Gjellerup, Karl Adolph

views updated May 21 2018

Karl Adolph Gjellerup

Danish–born author Karl Gjellerup (1857–1919) was a freethinker who explored different truths through his poetry and novels, covering theology, atheism, and Darwin's doctrine of evolution, as well as Buddhism and reincarnation. His writing was not always the best, but critics laud him as an honest inquirer of the truth. Though Danish, Gjellerup found his true artistic medium through writing in German and adopted the country as his own. Well–read in his day, Gjellerup received the 1917 Nobel Prize in literature.

Born to Family of Ministers

The son of a Lutheran minister, Gjellerup was born in a country parsonage in Roholte, Denmark, on June 2, 1857, to Carl Adolph and Anna Johanne (Fibiger) Gjellerup. When Gjellerup was about three years old, his father died and young Gjellerup went to Copenhagen to live with Johannes Fibiger, a cousin of his mother's. Fibiger was a clergyman, as well as an avid scholar and philosopher. He was well–versed in Greek, Hebrew, Old Norse, and Egyptian. He also studied the holy books of Persia and India in their original format and published several philosophical discourses of his own, including Johannes den Døber (John the Baptist), published in the same year as Gjellerup's birth. Fibiger adopted Gjellerup as his own son and instilled in him early on a desire for knowledge and a quest for truth in understanding the world around him. Gjellerup received a well–rounded education in the Fibiger household. Religion, music, and classical German literature were a prominent part of his studies.

In 1874, Gjellerup graduated with honors from Haerslevs grammar school and headed to the University of Copenhagen. Gjellerup chose to follow family tradition and study theology, though he was not particularly drawn to the field. By the time he entered college, Gjellerup was well–read and steeped with a broad background in literature. He began to write at this time. Gjellerup penned Scipio Africanus, a tragedy, and Arminius, a drama. He showed these creations to a professor–uncle of his, who encouraged him to keep writing.

Became an Atheist, Writer

While at the university, Gjellerup underwent a philosophical transformation. He studied radical Bible criticism and Darwinistic literature. Charles Darwin, a naturalist, had published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and naturally, it was a hot topic in Gjellerup's theology classes. While Darwin's theory of evolution did not specifically condemn religion, it clearly conflicted with the Bible's creation story. At this time, Gjellerup became drawn toward the ideas of Danish critic and scholar Georg Brandes, who lectured at the University of Copenhagen intermittently between 1871 and 1883. Brandes was a principal leader of the naturalistic movement in Scandinavian literature. The naturalists believed that all religious truths could be derived from the natural world rather than from some supernatural power like God. Gjellerup earned his theology degree in June 1878, but by then had completely lost faith in the traditional Christian belief system.

After graduating summa cum laude, Gjellerup moved to the countryside and began writing in earnest, exploring his new ideas about the world. He called himself an atheist. His departure from the Christian faith was unmistakable in his writings. Gjellerup published his first novel, En Idealist (An Idealist), under the pseudonym Epigonos in 1878. The novel explores the life of a young intellectual who denounces theology and religion, believing that a person's soul belongs to the cosmos. In the next several years, Gjellerup published several stories and poems that all mocked theology in favor of Darwin's theory of evolution. In 1881, Gjellerup published a book with a definite evolutionary bias called Arvelighed og moral (Heredity and Morals). He earned the University Gold Medal for this work.

Gjellerup's 1882 novel, Germanernes Laerling (The Apprentice of the Teutons), while fictional, seems extremely biographical. This novel centers around the life of a young theologian dealing with a crisis of faith. In the end, the man becomes a freethinker and decides to explore his own ideas about the world, rather than accepting everyone else's. The journey was similar to that of Gjellerup's.

Showed Talent for Lyrical Poetry

In 1883, Gjellerup received a small inheritance that allowed him to travel. He visited Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and Russia. During an extended stay in Rome, he took up watercolor, painting under Swedish artist Julius Kronberg. Seeing the world through different landscapes had an immediate impact on Gjellerup's work. During his travels, he became enamored with Slavic realism and was particularly influenced by Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, known for describing in detail the everyday lives of 19th–century Russians, particularly the peasantry, which he wrote about with compassion. Two of the short stories Gjellerup wrote during his travels show a heavy influence from Turgenev; they are Romulus and G–Dur (G Major). After Gjellerup returned from his journey, he experienced a break in thought from Brandes and the literary radicals. He embraced the German–Danish idealism that he had grown up with. The idealists looked to the ancients for inspiration. The transformation is apparent in his book on travel impressions, Vandreaaret (Wander Year), published in 1885, though written during his journey.

After his travels, Gjellerup began to explore the concepts of free will and the moral responsibilities of man. He also became interested in what he saw as the intrinsic suffering of the human condition. Keeping these ideas in mind, he finished a lyrical tragedy drama called Brynhild in 1884, which he had started during his college years. This drama focused on the plight of two people, separated by destiny, but desiring one another. "This waiting, full of torment, this quiet desire, imbues with sentiment the tragedy which is presented with strength and with great poetic and pictorial richness," Swedish critic Sven Söderman noted on the Nobel Prize website. "The verse, especially in the choruses composed in the ancient fashion, attains great lyric beauty."

Because of its poetic language and imagery, this became Gjellerup's breakout piece, the one that got him noticed in literary circles. He wrote another dramatic–lyric poem in 1887, Thamyris. The two works were so esteemed, they earned Gjellerup a state pension for life, which enabled him to keep writing. These plays, as well as others to come, were popular productions at the Dagmar Theatre in Copenhagen. His 1893 play, Wuthhorn, showed there 100 times. This play tells the story of two lovers who are willing to die together if they cannot find a way to live together. Also popular were 1893's Kong Hjarne (King Hjarne) and 1898's Gift og modgift (Toxin and Antitoxin), both of which played at the Dagmar Theatre.

Gjellerup continually refined his belief system and explored various truths about the universe. From 1885 to 1887, while living in Dresden, Germany, Gjellerup became influenced by German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. These idealists held that the external world was really a creation of one's own mind. They believed that the physical world did not exist separate from the human mind and they explored these ideas in their works. Gjellerup did so, too.

In October 1887, Gjellerup married Eugenia Anna Caroline Hensinger after she divorced her first husband, Jewish musician Fritz Bendix. Incidentally, she was a cousin to Georg Brandes. They had first met in 1880. This was also Gjellerup's second marriage. Hensinger released in Gjellerup a flurry of inspiration, resulting in some of his best works, including his acclaimed 1889 love story Minna. Like many of Gjellerup's novels, this one is fairly autobiographical and basically explores his childhood and the events that led to the breakup of his first marriage. The Nobel Prize website calls Minna "a delicate study of feminine psychology which must be classed in the highest rank of Scandinavian novels."

By 1892, Gjellerup had settled permanently in Germany and was living in Dresden. He had converted to writing all of his pieces in German. His 1896 book Møllen (The Mill) was another popular novel. It explored universal justice in a world of passion, jealousy, and murder. The book probes the darkest corners of the human mind, focusing on the state of mind of a repentant murderer.

Explored Buddhist Ideologies

Later in life, Gjellerup experienced another philosophical transformation and began exploring Buddhist ideologies, particularly the concepts of rebirth and the search for nirvana. He launched into this ideology first with the 1903 musical play Offerildene (The Sacrificial Fires), which followed the musings of a young disciple of Brahma. However, Gjellerup really hit his stride with his 1906 book Pilgrimen Kamanita (The Pilgrim Kamanita). Set in India, the lyrical and poetic book explores reincarnation through the lives of two lovers, forced to live apart on earth yet reunited in death. Searching for earthly satisfactions, the main character, Kamanita, who lives during the lifetime of the Buddha, sees the fragility of all things and devotes his life to seeking eternal treasures. The book explores all of Kamanita's transformations in thought.

Interestingly enough, the book was for many years a required part of Thailand's high school curriculum. This is unusual because the Buddhist novel was written by a Dane who wrote in German. In the mid–1990s, the book was translated into English by John Logie, printed and re–released by the Abhayagiri Buddhist monastery press. The editor of the book, Ajahn Amaro, noted on the monastery's website that with Buddhism taking hold in the West, he wanted people to have something else to grab hold of besides meditation practice and he figured a novel would fill that void. He believed that republishing the work would help educate Westerners on the principles of Buddhism. In 1917, Gjellerup came full circle and dealt with the theme of Christianity again in the book Der Goldene Zweig.

Won Nobel Prize for Literature

In 1917, Gjellerup was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he shared with fellow Dane Henrik Pontoppidan, also from a family of ministers. The citation said Gjellerup was awarded the prize "for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals." Because World War I was in full force, there was no official awards ceremony that year. The announcement of his award generated little interest in his native Denmark because Gjellerup had long claimed Germany as his permanent home. Gjellerup died two years later, in Klotzsche, Germany, on October 13, 1919.

On the Nobel Prize website, Swedish critic Söderman summed up Gjellerup's contributions to the literary world in this way: "Karl Gjellerup was that strange combination, a scholar as well as a poet. His inventive imagination and his gifts of visionary poetry were often difficult to harmonize with his specific knowledge and his lively intelligence. His earlier works are characterized by very broad but sometimes clumsy descriptions, philosophical rather than spontaneous. They occasionally neglect artistic form, but they are always rich in ideas and full of promises of originality." Söderman went on to say that Gjellerup, "charged with emotion, a great knowledge of the soul, a great desire for beauty, and a poetic art [has] given birth to works of enduring value."


European Authors 1000–1900, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Vineta Colby, H.W. Wilson Co., 1967.

Nobel Prize Library: Gide, Gjellerup, Heyse, Helvetica Press Inc., 1971.


"Buddhist Novel," Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery website,http://www.abhayagiri.org/fm/v4n2/novel.htm (January 8, 2005).

"Karl Gjellerup," Kuusankoski (Finland) Public Library website,http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/gjelleru.htm (January 8, 2005).

"Karl Gjellerup—Autobiography," Nobel Prize Website, http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1917/gjellerup–autobio.html (January 8, 2005).

"The Nobel Prize in Literature 1917," Nobel Prize Website, http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1917/presentation–speech.html (Jaunary 8, 2005).