Home  »  library  »  course  »  Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Scandinavian Literature

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Scandinavian Literature

By Louis Sigmund Friedland (1884–1955)

Introduction. THE SCANDINAVIANS, the people of the North, are the purest strain of all Teutons. They have the truly Northern virtues: rugged independence, personal bravery, grim determination, reliance upon the individual. In the primitive religion of the Scandinavians there was no forbidden tree of knowledge, and to this very day, religion of the extreme Oriental type, with its flagellation and self-abnegation, does not appeal to the Scandinavian temperament. Bitter indeed must have been the struggle of the ancient Norsemen to acquire a sense of the great renunciations demanded by Christianity. In ‘Gösta Berlingsaga,’ that fine romance of Sweden’s heroic days, Selma Lagerlöf symbolizes in her hero the stern conflict between Northern paganism and Eastern Christianity. What would have happened if the teachings of Christ had never penetrated to the North? What strange forms would this paganism have evolved, this religion in which the gods were as men, of super-build and power? For the gods themselves were conscious of their own Götterdämmerung,—the twilight of their passing—and knew of the day when they were to be superseded, perhaps by men of god-like mold. Men fight side by side with the gods in the mighty combats described in the Eddas and Sagas. These warriors, men and gods heroic, were the Vikings, the supermen of ancient days. In one of his works, Rydberg, the Swedish poet, cries:

  • “Awaken all ye hearts of the North—arise from the long sleep of winter. Hark! Listen! The sonorous sound of the garden of Balder—of the childhood of your race. Awaken, and with the might of your forefathers, struggle for greater glory and all the splendor of the earth. Yes, for a joy greater than that of all Walhallah! For the supreme joy of dying at the side of the gods, in the last struggle for light!”
  • So that, from the North comes the insistence on the development of the human being, on the freedom and power of the individual. It is here that the superman idea is born: Siegfried victorious, come to make firm and straight the backbone of mankind.

    The exposition of the social and political forces that form the background of Scandinavian literature is made difficult by the fact that three independent countries must be considered: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The three were united in one kingdom at various times, and for several centuries Norway and Sweden were ruled by one king. (See the Chronology of Historical Events, below.) But the truth that the present war is now establishing,—the inviolability of small nations and of racial, geographical, and linguistic entities,—was realized by the Scandinavian countries many years ago. Centralization of power, close and definite conglomeration, were not suited to the genius of these lands of mountains and valleys and broken sea-coasts. The sense of separateness, of independence, is instinctive with the people. They chafed at restrictions and rejected all unions that were not free and voluntary. Since the outbreak of the Great War the three nations of the North have awakened to a new sense of solidarity. They have federated, informally, for defensive measures and common policies, and yet each country has preserved its national integrity and its complete autonomy. Perhaps, when the purgation of war is over, they will be the model for the world federation of democracies. At the present time, Scandinavia stands aloof, in a sense, from the Armageddon. Long ago, Nature separated it from the rest of Europe by barriers of mountains and water, and enabled it to develop and preserve a civilization definitely native and original.

    The Background of Nature. An understanding of the natural features of the Scandinavian countries will gain for the reader a clearer appreciation of their literatures. In Scandinavia, as in other countries, man is dominated by the shaping forces of nature. You do not find, in the North, the endless, level plain of Russia, where men mass together and where the call is to go on and on ceaselessly over the level, monotonous reaches. There are many plains in Scandinavia, some of considerable stretch in Sweden, but for the most part there are valleys separated by ridges, sudden transitions that arouse expectation and bring wondrous surprises. Men live on the heights, and those who dwell in valleys hemmed in by mountains are filled with a longing to know the great world beyond. In the Land of Peak and Pine, Norway,—a narrow country, like Chile,—there is always the proximity of the sea which flings its great arms into the rocky cliffs of the coast, forming fjord after fjord. Forests of pine trees, lakes, snow-capped mountains, sheltered valleys, the sea,—how different it all is from the almost unbroken plain of Russia! In the literature of Norway, even in the works of Ibsen, the great dramatist of ideas and social problems, there is always the rugged but enchanting presence of Nature. The sea, in ‘The Lady from the Sea’ or in ‘Little Eyolf’; the mountain lakes and peaks, in ‘Brand’; the saeter-maids in ‘Peer Gynt’ (a “saeter” is an upland farm perched high on a mountain)—these lend their beauty and strength and wondrous variety to the thoughts of men. Björnson, the truly national writer of Norway, describes his land in these words:

  • “There is something in Nature that challenges whatever is extraordinary in us. Nature herself here goes beyond all ordinary measure. We have night nearly all the winter, we have day nearly all the summer with the sun by day and by night above the horizon. I have seen it half-veiled by the mists from the sea,—it often looks three, even four times larger than usual. And then the play of colors on sky, sea, and rock, from the most glowing red to the softest and most delicate yellow and white. And then the colors of the Northern lights on the winter sky, with their more suppressed kind of wild pictures, yet full of unrest and forever changing. Then the other wonders of nature! The millions of sea-birds, and the wandering processions of fish, stretching for miles! The perpendicular cliffs that rise directly out of the sea! They are not like other mountains, and the Atlantic roars round their feet. And the ideas of the people are correspondingly unmeasured. Listen to their legends and stories.”
  • Nature, then, is a constant presence, an ever-living reality to the people. It has developed in them their qualities of mind and temperament. Everywhere in Scandinavian literature you find the expression of the Northern love for Nature,—an expression that often becomes exultation, almost pagan in its intensity and naturalness. But it is not all lighthearted joy, for, especially among the Norwegians, the presence of the somber mountains gives the people a sense of loneliness. They know solitude, and brooding thought, and the life that is within. It is because of the great solitude of the North that Norwegian literature is marked by a deep, somber note of subjective reflection. It is as if the silence and solitude of the mountains had become creative.

    Among the Norwegians, most of whom live close to the sea, the love and longing for the ocean, the consciousness of its mysteries are most intense. On a large vessel, a number of years ago, I stood one night near the sailor on deck-watch. He was a Scandinavian, a tall, lonesome figure, standing motionless and gazing out upon the great ocean. All around us were the dark waters, and overhead the sky and a few stars. It seemed to me that the lonely, solitary figure of the sailor was merged in the solitude of the sea. I felt that for him the mighty ocean had a depth of meaning and a profound solace and completeness that I would never understand. I thought of Polar silence. And as I watched him standing there, wrapped in his heavy peajacket, the thin, bearded face expressionless, the eyes fixed on the dim horizon, I knew that he was not alone, that his spirit was in its natural home, united to all that he loved. Everyone has seen, at the seashore, the long, lithe figures of the Scandinavian lifeguards, tall, slim, gloriously modeled. Their home is in the water. They make you think of the Greek athletes, but they have a lissomeness which the statues of Greek youths do not show. Perhaps the two greatest epic nations of the past, Greece and Iceland, were not so far apart in spirit as they are in space.

    The sea and the mountains, and the wonder of what lies beyond,—these are the great inspirations of Norwegian literature. “There are some lonely valleys in Norway, so hemmed in by mountains, that the inhabitants can scarcely see the sky, save by lying on their backs,” says Dr. Henry Goddard Leach in his admirable book, ‘Scandinavia of the Scandinavians.’ Björnson has expressed for all time this longing for the faraway in his poem, ‘Over the Lofty Mountains,’ with its wistful last stanza,

  • “Sometime I know I shall rise and soar
  • Over the lofty mountain.
  • Hast Thou already ajar Thy door?—
  • Good is Thy home! Yet, Lord, I implore,
  • Hold not the gates asunder,—
  • Leave me my longing wonder!”
  • (Translated by Arthur Hubbell Palmer.)
  • Sweden is larger than Norway, of more generous distances and ampler proportions. The great Swedish poet, Tegnér, describes his land in these words:

  • “Here the dark woods with many a patriarch tree
  • In gloomy melancholy gaze on thee;
  • Here rocks on rocks up-piled upon the strand,
  • Seem the vast structure of some giant hand;
  • While high aloft the lucid meteors glow,
  • And veins of iron in the mountain grow.”
  • (Translated by Oscar Baker.)
  • The country falls naturally into three parts: Norrland, the North, with its mountains and great spruce-forests, the forests that Selma Lagerlöf describes lovingly, and which are the home of ancient legends; Svealand, the central part of Sweden, a district of more modern type, with many cities and factories, but, in the country districts, lakes, wide areas of pasture land, and many forests of birch trees; finally, Götaland, the South, bordering on the sea, and having the summer climate of all southland. In a country like Sweden, which measures one thousand miles from north to south, the landscape is varied, and the climate presents sharp contrasts.

    The Social Background. Denmark is the Scandinavian South. The people have the gaiety, the genial lightheartedness, and gracious sociability of true Southerners, whether they be in the Ukraine, or south of the Mason and Dixon line. In the illuminating book by Dr. Leach, which I have already mentioned, the author draws with great care and subtlety the composite portrait of each of the three Scandinavian peoples. He speaks of the thrifty, humorous, friendly Danes as representing “man in relation to his fellowmen.” The Swedes, with their courtly ways, “fundamental imaginativeness, fervent idealism,” and, above all, their surpassing love of Nature, symbolize “man in relation to Nature”; while the extreme Northern type, the Norwegians, a people of “intense and underlying sentiment and subjectivity,” stand for “man in relation to his ideals.” The terms of these descriptions are helpful and suggestive; they are not intended to be accurate, nor do they imply the exclusive possession of certain traits by one or another branch of the Scandinavian people. But the Scandinavians have certain pronounced racial characteristics. The spirit of self-reliance, the love of individual liberty, and the grim determination to lay wide and firm the bases of human freedom,—this is the temper of the North. These people combine passionate devotion to personal liberty with an intelligent willingness to join others for social ends. Steady, practical, self-reliant, rational, they can be masters in the world of affairs, and yet they have never surrendered their primitive right to live in the realms of fancy, to follow the gleam of the ideal, and to dream great dreams. Nor have they lost the pagan joy in Nature, that mystic and instinctive accord with the beauties that the gods have scattered among them. The trait most distinctively Scandinavian, however, is that of self-dependence, a reliance upon individual initiative. The words of Ibsen in the following passage ring true to the Norwegian temperament:

  • “The most powerful man in the world is the man who is most alone. No man to-day masters himself or helps others to self-mastery who cannot contrive to make a Norway for himself in this busy, chattering world. It is refreshing as a salt bath to learn that the Viking spirit of independence and personal responsibility is still so much alive anywhere.”
  • It is because of this instinctive regard for the individual that the Scandinavians, as a people, have always treated their women as social equals. In the Orient, women were the property of men; but the Viking women belonged to themselves, and had a voice in all things. And to-day, the people of the North are foremost in their recognition of the social and political rights of women. This is the hallmark of a developed stage of civilization. In Norway women have attained full suffrage; in Sweden and Denmark, where women vote in all county affairs, the war alone has delayed the granting of parliamentary suffrage. But it is in social legislation that the Scandinavians have given women the fullest measure of justice. Even motherhood is fully protected. This attitude toward women has not been without its effect on literature. In play after play, Ibsen, Björnson, and others preach woman’s right to individual liberty, and among the most illustrious writers of Sweden are Frederika Bremer, Selma Lagerlöf (a recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature), and Ellen Key. These are but a few of the women writers of the North.

    The final mark that tells a nation’s progress in civilization is its type of social legislation. In the Scandinavian countries there is not only a comparatively wide distribution of wealth, but social legislation has attained a high degree of forethought and balanced justice. Social reforms are not imposed from above in the interests of a paramount State. In the North, especially in Denmark, there is voluntary co-operation and a gratifying measure of political and industrial independence. Above all, there is that growth and development of social coherence, directed by intelligence, that will bring civilization at last, shaped and ordered out of chaos and anarchy. Politically, the three countries are limited, “democratic” monarchies, so that the radical parties are concerned with social programs rather than with political issues.

    Scandinavian Literature. Our survey of the geographical, social, and political background, together with the brief summary of the national traits of character, will throw light upon the characteristics of Scandinavian literature. The deep wells from which the writers of the North draw their inspiration are not the alien sources of classical mythology or the religious mysticism of the distant East. The literature of Scandinavia has its roots in the native Eddas and Sagas. To this very day, the pagan imagery of the ancient Norse is echoed in the writings of modern poets, novelists, and dramatists, in spite of their preoccupation with social problems and their responsiveness to every wind of European doctrine. In one of his poems, Björnson writes,

  • “Over the mountain-tops glowing,
  • Light-King his armies are throwing.”
  • This personification is typical of the poetic imagery of the North. The Sagas and Eddas have exercised the profoundest influence upon the whole course of Scandinavian literature. The stirring incidents they relate in brief, biting phrases, their keen grasp of character, grim humor, manly simplicity, passionate love of action, and graphic brevity have molded the style and manner of Northern literature. These heroic tales have furnished themes for the great dramatists of the North. They have been more than literary raw-material; they have kindled and inspired creative effort and aroused creative spirit. All truly Scandinavian writings, whether in prose or in verse, are marked by the pithy brevity, directness, naturalness, and vividness of the Eddas and Sagas. The latter are, in essential things, similar to the Scandinavian folk-tales. Like the folk-stories, the Sagas were intended for oral recitation, and the two are a truly individual form of art. In a few happy sentences, Björnson gives the chief qualities of the folk-lore of the North:
  • “How happy, in its manly equipoise, is the Norwegian folk-lore, in spite of its startling peculiarities! Some of these stories take us into the dense forests among mocking echoes from the life outside. In some we feel human souls hovering homeless above the reefs; in others, memories of an always sunlit land flit before us; but in none do we meet with sentimentalism, despondency, disconsolateness.”
  • The essential aspects of the folk-tales are the distinguishing characteristics of Scandinavian literature. The literature of the North is marked by native dramatic power,—a delight in action, swift, pithy dialogue, and vivid analysis of character. I have already spoken of the Scandinavian love for Nature. It is this delight in all of nature’s phenomena, coupled with the inherent dramatic character of the Northern imagination, that accounts for the personification of Nature that one finds throughout all Scandinavian literature. Björnson describes this “natural mysticism” as “the power to put the figure in the landscape and the landscape in the figure.” In Scandinavian literature, from the very beginning, the forces and phenomena of Nature were dramatized. They had voices and they spoke. Read Andersen’s ‘Folk-Stories,’ Björnson’s outdoor poems, his introduction to the novel ‘Arne,’ Selma Lagerlöf’s stories of the Swedish forests of Värmland, and you will find that everything speaks: the mountains, the trees, the winds, the animals, household things,—even a darning-needle can make pointed remarks. So that the Scandinavians do not love action for its own sake; they delight in the dramatic unfolding of character and personality through action. This attempt to illuminate action, to view it as the expression of inner and essential qualities, gives Scandinavian literature a reflective spirit. Hamlet, the brooding Dane, and Ibsen’s Skule are as truly Scandinavian as is Haakon, the kingly man of action. And the contrast between Björnson and Ibsen gives the two sides of the Northern character: the former, a man of action, sunny, genial, confident, victorious; the latter, a brooding, reflective spirit, plagued by doubts and questionings of the soul. In Scandinavian literature there is, on the one hand, naïveté, frankness, simple candor, absence of self-consciousness; on the other hand there is the stern knowledge of the inner life,—the consciousness that made Ibsen say,

  • “What is Life? A fighting
  • In heart and in brain with Trolls.
  • Poetry? That means writing
  • Doomsday-accounts of our souls.”
  • The influence of the folk-tale has determined the form of the Scandinavian novel. In Northern literature one does not find huge, misshapen works like Dostoyevsky’s ‘Brothers Karamazov,’ nor are there many novels with closely-knit plots like Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ The typical Scandinavian novel consists of a series of episodes, each complete in itself, sometimes the narration of an action, but quite often merely a reflective soliloquy or a dramatic dialogue. Selma Lagerlöf’s ‘Gösta Berlingsaga’ and ‘Liliencrona’s Home,’ Björnson’s ‘Arne’ and ‘The Fisher Maiden’ are novels of this sort. Even the long eight-volume novels of Nexø (‘Pelle the Conqueror’) and Pontoppidan (‘Lykke-Per’) show many of the distinctive features of Scandinavian fiction.

    The later literature of the Scandinavian countries—in which might be included the writings since 1865—is marked by a more cosmopolitan tone. The milieu remains Scandinavian, but the themes of the best work are universal. It was Brandes, the great Danish critic, who inspired the younger generation to attempt “fresh fields and pastures new.” He taught that in art one must not imitate, but create; he wished to re-wed art to life, to the visible reality of the artist’s own day and generation, to free the writer from the trammels of traditional themes and methods, so that free individuality might come into play once more. In his lectures and critical work, Brandes led the young artists of the North to see the problems of their own day; he pointed the way to new materials of thought, and to a new psychology and style. In this way, literature came to grapple anew with life. Schools were formed: realists, naturalists, symbolists. All of the militants grouped themselves around Brandes, and looked to him to blaze the trail for them, to set forth clearly all the æsthetic and political forces of the day, and the literary currents that flowed in every direction. But the Scandinavians could not be content with literary realism, with the scientific teachings of evolution and the philosophical doctrines of Freedom and Reason. There soon sprang up a group of young littérateurs who found fresh inspiration in a pantheistic outlook upon life, in an inner, spiritual understanding of all the gathered forces of life, and in the discovery of the indestructible concord with the Universal Spirit. Theirs is the new mysticism, not alone the pagan personification of nature’s forces, but the modern consciousness that all the phenomena of life are manifestations of one force, all appearances a real unity in a manifold diversity.

    But the literature of the North will never lose its character of free humanity, its individual note and tendency. In the East there is the search for liberty and the faith that one can find freedom in the loss of self. Among the Scandinavians there is the assertion of self, and yet the ready recognition of others and the voluntary wish to unite with them. The great writers of modern Scandinavia: Ibsen, Björnson, Strindberg, Hamsun, have struck mighty blows in their desire to beat into shape the distorted ethics of the world. Some say that from Russia will come the final word of deliverance, but others believe that the East will awaken from its lethargy only in response to the beating of the hammer of Thor.

    Chronology of Important Events: Norway

  • I. To the Unification of the Three Scandinavian Lands.
  • 866–933Harald Haarfager secures the overlordship of Norway.
  • 995–1000Reign of Olaf I. Introduction of Christianity. Norway conquered by Danish and Swedish kings.
  • 1015–1029Reign of Olaf II. Haraldsson (St. Olaf). After him a few years of Danish rule.
  • 1066Harald Haardraade attempts the conquest of England.
  • 1066–1093Reign of Olaf Kyrre, the Quiet. The town of Bergen founded.
  • 1319Final unification of Norway. The Rigets Raad (national council) established.
  • 1389Under Erik of Pomerania, the three Scandinavian lands are united. The triple alliance.
  • II. Norway and Denmark.
  • 1450The triple bond dissolved. Norway and Denmark remain together.
  • 1450–1536Norway gradually becomes a province of Denmark.
  • 1588–1648Christian IV. Christiania founded.
  • After 1600Norway regains partial independence.
  • 1811University of Christiania founded.
  • III. Union of Norway and Sweden.
  • 1814 (Jan. 14)The Danish King, Frederick VI., cedes Norway to Sweden. The two are practically independent. The Act of Union.
  • 1833The peasants gain representation in the Storthing. The poet, Henrik Wergeland, a nationalist, becomes their leader. He is opposed by another poet, J. S. Welhaven, who wishes to preserve intellectual relations with Denmark.
  • 1844–1859Reign of Oscar I.
  • 1859–1872Reign of Car! XV.
  • 1869The Storthing decides to meet annually, instead of triennially. Johan Sverdrup becomes leader of the Liberal Party.
  • 1872–1905Reign of Oscar II., King of Sweden and Norway.
  • 1872A bill to admit the ministers to seats in the Storthing is introduced by the Liberals. A long quarrel ensues.
  • 1880This bill is passed over the King’s veto.
  • 1882Important elections to the Storthing. The Liberal Party is successful under the leadership of Sverdrup and Björnson. The ministry refuses to yield.
  • 1883The ministers impeached and tried. Prime Minister Selmer ordered to resign.
  • 1884 (June)Johan Sverdrup forms the first Liberal ministry.
  • 1884–1887Important reforms. A separate consular service for Norway proposed.
  • 1898A national flag adopted.
  • 1901Municipal suffrage granted to women.
  • 1902–1905The great crisis between the two countries. The consular service is the crux of the dispute.
  • 1905The Swedish Rigsdag agrees to a severance of the Union.
  • IV. Norway an Independent Monarchy.
  • 1906Prince Charles of Denmark, brother of the Danish King, becomes King of Norway (Haakon VII.).
  • 1907Parliamentary suffrage granted to women on same terms with men.
  • 1913Suffrage made universal for both sexes. Other progressive legislation.
  • 1914Bill to protect illegitimate children introduced. The three Scandinavian countries form a compact for defensive purposes and common policies during the Great War.
  • Chronology of Important Events: Sweden

  • [For relations with Norway and Denmark see chronologies of those countries.]
  • 1470–1520Swedish presidents at the Danish court.
  • 1523Gustavus Vasa, a former “president,” is elected King of Sweden.
  • 1523–1560Reign of Gustavus I. Breach with Rome. Olaus Petri, a disciple of Luther, and the Reformation in Sweden.
  • 1525–1543Peasant uprisings, because of economic and religious discontent.
  • 1593Civil War because of religious issues.
  • 1600–1612Reign of Charles IX. A military monarchy. War with Poland and Russia.
  • 1612–1632Reign of Gustavus Adolphus. Constitutional reforms. The Thirty Years’ War.
  • 1644–1654Queen Christina.
  • 1654–1660Charles X. Internal reforms. War with Poland. Sweden becomes a world power.
  • 1660–1697Charles II. Sweden becomes a semi-absolute monarchy.
  • 1697–1718Charles XII. Great Northern War.
  • 1720–1751Frederick I. Sweden becomes a limited monarchy.
  • 1741–1743War with Russia.
  • 1751–1810A succession of monarchs. Important continental relations.
  • 1810The French marshal, Bernadotte, is named Crown Prince.
  • 1818Bernadotte becomes King (Charles XIV.).
  • 1844–1859Reign of Oscar I., his son. Liberal reforms.
  • 1859–1872Charles XV. A new constitution granted.
  • 1872–1907Oscar II. Internal problems. Franchise reform.
  • 1905The First Extraordinary Rigsdag meets, to consider dissolution with Norway.
  • 1907–1950Reign of Gustav V.
  • 1909Full manhood suffrage won.
  • 1912–1914Problems of national defense. Fear of Russia.
  • 1913National Pension Insurance.
  • 1914Sweden determines to remain neutral.
    Proposal for woman suffrage.
    Temperance movement. Sweeping social programs. Economic progress.
  • Chronology of Important Events: Denmark

  • 9th centuryThe conversion of the Danes.
  • 1028–1035Canute the Great conquers the whole of Norway. The union comes to an end after his death.
  • 1157–1251Under the Valdemars the kingdom of Denmark is consolidated.
  • 1340–1375Under Valdemar IV. Denmark becomes the great Baltic power.
  • 1397The Union of Kalmar uniting the three Scandinavian countries, under Margaret. The union is short-lived.
  • 1513–1523Reign of Christian II. Attempt to unite the countries.
  • 1523–1533Reign of Frederick I. The Reformation.
  • 1544–1626Denmark is a power in Europe.
  • 1588–1648Christian IV. Commercial expansion.
  • 1643–1645War with Sweden. Denmark loses territory.
  • 1648–1670Frederick III. War with Sweden (under Charles X.). Further loss of land.
  • 1660Hereditary monarchy established.
  • 1660–1815Internal reforms. Foreign complications. Wars.
  • 1815–1830Constitutional agitation.
  • 1848War with Prussia.
  • 1849New constitution granted.
  • 1855Constitution liberalized.
  • 1864Prusso-Danish War. Schleswig-Holstein ceded to Prussia.
  • 1863–1906Reign of Christian IX.
  • 1866–1917Struggle between Conservatives and Reformers in the Rigsdag. (Two Houses: the Landsting, Lower, and the Folksting, the Upper.)
  • 1901First Reform Cabinet.
  • 1906–1912Reign of Frederick VIII.
  • 1910–1913Liberal Ministry under Bernsten.
  • 1912–1947Christian X.
  • 1917Danish West Indies sold to the United States.
  • Reading Recommended