Norwegian literature, early flourished as Old Norse literature. In 1380, Norway was united with Denmark, and Danish culture began a long dominance in Norway; Norwegian culture sank to its nadir in the 16th cent. as Danish became the written language. The works of Absolon Beyer (1528–75), in Norwegian and Latin, reveal a new humanism. In the 17th cent. few works other than the poems and histories of Petter Dass were free of arid learning, excessive adornment, and latinization. Rationalist and neo-classic concepts of the Enlightenment were popularized by Ludvig Holberg in the early 18th cent. when a nationalist strain was also apparent.
Norwegian independence from Denmark, gained in 1814, was a vital stimulus to literature. The mutual antagonism of the literary figures Henrik Wergeland and J. S. Welhaven introduced a literary struggle between the national and the cosmopolitan. The folk collections of Jørgen Moe and P. C. Asbjørnsen recreated a cultural tradition, and by 1850 Ivar Aasen had developed the landsmål language to replace bokmål (Dano-Norwegian); it linked peasant dialects and the tongue of the sagas to contemporary literature. National romanticism reigned at mid-century, but the novels of Camilla Collett foreshadowed the great realist movement.
By the 1870s, the realist plays of Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson had won international recognition. Chief novelists of the realist and naturalist schools were Amalie Skram, Jonas Lie, Alexander Kielland, and Arne Garborg. The neo-romantic movement of the 1890s called forth the imaginative brilliance of Knut Hamsun, the psychologically oriented novels of Hans Kinck (1865–1926), and the lyric verse of Nils Vogt. Idealism marked the social dramas of Gunnar Heiberg.
Many different themes and styles prevailed in the era after World War I. Johan Bojer, Peter Egge (1869–1959), Cora Sandel, and Olav Duun wrote novels of Norwegian life, and the Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset gained stature for her novels of ethics and religion. Radical credos were expressed in the plays of Hilge Krog (1889–1962) and poems of Arnulf Øverland. Sigurd Hoel gained acclaim as an outstanding satirist, Herman Wildenvey as a lighthanded lyricist. The hopes and fears of the times were reflected in the verse and drama of Nordahl Grieg (1902–43).
Few significant books were published during World War II. The war experience and postwar anxieties were explored in the experimental work of Kåre Holt and Aksel Sandemose, in the poetry of Claes Gill and Jan-Magnus Bruheimin, and in the novels of Odd Bang-Hansen and Tarjei Vesaas, who had already established his reputation by the 1930s. Johan Borgen (1902–79) was Norway's leading novelist in the 1960s and 70s. Other leading novelists of the late 20th cent. include Terje Stigen and Axel Jensen; Bjørg Vik is noted for her short stories. Per Petterson is one of the most outstanding novelists of the late 20th and early 21st cents.
See histories by H. Beyer (tr. 1957) and T. Jorgenson (1933, repr. 1970); B. W. Downs, Modern Norwegian Literature (1966).