The Norwegian author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) is best known for his plays, which treat both historical subjects and contemporary issues. He was influential in the revival of Norwegian as a literary language.
The son of a rural pastor, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was born on Dec. 8, 1832. In 1850 he went to Christiania (Oslo) to cram for the university entrance examinations but soon gave up his studies to live by his pen. On a trip to Sweden in 1856, Bjørnson was filled with "historical envy" when he saw the monuments to Sweden's past greatness. He determined to create a Norwegian "ancestors' gallery," historical dramas about Norway's saga heroes. At the same time he wanted to show that the Norwegians of the sagas were the spiritual ancestors of the present generation, so he conceived the idea of alternating saga dramas with stories about modern rural Norwegians who struggle with the same inner problems as their heroic forefathers.
With the stories—the best of which are Synnøve Solbakken (1857) and Arne (1859)—Bjørnson created a new style important for the development of literary Norwegian, a fusion of the saga style and the oral style of the Norwegian folk tales. In their day these stories, which made Bjørnson famous, were considered at times too realistic by a public accustomed to idealizations of the farmer, but today they are children's literature.
The saga dramas feature heroes who are caught between the old pagan ways and the new ideals of Christianity and who must die because they cannot reconcile these forces within themselves. The best of these is the trilogy Sigurd the Bastard (1862). With Henrik Ibsen's The Pretenders (1863), it represents the triumph of Norwegian historical tragedy.
During these years Bjørnson also wrote some of Norway's finest poetry, including its national anthem, and directed the first Norwegian theater in Bergen. In 1858 he married an actress, Karoline Reimers. One of their sons became a leading actor and producer, and a daughter married Ibsen's son.
By 1872 new intellectual impulses had begun to penetrate into Norway. Like Ibsen's, Bjørnson's authorship spans both periods, the "national romantic" period and the period of social realism that supplanted it. It was Bjørnson who wrote the first "problem" plays, showing Ibsen (who would do it much better) the way. The Bankrupt (1875) made Bjørnson famous abroad for its realistic treatment of the business world, a subject previously considered unsuitable for serious drama.
From this time on, Bjørnson's authorship follows, more closely than intended, the demand of the Dane George Brandes that literature "take up problems for discussion." His novels, stories, plays, and poems teem with the latest thought from abroad (that of Charles Darwin, J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, and the Bible critics) and deal as well with the stormier issues within Norway. The novels Magnhild (1877), The Heritage of the Kurts (1884), and In God's Way (1889) deal, respectively, with a woman's right to divorce, school reform, and religious intolerance. The play Leonarda (1879) is about divorce, while A Gauntlet (1883) attacks the new bohemian writers' demands for complete sexual freedom. Beyond Our Power (1883) and Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg (1898) show what Bjørnson was capable of when he dealt with powerful and personal subjects, and both are masterpieces.
A born leader, Bjørnson involved himself in the major controversies of an unusually stormy age, sometimes with all Norway behind him, sometimes alone. He began as a passionate defender of Norway's cultural and political independence, moved later toward pan-Scandinavianism, and ended fighting for world peace and the rights of all oppressed peoples.
Bjørnson was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1903. He died in Paris on April 26, 1910. Although during his lifetime Bjørnson was considered Ibsen's equal, his reputation as an author has diminished considerably, but his influence in many areas of Norwegian cultural life is still strong.
Almost all of Bjørnson's work has been translated into English. Works about Bjørnson include Georg Brandes's excellent book, Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson: Critical Studies (1899), and Harold Larson, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson: A Study in Norwegian Nationalism (1944). Useful surveys of Bjørnson and his times are in Harald Beyer, A History of Norwegian Literature (trans. 1956), and Brian W. Downs, Modern Norwegian Literature: 1860-1918 (1966).