(1832 - 1910)
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. He was the third person to receive it. Henrik Ibsen
was never awarded the prize.
Posterity has chosen to regard this as a
proof of the unimportance of literary prizes. The contemporaries of the
two writers held a different view.
Ibsen and Bjørnson were twin stars in the northern hemisphere, like Castor and Pollux,
and they both deserved the prize. Possibly Bjørnson deserved it more,
as he came closest to fulfilling the intentions of the testator
regarding works written in 120 "an idealistic spirit". This is particularly applicable if the word "works"
is applied in its broadest sense, also embracing Bjørnson´s
championship - through the international press - of persecuted
individuals and oppressed nations, and of his efforts on
behalf of peace and international justice.
But both in his own
age and today, it is Bjørnson´s literary works that single him out for
greatness. In the words of the eminent Danish critic, Georg Brandes, he
was "by the richness of his original talent" superior among the writers
of the Scandinavian countries; "no flight was too lofty" for his
was a born dramatist, though in his early years he also
wrote poetry. He was by inclination a lyric poet, but throughout his
life he also wrote stories, novels and plays. Right from the beginning
it was Bjørnson who led the way, rather than his four-years senior
friend and rival. It was Bjørnson who created the modern, Nordic
historical drama, Ibsen´s "The Pretenders" being an example of this genre. (In this play Bjørnson is a model for King Haakon.)
It was also Bjørnson who wrote the first realistic contemporary plays in Scandinavia; Ibsen
followed, and surpassed him with "Pillars of Society" and "A Doll´s
House". Bjørnson´s plays were those that were first performed outside
Scandinavia. They were a resounding success in the great theatres of Germany and Austria, thus clearing the way to the world arena for
Ibsen´s later dramatic works.
THE PEASANT TALES
Bjørnstjerne Martinius Bjørnson was born on 8 December 1832 at Kvikne in the upper part of the Østerdal valley in eastern Norway, where his father was a clergyman. When Bjørnson was five the family moved to Nesset in Romsdalen, in the west of the country. After completing secondary school in the town of Molde, and a course for the Artium examination (roughly equivalent to British A-levels), in Oslo, Bjørnson tried his hand at journalism. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was married to Karoline and they moved to Aulestad.
Bjørnson and Karoline´s home at Aulestad.
He wrote literary criticisms and short stories in a bold, refreshing style and in the autumn of 1857 made his debut with "Synnøve Solbakken",
the first of his peasant tales. Not only was this his artistic
breakthrough; it also became, and still is, his best-loved book. If one
compares it with other Nordic novels and short stories of the period,
it is easy to see just how strongly it represents a new narrative art.
It is terse, concentrated, verbal in its choice of words and syntax,
daring in its imagery.
The Icelandic sagas, the Norwegian folk tales and perhaps Hans Andersen
too have influenced the style, but their main contribution has been in
helping Bjørnson to find his own literary style. It bears the hallmark
of Norway in its choice of words and syntax, distinguishing it clearly
from the written Danish language which was the norm in Norway
at the time. Bjørnson had already defined one of his bearing themes:
the powerful forces which can lead men astray if they are not put to
the service of a superior goal. There is a strong strain of romantic
idyll in the story, but also an element of what Bjørnson, two years
previously, had called "the naturalistic spirit of the age", which was apparent in "the craving for truth rather than beauty".
During the next few years Bjørnson alternated between writing narratives set against a rural background, and saga
plays, a procedure he referred to as "crop rotation". His reasons for
this were both literary and political. As he said 50 years later; "We
had learned to understand that the linguistic tone of the sagas still
survived among our farmers, and that their life resembled the sagas.
Our people´s life should be built upon its history, and the farmers
were to be the basis of the nation". Bjørnson wrote alternately of the
saga figures and the farmers of his time, who had certain character
traits in common; a restrained power, an unquenchable urge for
adventure, talents in search of a goal, stubborn pride and a shy
taciturnity, which keeps others at arm´s length. But there is a major
difference. In the peasant tales the heroes learn to control their
powers, supported by love and their Christian faith. In the saga plays,
the atmosphere is more rugged, the sav-agery greater, and the heroes
come to a tragic end.
The most important of the rustic novels
after "Synnøve Solbakken" are "Arne" (1859) and "A Happy Boy" (1860). In "Arne" the main character is more complex than in the other books. Arne
is a gifted, artistic man, but a weak one; torn between an impatient
urge to escape from his environment, and his love for all the
things that bind him to hearth and home, and to his barren native
earth. The book´s artistic quality varies. Both the lyrical and the
more realistic passages are powerful, but Bjørnson did not quite
succeed in harmonizing the two. "A Happy Boy", however, is both cohesive and harmonious. It is an idyllic love story, which also reflects some of the issues of the new age.
THE SAGA DRAMAS
The saga drama "Lame Hulda" (1858) was written in Bergen where Bjørnson worked as both theatrical manager, editor and politician from 1857 to 1858. "Lame Hulda" was issued at the same time as Ibsen´s
"The Warriors at Helgeland". Bjørnson´s work appears to draw on the
same sources, but the main female character has a more turbulent
spiritual make-up than Ibsen´s "Hjørdis", while the most important man has many of the traits that Bjørnson later expanded upon in "Arne".
greatest of Bjørnson"s saga plays is a vivid, powerful dramatic trilogy, "Sigurd Slembe" (1862) which was issued the year before
Ibsen´s "The Pretenders", Like Schiller, Bjørnson was intent on letting the present, "the basis from which all springs" be an integral part of the drama. But he also learned something from Shakespeare. One of the central figures in the second part of the play, Harald Jarl, shares some of the traits of Hamlet. The main character resembles Torbjørn, the leading male figure in "Synnøve Solbakken", and also "Arne". The bearing theme is the old one - though it is amplified through a growing understanding of the "laws of equilibrium" and of the universal. "The young Sigurd is able enough - and a king´s son into the bargain".
But he is a slave of his own ungovernable nature and the
self-destructive forces within him, and is therefore defeated in the
struggle for the throne.
Schiller and Shakespeare also provided some of the impulses to "Mary Queen of Scots" (1863), though Bjørnson´s view differs from that which runs through Schiller´s drama of the Scottish Queen.
She is unable to commit herself totally to any human relationship, and
this brings about her downfall, he maintains. Bjørnson puts her into
interesting relief against the feeble Darnley on the one side, and the strong and obdurate John Knox on the other. The Shakespearean influence is clearly evident in the dramatic richness and the lyrical and picturesque prose.
between Denmark and Germany in 1864 made a deep impression on Ibsen and Bjørnson
alike, and in a number of poems Bjørnson expressed his sorrow and
indignation over the Danes´ lonely stance against a superior force. But
he reacted strongly to the violent condemnation and the fanatical
consistency in Ibsen´s "Brand". On the other hand he was affected by the Danish poet, historian and theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig´s democratic propaganda and national preachings, and the tolerance and "joyful Christianity" advocated by Grundtvig left their mark on Bjørnson´s play "The Fisher Maiden"
1868. This is a fresh and spirited tale of an imaginative young girl
who through a series of conflicts achieves artistic maturity. The style
and structure reveal a kinship to the
peasant tales, but the realistic description of social background, the
frankness and independence of the young girl, and the topical
discussion passages show the first traces of "the modern breakthrough" that was to take place in the Scandinavian literature of the 1870s and 1880s.
his earliest stories and plays, and in newspapers and periodicals as
well, Bjørnson published many songs and poems, and he continued to do
so for the rest of his life. In 1870 he issued a grand, epic-lyrical
cycle "Arnljot Gelline", which deals with a minor character in the Snorre Sturlason saga of Olav Haraldsson, the
Norwegian saint-king. Later in the same year came "Poems and Songs", a collection of all the lyrical poems he had so far written. It was later published in new, and expanded versions.
lyrical poetry is many-faceted. Among its common features are
spontaneity, immediate impact and appeal, simple, unconventional
expressive imagery, and a rich variety of rhythmic and musical
presentation. Both thematically and formally it is richly nuanced. It
embraces love poems and descriptions of nature, historical ballads,
patriotic poems, including "Norway thine is our devotion" - the national anthem of Norway
- as well as political battle songs, commissioned works, commemorative
poems, and salutations to great contemporaries. The early songs,
including many from the peasant tales, frequently have a light and
delicate air, while those written after Bjørnson´s first encounter with
antiquity - in the Rome of the early 1860s, and with Goethe´s lyrical poetry, often have a more powerful rhythm and plastic visuality.
Much of his lyrical output is eminently singable, and many of the poems became national property, not only in Norway, but in Denmark
too, and to a certain degree in the other Nordic countries. No other
Norwegian poet has had so many of his words put to music by so many
THEATRE, NEWSPAPER and POLITICS
was also theatre manager, editor and active politician in the 1860s.
The subsequent ten years of his life were more turbulent than ever. Of
particularly bitter nature was the so-called "Signal Feud" after Bjørnson, at Grundtvig´s burial, had appealed to his Danish friends to "change signals" and seek reconciliation with the Germans
(1872). He himself believed that the external strife indirectly served
to benefit his poetry, but at times his political activity sapped all
strength, and he was forced to go abroad to write in peace.
before his debut Bjørnson wished to write bourgeois contemporary drama.
A stay in Paris in 1863 stimulated this urge, and with "The Newly
Married Couple" (1865), virtually a "proverb" in Alfred de Musset´s style, he created the first bourgeois problem drama to be written in Scandinavia. With its treatment of a marital problem the play was the first to bring queries and doubt into the "contemporary bourgeoisie" as Edvard Brandes, brother of Georg Brandes, later wrote. Nevertheless, ten years were to elapse before Bjørnson´s next contemporary drama was published.
In 1872, after he had concluded his "crop rotation" with the peasant tale "The Bridal Dance" and the saga drama "Sigurd Jorsalfar" - neither of them among the finest of his works - Bjørnson went to Rome, where he stayed from 1873 to 1875. There he wrote "The Bankrupt" and "The Editor". Both of these had their first showings in Stockholm
in 1875, and were published during the same year. They inaugurated the
realistic contemporary and problem drama in the Nordic countries. "The Bankrupt" was also an international success. Georg Brandes welcomed it with open arms, claiming that the "two great powers, the present and reality had at last come into their right". Many years later August Strindberg called them "the signal rockets".
In these works too French impulses are visible (Augier and Sardou), but Bjørnson has given them his own special stamp. "The Bankrupt",
which puts treacherous business morals at the centre of a dramatic
conflict, is characterized, like most of Bjørnson´s realistic
contemporary plays, by a folksy exuberance, clear character
delineation, and vivid scenes.
"The Editor" is based on Bjørnson´s own experiences as a politician. It seeks to elevate "the ethical responsibility in politics". It is more original than "The Bankrupt", but not so lively in plot and characterization.
In "Captain Mansana" (1875) where the setting is Italian but the thematics are reminiscent of the peasant tales, the responsibility for Captain Mansana´s downfall is put on "unhealthy, unnatural social conditions, which poison society and the human mind". Bjørnson´s next drama, the part-realistic part-symbolic and occasionally somewhat obscure "The King",
is full of political and sociological dynamite. It challenges the
monarchy, the state church, the military establishment and pecuniary
power, primarily by way of the King, who is a well-meaning idealist - while the fanatical republican´s intransigence is his own undoing.
When Bjørnson was five the family moved to Nesset.
In the same year - 1877, came "Magnhild", Bjørnson´s first, and perhaps finest realistic novel. In this he trains a spotlight - two years before Ibsen
in "A Doll´s House" - on matrimony, painting a dismal picture of the
conventional marriage and indicating divorce as the only sensible
solution. At the same time he rejects the romantic-religious concept of
"the calling", which he had previously believed in. The human assignation is not single but multi-leaved as he puts it. In "Magnhild" he is somewhat more critical of the peasant community than
he had previously been.
Both "The King" and "Magnhild" testify to a strong radicalization of Bjørnson"s opinions and attitudes. Like
the Grundtvigians he believed that Christianity should be a driving
force in the development of political and intellectual freedom. But his
disappointment at the Church´s deprecatory attitude towards democracy
and intellectual freedom gradually led him to doubt its preachings. As
far back as 1871 he had read Charles Darwin and in 1877 - 79 he re-read his works. He also read John Stuart Mill, Hippolyte Taine and the Bible criticism of Ernest Renan and Viktor Rydberg. After considerable
soul-searching he openly rejected the church´s teachings, but by nature
he was, and continued to be, a believer. The doctrine of evolution
became his new creed and in his beautiful "Psalms" he extolled his
belief in "the eternal Spring of Life".
Both "The King",
"Magnhild" and Bjørnson´s new religious convictions raised a storm of
bitterness. The play "The New System"
(1879) is partly inspired by this
experience. The disagreement revolves around the basic principles of
railway construction, but the real conflict lies between the old and
the new, between the reforming zeal and thirst for truth of the young,
and the conservatism and authoritarian beliefs of the old. In "Leonarda" (1879) Bjørnson continued, in dramatic form, the debate on marriage and divorce that he initiated in "Magnhild".
In this play he shows that the "faithless",
divorced woman is led by a higher morality than the bishop himself. But
while stressing the value of sensualism, and the right to divorce, if
this is necessary, the play also extols the virtues of self-control,
self-respect and self-denial. In "A Gauntlet" (1883) Bjørnson, through the character Svava, demands of men the same "purity"
that is required of women. This brought him under cross-fire from the
clergy on the one side, and from the radicals and the adherents of
free-love on the other. It marked the commencement of a heated debate
on morality later in the 1880s, when Bjørnson clashed with both August Strindberg and Georg Brandes.
Bjørnson´s new religious convictions are apparent both in "Dust",
a short story written in 1882, where he attempted to show how inherited
religious conceptions make people unfit for life itself and in "Beyond our Power" from 1883, the most compact and concentrated of his dramas.
The priest Sang,
has much in common with the trail-blazing figures of his early works,
but differs from them in his shining piety and boundless charity. All
his aspirations are directed towards religion, and he
awaits the miracle that will confirm the faith he proclaims. But even
for him the miracle and thus - according to the play - Christianity
itself are beyond human power. Sang is torn to shreds by his
and is literally killed by the disappointment. Bjørnson has succeeded
in embodying this powerful and challenging theme within the framework
of a realistic contemporary drama.
The plot is in itself "fantastic" but amidst the mighty Nordland
landscapes it becomes plausible and is supported both by the character
portrayals, the lyrical base , and the simple, dramatic structure. The
mood swings between faith and doubt, hope and anxiety, humour and the
deepest gravity, while the tension mounts towards a summit of
breathless expectation when anything can happen. Bjørnson had again
challenged popular beliefs. The play was performed in Paris in 1894 but was not presented in Norway and Denmark until 1899.
After the religious drama, Bjørnson again returned to the problem of morality, in a richly coloured novel "The Heritage of the Kurts"
from 1884. This is a dramatic family chronicle focusing on the moral
responsibility of the individual and society in the light of modern
genetics and the doctrine of evolution. In 1889 came "In God´s Way",
in which religious issues lead to a bitter conflict between two
friends, a clergyman and a doctor. Only in the light of dearly bought
experience do they both realize - and in particular the priest,who is
most in need of it - that "where good people walk, there is God´s way". The didactic strain is strongly evident in this book but Bjørnson´s humour and narrative zest, as well
as his talent for making his characters come alive, carries the reader
along with him.
In the 1880s Bjørnson´s political involvement
reached a peak. He played a prominent part in the Liberal Party´s
struggle for parliamentarianism in Norway and for expanded Norwegian
autonomy within the Swedish / Norwegian union.
After 1890 he moderated
his views on the union, devoting more time to the cause of peace,
arbitration and the struggle for the persecuted and oppressed. This
embraced both nations and individuals - such as Alfred Dreyfus.
Social problems increased in step with the march of industrialization
and he strove to find their solution. Bjørnson regarded himself as a
socialist, but hoped for a peaceful resolution of the class war.
We encounter much of this attitude in his works from the 1890s. Bjørnson wrote an epic poem "Peace" in 1891 and in "Beyond Human Might"
from 1895, he created a large-scale drama about the modern class
struggle, believably the first in world literature. The subject is a
strike, with the two sides locked in bitter conflict. Despairing
workers confront obdurate factory owners. Their ideologies too are
Revolutionary, idealistic anarchy is at the one extreme, Nietzschean
"Herren-Moral" at the other. The outcome is disaster, but from the
ashes rises a dream of reconciliation: "Someone must start by
Already in "The Editor" Bjørnson had shown how
politicians could become hard and unscrupulous. In a number of his works, such as "Sigurd Slembe" and "Mary Queen of Scots", he portrayed
weak and passive characters with considerable understanding. In "Paul
Lange and Tora Parsberg"
(1898), which was based on actual events in
the 1880s, the leading male character has the tender and sensitive
nature which is a condition for sensing injustices in society and for
remedying them. But his frailness renders him defenceless in the tough
political climate, and not even the fine, wise woman who loves him is
capable of saving him.
Only two of the plays written late in Bjørnson´s life need be mentioned. These are "Daglannet" of 1904, again based on the generation gap, but now linked to industrialisation, and "When the new Vines blossom" (1909) an invigorating comedy whose very title stands in characteristic contrast to Ibsen´s sombre epilogue, "When we dead awaken".
In the almost 80-year-old poet, faith in life is undiminished. It fills
the last great poem he completed and it is discernible in the title of
the last work he wished to write, "Good
deeds save the world".
Bjørnson died in Paris on 26 April 1910.
significance in the literary picture lies not only in the intrinsic
value of his works, but also in the pioneering part he played within
both lyrical poetry, the narrative art and in drama. Many writers in
Norway and in the other Scandinavian lands have admitted their
indebtedness to him, including some of international renown, such as Knut Hamsun in Norway, Selma Lagerlöf in Sweden, and Johannes V. Jensen in Denmark. A large number of Bjørnson´s books have been translated into other European languages and have made their mark both on German literature and that of several Slavonic nations.
life and works are also intimately linked to the political and social
history of his country. He lived in an age of upheaval and innovation,
when Norway took a decisive step along the way from a peasant
economy to an industrial society, from the dominance of the government
officials to democracy, from a subservient role in Scandinavia to equal status. He
belonged to the "generation of 1848",
as he expressed it. His wish was
that the ideals of freedom and equality, which in 1848 had perished
along with the revolutions on the Continent, should come to peaceful
fruition in Norway.
Bjørnson´s view national independence, social and cultural liberation
and political democratization were all aspects of the same issue. In
all his written works and his political activity he was a spokesman not
only for the farming communities and the oppositional sector of the
bourgeoisie, but also for the weak and oppressed: women, crofters and
workers. For all these groups he demanded voting rights. For women he
called for complete equality, access to all professions and easier
He demanded that
crofters be allowed to own their own land and that the workers be given
better working conditions and more influence at their workplaces. He
called for open discussion of topics that had formerly been tabu;
Christianity, the monarchy and sexuality, and he was generally the
first to speak up. No one in Norway widened the bounds of free debate
more than Bjørnson did. And on the basis of the Norwegians´ struggle to
rule their own house he championed the cause of the small nations in
their fight for cultural and political rights and consequently for
international arbitration, disarmament and peace.
MELLEM SLAGENE, 1857
SYNNØVE SOLBAKKEN, 1857
HALTE HULDA, 1858
EN GLAD GUT, 1860
KONG SVERRE, 1861
SIGURD SLEMBE, 1961
MARIA STUART I SKOTLAND, 1864
DE NYGIFTE, 1865
JERNBANEN OCH KIERKEGAARDEN, 1866
DIGTE OG SANGE, 1870
ARNLJOT GELLINE, 1870
SIGURD JORSALFAR, 1872
EN FALLIT, 1875
ARNLJOT GELLINE, 1875
KAPTEJN MANSANA, 1879
DE NY SYSTEM, 1879
EN HANSKE, 1883
DET FLAGER I BYEN OG PAA HAVNEN, 1884
GEOGRAFI OF KJÆRLIGHED, 1885
OVER ÆVNE, I, 1886
PÅ GUDS VEJE, 1889
ABSALONS HAAR, 1894
NYE FORTÆLLINGER, 1894
PAUL LANGE OG TORA PARSBERG, 1898
PÅ STORHOVE, 1902
NAAR DE NY VIN BLOMSTER, 1909
SAMLADE VÆRKER, 1914
ARTIKLER OG TALER, 1920
SAMLADE VÆRKER, 1932
BREV TIL KAROLINE, 1957
The author, Edvard Beyer, is professor
of Nordic literature at the University of Oslo.