Robert W. Rix
From the 1750s until the 1840s, the interest in Icelandic manuscripts of mythology and heroic sagas, as well as various forms of Nordic folklore, entered a new phase. One of the central reasons for this was an emergent attention to vernacular, national, and even primitive literature associated with the rise of Romanticism. Investigations of the Nordic past had been carried out before this time, and a popular craze for all things “Viking” came later in the 19th century, but the Romantic period marks a major juncture in relation to providing the Old North with cultural meaning. If the intellectual history of rediscovering Old Norse texts (i.e., poetry and prose written in the North Germanic language until the 14th century, known primarily from Icelandic manuscripts) and medieval Nordic folklore (found in medieval ballads, sagas, and heroic legends) differed in various European countries, there was also a remarkable sense of common aim and purpose in the reception history as it developed during the Romantic period. This was because European scholars and writers had come to see medieval Nordic texts as epitomizing the manners and literature of a common Germanic past. In particular, Old Norse texts from Icelandic manuscripts were believed to preserve the pre-Christian religion, as this was once shared by Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and the Franks. Thus, interest in such texts circulated with particular intensity between Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain, as well as, to a lesser degree, France. Paradoxically, if medieval Nordic texts were seen as wild and unwieldy pieces, unaffected by classical learning and sophistication, they were also sought out as triumphant records of the vernacular and national. In addition to this, the untamed use of fantastic and sublime elements in these texts fitted into a new Romantic emphasis on the primitive and imaginative resources of literature.
There are three interrelated areas in which Nordic texts made an impact. The first of these was in the field of antiquarian studies. Scholars had taken an interest in the texts and culture of the Nordic past beginning in the 17th century, publishing their findings primarily in Latin. But efforts were redoubled after Paul Henri Mallet, a professor at Copenhagen, published a popular history of the Old North (1755) and a selection of Norse poetry (1756) in French. These works gained wide European traction and influenced the reception history in fundamental ways during the Romantic period. The second area of impact was the acceleration of translations and/or adaptations of original manuscript texts that began to appear in modern European languages. But, in effect, a relatively small body of texts were repeated and reworked in various national languages. The third area in which the interest in Nordic literature asserted its impact was among writers and poets, who trawled antiquarian works on Norse history and mythology as an ore to be mined for the purpose of creating—or rather reviving—a national literature. This was a literature that consciously broke with classical models and decorum to provide a new poetic orientation that was both more vernacular and imaginative.
The celebration of medieval Nordic literature cannot be treated in isolation, as if it were an independent phenomenon; it was part of a wider revival of ancient national/vernacular literary forms around Europe. To a significant degree, the attention to Old Norse texts was propelled by the phenomenal success that the Gaelic Ossian poetry enjoyed across Europe. Norse poetry was harnessed as a Germanic parallel that could match both the vigor and purported ancientness of the Ossian tradition. Sometimes the Nordic past was invoked as a larger legacy that represented a shared ethno-cultural past; at other times, it was used with a more focused nationalist aim. But, whatever the intent in individual circumstances, the rediscovery of the Old North took place through the circulation of ideas and key texts as part of a wider European exchange.
Prose fiction, poetry, and essays were integral parts of the Danish and Norwegian periodical press from its early modern beginnings to the rise of the modern news media. They range from the 17th-century versified newspaper Den danske Mercurius (The Danish Mercury), to the fables, poems, essays, and stories of 18th-century newspapers and spectator journals, to Henrik Ibsen’s plays and the serial novels of the 19th century.
The print markets in Denmark and Norway were closely integrated due to the union of the two states until 1814. They remained so during Norway’s union with Sweden 1814–1905, with major publishing houses for Norwegian authors still in Copenhagen until 1925. Danish remained the basis for the primary written language in Norway for most of the 1800s, partly due to the proximity of the two languages. While there was an increased call for more Scandinavian and Swedish–Norwegian collaboration after 1814, the Swedish-Finnish print market remained largely separate from the Dano-Norwegian. While newspapers and journals were local or national publications, their fiction reflected the book market and the Dano-Norwegian literary discourse.
The periodical press served as an important arena for new writers, by offering them a large audience and allowing for experimentation with form and content. Furthermore, the periodical form and the publication context of news pieces informed how fiction was written and read.
The genre of the sketch, a traveling journalist’s highly subjective and literary report, exemplifies the blurred lines between fact and fiction. Maurits Hansen, Camilla Collett, and Knut Hamsun were among its Norwegian practitioners; Holger Drachmann and Herman Bang notable Danish ones. Simultaneously, they were all renowned novelist and poets, both inside and outside the press, with some works reflecting the crime stories and exotic tales of the paper columns. Hans Christian Andersen, by contrast, applied the traditional genre of allegory to comment on topical events in the 1850s by producing fairy tales for the press. Ibsen claimed newspapers to be his favorite reading material. While building his career, periodicals served as important publication channels both at home and abroad. They informed his later plays, increasingly concerned with events and issues of his time.
By the mid-19th century, there was a growing movement to introduce a written
Norwegian language more in line with the spoken word. Ivar Aasen (1813–1896) introduced Landsmål (New Norwegian language) in 1853, based on dialects. To prove its applicability, the journalist A. O. Vinje published poems and stories, alongside witty essayistic prose, in his weekly Dølen (The man from the valley; 1858–1870). The author Arne Garborg followed suit in the newspaper Fedraheimen (Fatherland; 1877–1883), publishing both his own fiction and essays as well as translated novels. Newspapers thus became seminal in shaping a new written language and its literature.
The press enabled a speedy introduction of foreign literature and new genres, circulating as part of an international print market. In the 18th century, the Dano-Norwegian press featured literary texts by François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Carl von Linnaeus, Saadi, Joseph Addison, and Oliver Goldsmith. The first feuilleton novel in Denmark was Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (Les Mystères de Paris), printed from July 1842 in Dagen (The day), while the novel was still under publication in France. In Norway, the first novel came hot off the British press in 1844: Arabella Stuart in Den Norske Rigstidende (The Norwegian national newspaper). The novel by G. P. R. James was typical of the taste for gothic and mystery tales set in historic times that were to fill the feuilleton section at the bottom of the page (termed “the cellar”). Female writers are notably present from the beginning and reached a wider audience than ever before, thanks to serial literature. Often writing under pseudonyms, Scandinavian women entered positions as novelists, journalists, editors, and translators for newspapers and journals. Among the favorite translated authors were George Sand, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who became household names for newspaper readers. Jane Austen was tellingly introduced in Norway by way of a newspaper serial: Persuasion (called Familien Elliot) in Morgenbladet (The morning paper) 1872–1873.