Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne (8 September 1832 - 26 April 1910)

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Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (8 September 1832 - 26 April 1910)

Hans H. Skei
University of Oslo





1903 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

Bjørnson: Banquet Speech

BOOKS: Synnøve Solbakken (Christiania: Johan Dahls, 1857); translated by Augusta Bethell and Augusta Plesner as Love and Life in Norway (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1870);

Mellem slagene (Christiania: C. A. Dybwad, 1857);

Halte-Hulda (Bergen: H. J. Geelmuydens Enkes Officin og Forlag, 1858);

Arne (Bergen: H. J. Geelmuydens Enkes Officin og Forlag, 1859); translated as Arne, or Peasant Life in Norway: A Norwegian Tale (Bergen, 1860);

Småstykker (Christiania, 1860)-includes “Thrond,” En glad gut, and “Faderen”

Kong Sverre (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1861);

Sigurd Slembe (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1862); translated by William Morton Payne as Sigurd Slembe: A Dramatic Trilogy (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1888);

Maria Stuart i Skottland (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1864);

De Nygifte (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1865); translated by John Volk as The Newly Married (Chicago: Scandinavia, 1885);

Fiskerjenten (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1868); translated from the author’s German edition by M.E. Niles as The Fisher-Maiden: A Norwegian Tale (New York: Leypoldt & Holt, 1869);

Arnljot Gelline (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1870); translated by Payne as Arnljot Gelline (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1917);

Digte og Sange (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1870; revised and enlarged editions, 1880, 1890, and 1914);

Fortællinger, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1872)— comprises volume 1, Arne, Synnøve Solbakken, Jærnbanen og Kirkegaarden, and Småstykker; and volume 2, En glad gut, Fiskerjenten, and Brudeslåtten;

Sigurd Jorsalfar (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1872);

Brudeslåtten (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1873);

En fallit (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1875);

Redaktøren (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1874 [i.e., 1875]);

Kongen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1877);

Magnhild (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1877);

Vis-Knut (Chicago: Skandinavens boghandel, 1878); translated by Bernard Stahl as Wise-Knut (New York: Brandu’s, 1909);

Det ny system (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1879);

Kaptein Mansana (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1879);

Leonarda (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1879);

En hanske (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1883); translated by Osman Edwards as A Gauntlet (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1894);

Over ævne I (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1883); translated by William Wilson as Pastor Sang (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1893);

Det flager i byen og på havnen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1884); translated by Cecil Fairfax as The Heritage of the Kurts (London: Heinemann, 1892);

Geografi og kjærlighed (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1885);

Engifte og mangegifte: Et foredrag (Fagerstrand pr. Høvik: Bibliothek for de tusen hjem, 1888);

På Guds veje (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1889); translated by Elizabeth Carmichael as In God’s Way (London: Heinemann, 1890; New York: Lovell, 1890);

Nye fortællinger (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1894)—comprises Absalons hår, Et stygt barndomsminde, Mors hænder, and En dag;

Over ævne II (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1895);

Paul lange og Tora Parsberg (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1898); translated by H. L. Braekstad as Paul lange and Tora Parsberg (London & New York: Harper, 1899);

Laboremus (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1901); translated as Laboremus (London: Chapman & Hall, 1901);

To fortællinger (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1901)—comprises Støv and Ivar Bye;

På Storhove (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1902);

Daglannet (Copenhagen & Christiania: Gyldendal, 1904);

Mary (Copenhagen & Christiania: Gyldendal, 1906);

To taler (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1906);

Når den ny vin blomstrer (Copenhagen & Christiania: Gyldendal, 1909).

Collection: Samlede digterværker, 9 volumes, edited by Francis Bull (Copenhagen & Christiania: Gyldendal, 1919-1920).

Editions in English: life by the Fells and Fiords: A Norwegian Sketch-Book (London: Strahan, 1879)—includes Arne and Brude-Slaatten;

Works, 5 volumes, translated by Rasmus B. Anderson (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1882)—comprises volume 1, Synnove Solbakken; volume 2, Magnild and Dust; volume 3, The Bridal March and Captain Mansana; volume 4, The Fisher Maiden; and volume 5, A Happy Boy, Blakken, Fidelity, and A Problem of Life;

The Novels of Björnstjerne Björnson, 13 volumes, edited by Edmund Gosse (New York: Macmillan, 1895-1909)—comprises volume 1, Synnövé Solbakken, translated by Julie Sutter (1895); volume 2, Arne, translated by William Low (1895); volume 3, A Happy Boy, translated by Mrs. W. Archer (1896); volume 4, The Fisher lass (1896); volume 5, The Bridal March & One Day (1896); volume 6, Magnhild & Dust (1897); volume 7, Captain Mansana & Mother’s Hands (1897); volume 8, Absalom’s Hair & A Painful Memory (1898); volumes 9-10, In God’s Way, translated by Elizabeth Carmichael (1908); volumes 11-12, The Heritage of the Kurts, translated by Cecil Fairfax (1908); and volume 13, Mary, translated by Mary Morison (1909);

Three Comedies, translated by R. Farquharson Sharp (London: Dent, 1912)—comprises The Newly-Married Couple, Leonarda, and The Gauntlet;

Plays, translated by Edwin Bjeørkman (New York: Scribners, 1913)—comprises The Gauntlet, Beyond Our Power, and The New System;

Plays, 2d Series, translated by Bjørkman (New York: Scribners, 1914)—comprises Love and Geography, Beyond Human Might, and laboremus;

Three Dramas, translated by Sharp (London: Dent / New York: E. P. Dutton, 1914)—comprises The Editor, The Bankrupt, and The King;

Poems and Songs, translated by Arthur Hubbell Palmer (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1915).

PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Mellem slagene, Christiania [Oslo], Christiania Theater, 27 October 1857;

Kong Sverre, Christiania, Christiania Norske Teater, 9 October 1861;

Halte-Hulda, Christiania, Christiania Norske Teater, 25 April 1862;

Sigurd Slembe, parts 1 and 3, Trondheim, Trondhjems Teater, 30 September 1863;

De Nygifte, Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Theater, 23 November 1865;

Maria Stuart i Skottland, Christiania, Christiania Theater, 29 March 1867;

Sigurd Jorsalfar, Christiania, Christiania Theater, 10 April 1872;

En fallit, Stockholm, Nya Teatem, 19 January 1875;

Redaktøren, Stockholm, Nya Teatern, 17 February 1875;

Det ny system, Berlin, Residenz-Theater, 19 December 1878;

Leonarda, Christiania, Christiania Theater, 22 April 1879;

En hanske, Hamburg, Stadt-Theater, 11 October 1883;

Geografi og kjærlighed, Christiania, Christiania Theater, 21 October 1885;

Over ævne I, Stockholm, Nya Teatern, 3 January 1886;

Over ævne II, Paris, Théâtre de l’oeuvre, 1897;

Paul lange og Tora Parsberg, Stuttgart, spring 1901;

Laboremus, Christiania, Nationaltheateret, 29 April 1901;

Kongen, Christiania, Nationaltheateret, 11 September 1902;

På Storhove, Christiania, Nationaltheateret, 4 November 1902;

Daglannet, Christiania, Nationaltheateret, 31 August 1905;

Når den ny vin blomstrer, Christiania, Nationaltheateret, 29 September 1909.

TRANSLATION: Victor Hugo, Århundredenes legende (Oslo, 1911).

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1903, as the third writer to receive this honor. He was an obvious choice for the Swedish Academy, especially since he, more than most writers, fulfilled the requirement that the recipient’s literary works ought to be written in an “idealistic spirit.” In addition to a lifelong career of writing poetry, stories, novels, and plays with high but shifting ideals, Bjørnson had used his position as an author of international renown to help persecuted individuals and oppressed nations. He was thus a more natural choice for the Swedish Academy than his contemporary and fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen, although time has shown that Ibsen’s work has more lasting value and appeal; Bjørnson’s work is no longer read much, even in his native country, and his once so radically new and trendsetting plays are rarely performed. Yet, Bjørnson remains a significant author in Norwegian literary history, because he wrote in all genres and was the first author—before Ibsen—to produce historical dramas as well as realistic plays from the contemporary scene, with their implied discussions of social problems of many sorts.

Bjørnson was an important and decisive figure both as a writer and as a public voice in a nation that had obtained its freedom (from Denmark) and its own constitution only in 1814 and had had to accept a union with Sweden and a Swedish king who was also the king of Norway. Writers could, in the days when Bjørnson published his earliest work, really be “the trumpets that blow to battle, the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Percy Bysshe Shelley maintained. Important changes in the Norwegian political system took place, after hard fights, in the 1880s; Bjørnson was actively involved on the left side of Norwegian politics. His role and influence were instrumental in the fight for secession from the union, which finally led to a peaceful solution and a free and independent Kingdom of Norway in 1905. Bjørnson was a great orator, and apparently nothing was too big or too small for him either to defend or to attack. Inevitably he made enemies on all sides, but he also earned respect and appreciation. A life of serious and varied literary production, much of which had been translated into many languages, had earned him this right. One literary historian, Francis Bull, sums up his long biographical study by stating that Bjørnson’s life was the richest and fullest ever lived by a Norwegian.

Bjørnson was Norway’s great national poet in the second half of the nineteenth century. Everything he did contributed to a feeling of national pride. He also wrote a series of historical plays that were, with one exception, rooted in the old and proud history from the days of the Viking kings and before Denmark came to rule Norway for more than four hundred years. Thus he proved, poetically, that Norwegians had a glorious past history, that they were an old people and had been a powerful kingdom. He championed a Norwegian flag and wanted Norwegians to celebrate their independence day (17 May), when they seceded from the union with Denmark, and later he advocated ending the union with Sweden. He was a devoted republican at that time, yet accepted the new king without hesitation, because peaceful solutions to national and international questions were also something he had worked for on the international scene for decades. A marvelous orator, he spoke to audiences of as many as fifty thousand people on many lecture tours in Norway and other Scandinavian countries. He was a liberal but could also be a pragmatist and often changed his views, and he was as strongly disliked as he was loved, which was perhaps inevitable since he used his popularity as a writer to participate in national politics. He was a personal Christian who for a period believed in “a joyful Christianity,” on the model from the great Danish poet, historian, and theologian N. F. S. Grundtvig; yet, when he read the works of Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill, he rejected the teachings of the church, although he may well have been a believer all his life. He even went as far as claiming that he was a socialist, but not with the utopian dreams in which some of their leaders believed. More than anything, he was a strong and stern moralist, who let his literary characters go through ordeals and struggles so that they might learn to control their natures and destructive powers in themselves that may seem to be beyond their control.

In many of his early works, his characters share traits that may well stem from the heroes in the Icelandic sagas—traits that Bjørnson thought he found among the peasants of his own time. He lived abroad for extended periods of his life and wrote some thirty thousand letters, always vibrant and enthusiastically involved in everything that happened in the nation and to the people whose foremost voice he wanted to be, even when Ibsen’s star slowly rose above his and even when the great traveler, discoverer, and scientist Fridtjof Nansen became more of a national hero and symbol than Bjørnson. What he left behind is first and foremost his books, a few of which may have lasting value, although his literary reputation has been in decline for many decades. Among the old critics of the historical-biographical school he was the greatest of all Norwegian writers, but they wrote their literary histories with the same goal as Bjørnson had in most of his writing: to help in the building of a nation.

Bjørnstjern Martinius Bjørnson was born on 8 September 1832 in Kvikne in the Østerdalen valley in Norway. His father, Peder Bjørnson, came from southern Norway but was a clergyman at Kvikne. He had married Inger Elise Nordraak in 1831. She was the aunt of the composer Richard Nordraak, who wrote the music to Bjørnson’s “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” (Norway thine is our devotion, written in 1859 and first sung publicly in 1864)—the country’s national anthem. Bjørnstjern was named after his grandfather, Bjørn, and Martin Luther. He later added an “e” to the end of his first name (it translates literally as “bear-star”), and his parents must have had high hopes for their firstborn son to give him such a rare and pretentious name. His brothers and sisters, five in all, had common names.

When Bjørnson was five years old the family moved to Naesset vicarage in Romsdalen, in the west of the country. The area has some of the most impressive and dramatic landscapes in all of Norway, with high mountains and fjords that penetrate deep into the land. Bjørnson always claimed that his character was formed and molded by the natural beauty of Romsdalen’s “wild land,” where he later found himself to be really “at home.” There he also became acquainted with the peasant population. He loved and admired them for their struggle and endurance and also for their silent acceptance of their lot, for their basic religious beliefs, and for their sense of tradition and for keeping up ways of life that had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Bjørnson went to middle school in the small nearby town of Molde in 1844. He quickly became a leader among the schoolboys, and in the revolutionary year of 1848 he saw his first article in print in a newspaper and also tried to organize celebrations of independence day on 17 May. He moved to Christiania (which became Oslo in 1925) for his further education and entered what was known as a “student factory” to take courses toward examen atrium (high school exams). He later wrote a poem about his memories from these school years, “Gamle Heltberg” (1873, Old Heltberg), and boys who later became famous writers were in the same classroom: Ibsen, Jonas Lie, and Aasmund O. Vinje. Bjørnson may have been involved with too many interests to concentrate on his studies, and he only got passable grades after continuation exams in 1854. He planned to study theology at the university but quickly abandoned all such thoughts. His father refused to give him further financial support since the son had made up his mind to become a writer, which was an uncertain and not-too-profitable future career. Nothing could stop Bjørnson, however.

He did all sorts of work in his apprenticeship years and made a meager living by writing reviews of books and theater performances. The few and scattered poems that were published brought in little money, but he was in the midst of a group of students and intellectuals who knew that they represented the future of the nation, if they could only somehow take over the hegemony of the old, Romantic school of writers and artists. Bjørnson’s ideal of a writer was Henrik Wergeland, who did not care for any of the rules or aesthetic laws for literature and accordingly wrote radically fresh and new poetry. Wergeland also tried to help people of the working classes and was always in the midst of some fight for human rights, always living at least as much as he was singing—as Bjørnson later said about himself. In an 1854 review of an anthology, Bjørnson attacked the Romantic poets, with Wergeland’s nemesis Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven as their leader. He was tired of all the Romantic dreaming and sick walks in moonlight, and he prophesied that new poets soon would replace the old ones and carry on the ideals from Wergeland.

Bjørnson obviously wanted to be the leader of this new generation of poets, but at this time he was primarily a journalist. He lived by his pen, but he did not write much literature. As a drama critic he advocated a long-standing dream of a Norwegian national theater, with actors who were allowed to speak Norwegian and not Danish. He even founded a magazine, Illustreret Folkeblad (Illustrated People’s Magazine), with the goal of creating a Norwegian culture that was independent of Denmark. He had made a name for himself but had not really succeeded as a writer yet. He was impatient, but felt that the stories he wrote were not good enough.

The decisive experience that made him write his first successful play came in 1856 when he joined Scandinavian students in Uppsala—a movement known as “Scandinavianism” peaked about this time—and saw historical objects and relics. He became aware of Norway’s long and glorious past, and he wanted to be the one who made this past come alive and become a potent force in the present, creating a new kind of national pride. In his essay “Hvorledes jeg blev Digter” (1857, How I Became a Writer), Bjørnson tells that he slept for three days after this visit, and then went to Sègne—where his father had moved in 1853—and wrote Mellem slagene (1857, Between the Battles) in three weeks. This one-act play takes as its subject the fight between royal pretenders in Norway in the twelfth century. The play had a moderate success when it was performed in Christiania in October 1857; but it was preceded in Bjørnson’s career by several other works that were published before this play. He had prepared himself for many years; now he was ready to launch his first books.

Bjørnson made his debut when the first of his “peasant tales,” Synnøve Solbakken (Sunny Hill), was serialized in Illustreret Folkeblad in the summer of 1857 and published as a book in the fall of the same year. The tale was written in Copenhagen, where Bjørnson spent almost a whole year (1856-1857). Throughout his career Bjørnson escaped to foreign countries to find peace and quiet from politics and other activities at home, and most of these periods abroad proved to be quite productive. In Copenhagen he not only wrote Synnøve Solbakken but also began writing the drama Halte-Hulda (Lame Hulda; published in 1858, performed in 1862) in addition to making notes for another peasant tale, En glad gut (A Happy Boy, included in Småstykker[1860, Short Pieces]), and one of his best historical plays, Sigurd Slembe (published in 1862, performed in 1863).

In 1857 Bjørnson had published a short story called “Thrond,” which may be regarded as his first attempt at a peasant tale in the small format. It appeared originally in the Danish paper Fædrelandet (11 - 12 March 1857), then in the Norwegian magazine Illustreret Nyhedsblad (12 April 1857) before being included in Småstykker. He later changed this story considerably; but with Synnåve Solbakken he had reached full mastery and renewed a genre almost so that it became his own. Synnåve Solbakken has always been Bjørnson’s most loved book. There were many tales from peasant life both in Denmark and Germany, but Bjørnson had learned from the Icelandic sagas and the Norwegian folktales, so that he now created a totally new narrative, written in a language that was Norwegian in rhythm, style, and syntax—quite different from the written Danish that was the official norm in Norway at this time. Literary historians Bull and Edvard Beyer have both claimed that Bjørnson here for the first time presented and defined one of the dominant themes in all his writing: the strong forces that can lead men astray if they are not put to the service of superior goals. Bjørnson’s heroes—in his historical plays as well as in the peasant tales—must learn to control their emotions. Strong passions must be subdued; stubborn pride must yield to a more balanced understanding of oneself and a more generous acceptance of one’s fellow men. The moral lessons are learned through loss and suffering, or from the examples of one’s elders and superiors, always with the help of love and Christian faith.

After Bjørnson had championed the idea of a Norwegian theater in newspaper articles and reviews, others began to support it. The famous fiddle player Ole Bull, who had made a fortune playing all over the world (and who later created an “ideal” settlement in Pennsylvania, named Oleana), had his own theater in Bergen, on the west coast of Norway. In the fall of 1857 he hired Bjørnson to be the artistic director of his theater. Bjørnson did not return to Christiania until the summer of 1859, and the Bergen years were decisive in his career in many respects. There he learned the theater world from the inside; he became editor of a local newspaper; and he had his first opportunities to practice as an orator in front of large audiences. This experience in its turn seems to have influenced his lyrical poetry, which became broader and more general in its approach and outlook, as if he knew that he represented many and not only himself. And he met his future wife, Karoline Reimers, whom he married on 11 September 1858 and who stood by his side in good and bad times and survived her husband by twenty-four years. Bjørnson had been “engaged” to other girls before, and shortly after his marriage he fell in love with a Danish actress and even had thoughts of divorcing Karoline. But things calmed down little by little, with Bjørnson in Rome and his wife and son (Bjørn, born in 1859) in Copenhagen. They joined him in Rome in September 1861, and the family did not return to Norway until April 1863. This time Bjørnson stayed in Christiania for almost ten years, with the exception of a stay in Copenhagen in the winter of 1867-1868.

The years in Rome were productive, and when the thirty-one-year-old writer returned to Norway he was well established as a poet, a dramatist, and a writer of stories and tales. Only later did he write novels; in the early years of his career he alternated between saga plays and peasant tales, narratives set against a rural background. He called this alternation “crop rotation,” and he carried on with this practice all through the 1860s and up to 1872. The government had awarded him a travel grant for his trip to Rome; now he was the first writer to receive a permanent annual grant from the same government.

The most significant books from these years are the peasant tales that followed Synnåve Solbakken: Arne (1859) and En glad gut. The latter is also among Bjørnson’s most popular books, a well-structured story of aspirations and hopes, but also of love and happiness. The critics who found Bjørnson’s peasants to be idealized versions of real people may also consider En glad gut too much of an idyll, but this point does not diminish the story. Several of the best known and most loved among Bjørnson’s poems are also found as integral parts of these narratives.

Bjørnson finished Halte-Hulda in November 1857, but his best saga play is the powerful and dramatic three-part Sigurd Slembe. The theme of the drama is basically the same as in the peasant tales. Prince Sigurd is capable and the son of a king, but he is also a slave to his own violent nature and destructive forces with which he cannot cope. This violence in turn leads to his defeat in the struggle for the throne. Bjørnson had read and learned a great deal from the works of William Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller, and their influence is clearly visible in another drama, Maria Stuart i Skottland (Mary Queen of Scots; published in 1864, performed in 1867), his only play with a subject outside Norwegian history.

From 1865 and for two and a half years Bjørnson was in charge of a theater in Christiania, where he had an excellent opportunity to create a Norwegian theater. Again, he was editor of a newspaper and was involved in politics, and it is more than likely that he needed to get away from political quarrels when he left for Copenhagen in 1867. During this stay Bjørnson came in contact with Grundtvig, and his basic attitudes and beliefs gradually changed, becoming firmly based in a personal, Christian faith. This shift is reflected in the first long narrative he wrote, Fiskerjenten (1868; translated as The Fisher-Maiden), an entertaining story about a girl who becomes an artist and who finally finds her “joyful beliefs” in a light and happy religion.

Bjørnson had written poetry all through his career, and in 1870 he published a great epic-lyrical cycle of poems, Arnljot Gelline, about a minor character from the saga of Olaf II Haraldsson, the king who became a saint after his death in 1030. Bjørnson also gathered most of the lyrical poems he had written so far in Digte og sange (1870, Poems and Songs), a collection that the author later revised and expanded several times. He included many political songs, commissioned or occasional poetry, commemorative works, and poems in which he saluted great contemporaries. The most powerful pieces may be his poems about the old Norwegian kings, such as “Olav Trygvasson” (first published in Illustreret Folkeblad, 1862), about the Viking king who fought all the smaller pretenders to make Norway one kingdom. Bjørnson included several poems from his early peasant tales, and they are light and joyful pieces. The poems he wrote after his encounter with antiquity in Rome have a heavier and more powerful rhythm. Contemporary composers often set Bjørnson’s poems to music, and these songs are still part of Norwegian heritage.

When Grundtvig died in 1872, Bjørnson gave a speech at his funeral. Some people had thought that he might become the new leader of the movement Grundtvig had begun, but by this time Bjørnson had lost faith in the church and in Christianity as he saw it practiced. Also, he began appealing to his Danish friends to “change signals,” that is, to seek reconciliation with the Germans; and he even believed in what one might call Pan-Germanism. The so-called signal feud caused Bjørnson much bitterness and led to a complete severing of ties with his Grundtvigian friends in Norway. This break was particularly awkward since he had bought a farm in Gausdal in 1874 and had begun to spend much time there, close to important figures in the Folk High School movement based on Grundtvig’s ideas.

Bjørnson now came to rely on the discoveries of modern natural sciences, the work of Darwin included. In one of his best poems, “Salme” (1879, Psalm), he praises “the eternal spring of Life” and describes what is clearly the doctrine of evolution in a simplified, yet convincing and beautiful way.

Bjørnson included a new peasant tale, Brudeslåtten (The Bridal Dance), in the two-volume set of stories he published in 1872, the same year that his saga drama Sigurd Jorsalfar appeared, and he thus ended his “crop rotation.” He then went to Rome, where he stayed from 1873 to 1875. A decisive change of direction in his career took place, and in 1875 he published En fallit (The Bankrupt) and Redaktaøren (The Editor). These were contemporary plays, so-called problem dramas— the kind of literature the famous Danish critic Georg Brandes had strongly advocated. Literature, according to Brandes, should deal with problems of everyday life and treat them realistically. He was pleased with Bjørnson’s work and claimed in a review that “two great powers, the present and reality, had at last come into their right.” Later he would have good reason to be even more pleased with what Ibsen did. But Bjørnson was again first, opening new areas and new literary forms for others. Both plays were performed in Stockholm in 1875. Many felt that Redaktøren was a political statement from the left or liberal side, and it was not performed in Christiania for many years. En fallit was an immediate success and played not only in Scandinavia but on stages all over Europe—Bjørnson’s first international success, even though many of his books had been translated into several languages. En fallit would probably have been an even more powerful play without the last act, where a kind of happy solution to all problems is spelled out. Ibsen said that he only asked questions; it was not his duty to provide the answers. Bjørnson, on the contrary, always wanted to teach a lesson and would not leave the reader or the theater audience with too many unanswered questions.

In 1877 Bjørnson published the prose narrative Magnhild, his first and perhaps his best realistic novel. Two years before Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), Bjørnson was describing married life and giving a bleak picture of the conventional marriage to which divorce might indeed be the only reasonable solution. The novel is reminiscent of the peasant tales and of Fisker-jenten; it is the tale of a talented young woman who has a long and strenuous way to go before she can believe in her own artistic abilities. When she does, she leaves her elderly husband, but she does not do so because of a single, unequivocal “calling,” in which Bjørnson so often had believed. Life and its demands had become more complex; the middle-aged writer had a wider if not deeper understanding of human life, although he remained willing to change former beliefs and opinions if he were able to convince himself that it would be the right and proper thing to do.

The new convictions set forth in Magnhild led to much criticism, as did the play Kongen (The King; published in 1877, performed in 1902). This drama is part realistic and part symbolistic, as Bjørnson challenges the monarchy, the state church, and the military establishment—in short, everything connected with the king and his powers. Bjørnson’s opinions and attitudes had become radicalized in most respects; he even preferred republic to monarchy. And he always kept the public informed about his views in matters small and large.

The bitterness Bjørnson felt upon the reception of Magnhild and Kongen can be seen in his next play, Det ny system (1879, The New System). The conflict revolves around principles for railway construction but is really a conflict between the old and the new, between the conservatism of the old and the eagerness and the search for truth among the young. Likewise in Leonarda, (performed and published in 1879), Bjørnson gave dramatic form to a debate about marriage and divorce, finally “proving” that the divorced woman acted on the basis of a higher morality than the bishop himself.

In the years around 1880 Bjørnson was politically active, but now mainly in internal affairs in Norway. How influential he really was in the fight for parliamentarism in Norway in 1883 and 1884, or how much his lasting struggle to end the union with Sweden really mattered, is hard to say. Because he said and wrote so much, even publishing many of his political ideas in European newspapers, he certainly appears to be one of the central figures on the political scene, although some of the politicians grew weary of him when the conflict with Sweden took a dangerous turn in 1905. His ideas did not always find an enthusiastic public, as when he lectured on Nordic politics and Bible interpretations on a tour among Norwegian immigrants in the United States in 1880.

Bjørnson was so involved in everything around him—always willing to speak, lecture, teach, and make his opinions known by writing in papers and journals— that he produced almost no new literature in these years. His publisher in Copenhagen persuaded him to go abroad again, and beginning in the fall of 1882 he spent five years in Paris with his family. This sojourn helped him get back to creative work, and the first years in Paris were enormously productive. The first result was the play En hanske (A Gauntlet; performed and published in 1883), in which Bjørnson, through one of his characters, states that men should be held to the same standard of purity before marriage as women are. He came under fire from the clergy on the one side—because he demanded equality between the sexes—and the radicals and advocates of free love on the other. This work marked the beginning of a long and heated debate about sexuality and purity that split the members of the so-called modern breakthrough in Scandinavian literature. Bjørnson fell out with August Strindberg as well as with Brandes, and even if some old friendships could be repaired, Bjørnson was too much of a stern moralist for many of his contemporaries.

Bjørnson’s new convictions, his belief in the doctrine of evolution, and his distrust in old inherited religious beliefs are clearly at work in the superb story Stov (Dust) from 1882. They are also present on all levels in Over ævne I (Beyond Our Power, published in 1883, performed in 1886; translated as Pastor Sang, 1893). This play is regarded as Bjørnson’s most modern and perhaps also the best of all his works in the dramatic genre. The play was performed in Stockholm in 1886, but not in Norway and Denmark until 1899.

Even in this play Bjørnson is the didactic writer, but the tendentiousness of this text is less marked because he creates believable and strong characters and realistic action set in the middle of dramatic landscapes in northern Norway, which makes thoughts of God and his power plausible. The priest, Sang, awaits a miracle—here, if anywhere, is certainly the place for miracles, and Sang is such a pious and loving person that it might be reasonable if God proved his faith and convictions to be true by giving him a miracle. But the play shows that miracles are beyond human power, thus indicating that Christianity itself is out of reach.

Another play from this period, Geografi og kjærlighed (Geography and Love; performed and published in 1885), is in a much lighter register, almost a comedy about a busy and self-important husband. The exuberant humor of the play, which also has elements of a self-portrait, made this work one of the most popular of Bjørnson’s plays, and it is still performed occasionally, more than a hundred years later.

In 1884 Bjørnson had completed a long and realistic novel, Det flager i byen og på havnen (translated as The Heritage of the Kurts, 1892). This book is also concerned with the problems of morality and has a clear didactic goal as it preaches celibacy for men before marriage. He had begun another novel in Paris, but På Guds veje(translated as In God’s Way, 1890) did not appear till 1889. In this work, religious issues lead to a bitter conflict between two friends, a clergyman and a doctor, and only late and after much suffering do they realize that “where good people walk, there is God’s Way.”

Around 1890 Bjørnson was devoting much time and energy to politics, delivering speeches and writing newspaper articles almost on a daily basis. His audience had grown, and now he sent his articles to the big newspapers and magazines in Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. At home he carried on the fight to end the union with Sweden, even if he did not work for a political party any longer. He declared that he sympathized with practical socialism and became even more popular when he supported the female workers in a match factory when they went on a strike in 1889. He hoped for a peaceful resolution of the class conflicts but often created conflicts and oppositions himself in matters where he really had no reason to become involved. He was regarded with skepticism by many writers of a new generation, and he did of course oppose literary naturalism as well as the new Romanticism in Norwegian literature in the 1890s.

He had also found a new field of interest—international work for peace—and he believed strongly that wars could be avoided through serious arbitration. He even wrote an epic poem, “Fred” (Peace), in 1891, and in Over ævne II (Beyond Human Might; published in 1895, performed in 1897) he wrote what may well have been the first drama in world literature about the modern class struggle. The play depicts a strike in which the two sides are in absolute deadlock. Workers stand against factory owners; ideologies are totally opposed. Nothing but disaster can be the result, but the play ends on a dream of reconciliation and peace.

Bjørnson had a home at Aulestad, in Gausdal, Oppland county, outside Lillehammer, well away from city life and its demands. He spent more and more time abroad as he grew older, but when in Norway he could live outside of the conflicts in politics and cultural life in the capital. From 1893 the family spent their winters in Rome and their summers in Austria or Germany. Bjørnson also spent time in Paris but returned to Norway at least once a year, and then he often went on lecture and reading tours. His productivity was not as it had been in his best years, and only Paul Lange og Tora Parsberg (published in 1898, performed in 1901; translated as Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg, 1899) is on a par with his best political dramas. The chief male character has a sensitive nature and is thus almost defenseless in the tough political fights in which he has to participate. For years Bjørnson struggled to free himself from the suspicion that he had contributed to the suicide of Ole Richter, the real politician on whom his leading character obviously was based. Many considered the play to be an apology and a defense from Bjørnson’s side.

Most of his time was spent writing articles. They brought him international fame, for instance when he supported Emile Zola with great vigor in the latter’s 1898 defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army officer imprisoned for treason in 1894. Bjørnson made much money from his journalism, and most of it was spent on Aulestad and on his five surviving children (one had died shortly after being born). He had translated selected parts of Victor Hugo’s La Légende des siècles (1859; translated as The Legend of the Centuries, 1874) into Norwegian, and he loved reading aloud from this work on his many tours around the country and in Denmark. The translation was not published until the year after Bjørnson’s death. He was present when the new Nationaltheateret opened in 1899 with his son Bjørn as the first director, and he had the pleasure of directing his two Over ævne plays.

Bjørnson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1903 “as a tribute to his noble, magnificent and versatile poetry, which has always been distinguished by both the freshness of its inspiration and the rare purity of its spirit.” The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, C. D. af Wirsén, emphasized the same values in his presentation speech: “Your inspired and universally acknowledged poetic achievement, rooted in nature and in the life of the people as well as in strong personal convictions, combines morality and a healthy poetic freshness.” At the Nobel banquet Bjørnson took the opportunity to express his views on moral fiction, which would invariably help mankind move along in a human progress toward better things. He defended literature in which “tendentiousness and art appear in the same proportion,” but was also a strong advocate of the old ideas of right and wrong, since it is impossible for people to “shake off the ideas that have come down to them through the centuries of inherited morality.”

For posterity it has been virtually impossible to understand why Ibsen (or, for that matter, Sweden’s Strindberg) did not receive the prize. Even in 1903 it may have seemed surprising and brave of a Swedish institution to award this prestigious prize to one of the strongest and loudest opponents of the union, a person who at times one might think hated Swedes and everything Swedish. In a more general understanding of the literary scene and of the different Nordic candidates for the prize at this particular time, however, it should not be too much of a surprise that Bjørnson was the preferred choice, and certainly not if one keeps in mind “the idealistic spirit” that seemed to be a basic requirement, although the Academy could define this term in ways that served their own literary tastes.

The Nobel Prize came so late in Bjørnson’s life that it did not change his attitudes or his writing at all. The money, however, came in handy, since upkeep on his Aulestad home was expensive.

Bjørnson suffered from an ear ailment beginning in 1899; he became deaf in one ear, and his health began to deteriorate considerably. He wrote a few plays of little importance, and the same is true for the novel Mary from 1906. He could still be a competent poet, however, and wrote several good poems, even if they were commissioned and written to celebrate something. In 1909 his last play appeared— Når den ny vin blomstrer (When the New Vine Blossoms), a light and easy comedy. Bjørnson was an old man by this time, and he had suffered from a serious stroke in 1909; yet, his faith and joy in life remained undiminished, as witnessed in his last play and in his last poems. He never recovered after the stroke, and he died in Paris on 26 April 1910.

Bjørnson was brought home on the warship Norge and buried with all the honors befitting a national poet and international celebrity. Knut Hamsun (himself a Nobel recipient in 1920) had written a poem in honor of Bjørnson’s seventieth birthday in 1902; he was one of many writers who expressed their sorrow when Bjørnson died. Hamsun knew that everyone—including the nation itself—would pause for a moment of respect and silence when the great chronicler had passed away.

Bjørnson’s significance lies perhaps foremost in the fact that he introduced new forms to Norwegian literature. He was a pioneer in lyrical poetry, in the writing of short stories and tales, in the saga plays, and in the modern realistic drama. Almost all writers of his own and the following generation were indebted to him in one way or other; many of them admitted as much, from Hamsun in Norway to Selma Lagerlöf in Sweden and Johannes V. Jensen in Denmark, all later recipients of the Nobel Prize.

Bjørnson was always a step ahead of Ibsen, who was four years his senior and a friend as well as rival. Bjørnson helped create the Nordic historical drama and the realistic contemporary problem play—yet, Ibsen definitely wrote the best plays in both these genres. Seen from a modern perspective, Ibsen is the greatest of all Norwegian writers of this period; but seen from the contemporary point of view, Bjørnson loomed so large that it was fitting to award him the Nobel Prize. His life and work were intimately linked to the political and cultural shifts in Norway during a period of strong growth and progress, and in many ways he embodies the changes, innovations, and development that the nation he helped create and define went through.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s legacy is not only the books he left behind but the life he lived in the service of his country. He was always on the side of the weak and oppressed, demanding for all citizens the right to vote and complete equality for women. He brought new topics up for open and free discussion, and he was willing to debate everything, though his opinions and attitudes changed several times in questions of both politics and literature. Despite all his changes he remained a didactic writer with a moral lesson to give, which he often presented through exemplary narratives in which characters struggle to overcome their own natures and finally emerge victorious as good and decent people. He always believed in his own phrase, “Good deeds save the world,” and he insisted that peace and prosperity and progress were possible and that it was the writer’s task to contribute to a better future for everyone.


Land of the Free: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s America Letters, 1880-1881, edited and translated by Eva Lund Haugen and Einar Haugen (Northfield, Minn.: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1978).


Chr. Collin [Christen Christian Dreyer], Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson: Hans barndom og ungdom, 2 volumes (Christiania: Aschehoug, 1923; enlarged edition, Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk, 1932);

P. Amdam, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 1832-1880 (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1993);

Aldo Keel, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 1880-1910 (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1999).


Edvard Beyer, “Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson,” in Norges litter-aturhistorie, volume 3, edited by Beyer (Oslo: Cappelen, 1975), pp. 93-225;

Francis Bull, “Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson,” in Norsk Litter- aturhistorie, volume 4, edited by Bull and others (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1963), pp. 467-705;

Christian Gierløff, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1932);

Gerhard Gran, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (Copenhagen: Schønbergske, 1916);

Harald Noreng, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsons dramatiske diktning (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1954).


Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s papers, including manuscripts and correspondence, are housed at the National Library in Oslo.