It's tempting to equate Scandinavian literature with Viking literature. For several hundred years Scandinavian literature was Viking literature, but that was a long time ago and things changed. The literature of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands during the modern period was influenced by the regional Viking roots, but they also evolved from those roots.
Many will no doubt be surprised that Viking literature even existed. In fact, Viking literature was among the richest and most abundant of the Middle Ages, encompassing primarily sagas about famous warriors, but including poetry as well. Both the sagas and the poetry were a fascinating mixture of historical narrative and fantasy, and to this day some of our best information about Viking culture and history comes from these sources.
As a warrior culture, the Vikings greatly valued personal strength and courage, so stories of warfare, battle, one-on-one combat, and raiding figure prominently in their writing. In some ways, the sagas (saga is a word connotating a spoken story) are extended bragging sessions about Vikings who were good at killing people, but to look no further into their true meaning is to miss their philosophical and religious content.
Most of the Norse and Icelandic sagas were written when Christianity was first entering Northern Europe. At first, the Vikings were fiercely opposed to the new religion. They saw Christ as a "white god": the Vikings associated whiteness with weakness and effeminacy. For them, a real god would conquer; Christ came to die, a concept they found difficult if not impossible to accept.
Eventually revival came to the Northmen, and they embraced Christianity almost as savagely as they had opposed it. They proved excellent and prolific missionaries: with their knowledge of navigation and the further parts of the globe, they took their new faith everywhere. And yet, the pagan roots of Viking culture didn't die immediately, and elements were retained in a Christian-pagan syncretism that lasted several centuries.
The sagas reveal this tension. Most of the warrior-poets and saga-recorders write as Christians, yet (intentionally or not) vestiges of pagan thought and attitudes remain, as their Viking heroes both claim the name of Jesus and slay mercilessly, all the while throwing out one-liners like the heroes of modern action movies. But in the Viking sagas, one-liners are more than macho wit.
Like most premodern peoples, the Norsemen were people of words. They told stories, practiced diplomacy, and jockeyed for power with dialogue. A man's word was all-powerful, and the worst sin a Viking could commit was to lie or practice deceit. Such a man was a dog, and deserved to die. So in the sagas, a lot of the action revolves around taking vengeance on men who've given false testimony, or gone back on their word.
Because words were so highly revered, it was as important to have the last word as to kill one's opponent. In the spectacular Njal's Saga, one Viking is about to strike his opponent and says, "I hope you've said your prayers!"....to which his intended victim replies "I've said mine for you!" as he kills his attacker. Later, some men are trying to kill a man in his house. "Is he home?" they ask the warrior who volunteered to find out. "His axe certainly is," he says, and falls dead at their feet.
Yet violence was not the only context in which Vikings employed words. They also harbored a sense of wonder at the world, and even the most prosaic things took on magic properties in their imaginations. Some of the world's most fantastical fairy tales originated in Scandinavia, partly due to the inherent mystery of the region, and partly due to its inhabitants' penchant for seeing trolls instead of trees, and Odin carousing in Asgard rather than the Northern Lights.
Like all things, however, Scandinavian culture eventually changed. It became more modern with the rest of Europe, and gradually the area's writers began to see less of magic in the perpetual cold and gray skies, and more of the impending doom of Christendom and the encroaching grip of nihilism. Writers turned from the magic realism of the sagas and myths toward a bleak reality that was rationalistic, non-supernatural, and preoccupied with suffering and misery.
One of the best-known and most successful of this new breed was the 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. A misanthropic chauvinist in real life, he wrote several plays exposing hypocrisy and the mistreatment of women in contemporary society, the most famous of these being A Doll's House. Unlike previous generations of theater writers, Isben aimed at realism by concentrating on the darkest themes and through bitter satire.
The old forms passed swiftly once modernism took root, but there was one lone Dane who managed to synthesize the new attitudes with those of the past. Soren Kierkegaard, a Continental philosopher in the tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (but radically different in his thought), railed against the hypocrisy of the state church of Denmark through poetic essays that suggested ideas rather than logically positing them.
Kierkegaard was himself a Christian, but he recognized the damage to true Christianity that legally recognized "Christendom" had wrought, and sought to undo some of it by presenting a form of philosophical theology that defended both rational thought and personal experience as equally important to the Christian faith. He has often been maligned as the father of modern secular existentialism, but this is to misunderstand his starting point and his project.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Scandinavian authors have attempted to recapture some of the magic elements of Viking literature, but instead of looking to the Christianity of the sagas they've almost exclusively found inspiration in the paganism of the myths and fairy tales. They've also tempered their supernaturalism with a gritty realism that has little of either Ibsen's satire or Kierkegaard's insight, and more of pure nihilism and despair posing as antinomianism.
This isn't to say there's no good Scandinavian literature from the modern/postmodern period. Knut Hamsun, Sigrid Undset, Selma Lagerlof, Henning Mankell and many others have produced some of the best literature of the last 130 years, but much of it lacks the conviction of their Viking forebears, and floats adrift in a sea of empiricism, skepticism, and cynicism. The state church and humanism still reign in these countries, but we hope future Scandinavian writers will transcend their milieu and craft works like those of their ancestors that are alive, flesh and blood, and ultimately meaningful.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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