels of the 1970s was Ulf Lundell (1949– ) who abandoned the grassroot movement for rock 'n roll. In 1976, he broke through in literature with his debut novel Jack, a beatnik novel that came to represent a whole generation. While critics were not impressed, the novel sold in great numbers and is still appreciated by many.
Swedish literature has a considerable following in Finland, led by the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland, which describes itself as "a versatile and future-oriented cultural institution of Finland-Swedish literature, culture and research." The Society offers Finnish visitors an ideal forum for the exploration of shared leitmotifs such as snow. Apart from such activities, the Society is also a leading investor in the global equity and debt markets and a staunch defender of Finnish national interests, most recently against incursions by Swedish investors. This stance has caused some disquiet among Society members committed to the project of pan-Nordic literary appreciation.
Swedish writers awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the year it was awarded to them:
|In 1997 Biblioteket i fokus, a magazine aimed at libraries, organized a poll to determine the Swedish books of the century. 27,000 people voted to produce a list of 100 books. The top 20 books were:
||In 1998, a poll to determine the most important Swedish books was conducted on the show Röda rummet on the public televion Sveriges television. 17,000 people voted to produce a list of 100 books. The top 20 books were:
Please note that all page number references to "Gustafson" are made to the Swedish language edition of his book.
All links retrieved January 15, 2020.
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