Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Björnson’s National Trilogy

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Björnson’s National Trilogy

By William Morton Payne (1858–1919)

[Born in Newburyport, Mass., 1858. Died in Chicago, Ill., 1919. Sigurd Slembe. A Dramatic Trilogy. By Björnstjerne Björnson.—Translated from the Norwegian by W. M. Payne. 1888.]

BJÖRNSON is the great national writer of Norway because his finer work deals with national themes. His contemporary, Ibsen, endowed with genius of a high order, has chosen to be cosmopolitan rather than national, and so the claim made for Björnson cannot be disputed on behalf of his most famous fellow-worker in the field of letters. Björnson’s tales of peasant life are purely national, his more poetic dramas are no less so, and his best lyrics are true Northland notes. Norway is peculiarly rich in materials for a national literature. It is, more than any other part of Europe, the home of that rich mythology which has so profoundly influenced Teutonic thought, and which, had conditions been more favorable, might have borne in earlier times a fruitage comparable for poetic wealth with that of the mythology of southern Europe which so early became embodied in works of imperishable beauty. In central Europe we find this mythology in a somewhat corrupt and perverted state, modified by classical influences and mixed with elements of indigenous growth. In the north alone did it remain comparatively free from foreign admixture; there alone did it acquire form and consistency, and there did it wait in vain, until too late, for some master mind to so mould it that it should be sure forever of the world’s regard. But the Norsemen had more pressing work at hand than the cultivation of the art of poetry. Their life was a hard and unremitting struggle for existence, and the rough poetry in which their inheritance of mythical lore became embodied was fitted to the rugged life they were forced to lead. Then Christianity found its way among them, and the chance was missed. The vitality of the old faith waned. Thor and Odin and Balder were dethroned by the new god from the south. Deities and heroes faded into the mists of the past, lingering, indeed, in the popular consciousness for many centuries, but growing ever more impotent to inspire poet or sage.

Yet such a body of myth and hero-story as this could never be quite lost or become wholly meaningless to the race which gave it birth, and the elementary traits of whose character were bound up within it. So it was natural that when, in modern times, and in common with the other nations of Europe, the people of the north were impelled to the development of a studied literature, they should draw largely upon the varied store of tradition for their material, and seek at a later day to do something of the work so long left undone. Thus Tegnèr in Sweden, Ewald and Oehlenschlæger in Denmark, and Björnson in Norway have found many of their themes in the treasure-house of myth and saga. Of all this modern work, that of Björnson seems the most removed from modern ways of thought and expression, exhibits most clearly the modes of feeling of that quasi-historical past which it reproduces, is the most vigorous and the most elemental.

The “Trilogy” has a definite historical basis. During the first half of the twelfth century Norway was plunged into civil strife by the pretensions to the throne of one Sigurd, surnamed “Slembe” (an adjective meaning ill-disposed or worthless), on account of his lawless youth. This Sigurd was a natural son of the great king Magnus Barfod, and, according to the law of Norway, the succession could not rightfully be withheld from him on the score of his illegitimacy. The trilogy of “Sigurd Slembe” deals with the life of this pretender from the time when, in early manhood, he learns the secret of his birth, to the eve of the final struggle which crowns his life with failure and restores peace to his long-suffering country. It is a tale of indomitable but ever-thwarted will, deeply tragic in its import, but not without that final touch of what the Germans call Versöhnung, and we, for want of a better word, call reconciliation, which is the attribute of the noblest tragic productions, and by virtue of which tragedy fulfils its purpose as defined by Aristotle, purging the mind of pity and fear. The consummation of a tragic action is found in that supreme moment when the protagonist surrenders, in Schopenhauer’s phrase, not merely life, but the very desire to live. Perhaps the most perfect illustration of this in literature is the cry of Gretchen at the close of the first part of “Faust”—“Heinrich, mir graut’s vor dir!” In the present work this tragic consummation follows, in the closing act, upon the flight of Sigurd’s last remaining hope of victory. Failure, absolute and unrelieved, confronts him as the result of all his toil. He attempts in thought each avenue of escape, but they are all closed upon him. He has raised his last force, and no stratagem can avail him further. As all the events of life crowd upon the memory of a dying man, so all Sigurd’s past comes before him now face to face with the ruin of the edifice so nearly reared by him. And the peace of mind which he has sought for so many years comes to him also, and all the tempests of life are stilled. He sees that this was indeed the inevitable end, and, recognizing the fitness with which events have shaped themselves, he sees life in its true aspect. No longer veiled in the mists that have hidden it from his passionate gaze, he takes note of what it really is, and casts it from him. In this hour of passionless contemplation such a renunciation is not a thing torn from the reluctant soul, but the clear solution, so long sought, of the problem so long blindly attempted.

Other scenes of great power and beauty are not lacking in this work….

Björnson has the power, rare even with the greater dramatists, to condense so much of passion in a single pregnant sentence, by means of a word or single phrase so to illuminate as by a lightning flash some tragic situation, as to put the ordinary rhetorical effusion of feeling to shame. He has the instinct which sees, at the fateful moment of the action, how incomparably greater and truer is a direct, rightly chosen word, than the most elaborate rhetorical amplification.