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 "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 genius. Ibsen 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 theaters 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. 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."
The 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.
The war 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.
In 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, theNorwegian 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.
Bjørnson's 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 composers.
Theatre, Newspapers and Politics
Bjørnson 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 his strength, and he was forced to go abroad to write in peace.
Even 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.
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 own belief 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 totally opposed. 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 forgiving."
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 April 26, 1910.
Bjørnson's 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.
Bjørnson's 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. In 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
divorce. 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.
The author, Edvard Beyer, is professor of Nordic literature at the University of Oslo.
Produced by Nytt fra Norge for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The author is responsible for the contents of the article.
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