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The earliest literature of Denmark is preserved in the runic carvings on nearly 275 stone monuments erected to the Vikings c.850-1050. A number of these are written in alliterative verse. The Danish legends of the heroic period were preserved in the work of Saxo Grammaticus (fl. 12th cent.). With Christianity came the epic poetry of the scholastics, the legends of saints, and theological works written in Latin. The Danish folk song appeared in the 12th cent., stimulated by customs of knighthood and chivalry. Danish literature of the later Middle Ages, primarily in Latin, was formal and ecclesiastical; it included annals, chronicles, legends, and a few poems.

The Reformation stimulated religious polemic and satire as well as the literary use of the Danish language. The Danish translation of the New Testament, completed in 1531 by the humanist Christian Pedersen (d. 1554), who also published an edition of Saxo (1514), greatly influenced Danish literature. In 1535 Hans Tausen (1494-1561) translated the Old Testament. From the Reformation also dates modern Danish drama, which was long a medium for religious moralizing. Fine poetry in the Renaissance manner was created in the early 17th cent. by Anders Arrebo, and baroque verse reached its zenith as rendered by the clergyman Thomas Kingo (1634-1703).

By 1900 a lyrical reaction was being led by the poet J. J. Jorgensen; impressionistic themes became important, but were never the sole fruit of Danish literary endeavor. Both before and after World War I Martin Andersen Nexo wrote in a context of proletarian realism, and J. V. Jensen employed elements of realism and fantasy alike. Fantasy was dominant in the tales of Isak Dinesen, while the theater was enlivened by the dramas of Kaj Munk and the brilliant stage technique of Kjeld Abell.

The period following World War II saw the passing of a number of great figures and the emergence of Martin Hansen, Aage Dons, H. C. Branner, Frank Jager, Tove Ditlevsen, and Knut Sonderby as outstanding Danish writers. Leading writers of the following generation have included Ole Sarvig, Klaus Rifbjerg, Villy Sorensen, Benny Andersen, Inger Christensen, and Peter Hoeg.


The first printed work in Finnish was the ABC book published c.1542 by Bishop Michael Agricola (1508-57). In 1642 the first complete translation of the Bible in Finnish appeared in Stockholm. Until the 19th cent. most of the writing done by Finns was in Swedish, since from the 13th cent. to 1809 Finland was in political vassalage to Sweden. The linguistic researches of Alexander Castren (1813-53), as well as the historical writings of Henry Gabriel Porthan (1739-1804) and the publication (1835) by Elias Lonnrot of the Kalevala, helped to feed interest in Finnish as a literary vehicle.

Still many continued to write in Swedish, among them Zacharias Topelius and J. L. Runeberg, the national poet of Finland. Others who preferred Swedish were the romantic novelist Topelius; Arvid Morne (1876-1946), poet, novelist, and playwright; Jarl Hemmer, poet; and the prose writer Runar Schildt (1888-1925). To the first generation of those writing in Finnish belong the novelist Pietari Paivarinta (1827-1913) and Alexis Stenvall (pseud. Kivi, 1834-72), who originated Finnish tragic and comic drama. He is known abroad for The Seven Brothers (1870, tr. 1929), a masterpiece combining elements of romanticism and realism. Eino Leino (1878-1926), Finland's most original lyricist, produced some 30 collections of poetry reflecting the influence of folklore.

The poet Edith Sodergran (1892-1923), inspired by the European symbolists and by her Russian childhood, had great influence on modern Finnish and Swedish poetry. The first Finnish writer to express modern realism was the playwright and champion of women's rights, Minna Canth (1844-97). Also influenced by realistic as well as radical literary currents in the 1880s was Juhani Aho (1861-1921), a novelist who gave literary Finnish a new maturity and artistic standard.

The novelist and poet Ilmari Kianto depicted the bitter struggle for existence among the poor peasantry in N Finland. Also concerned with rural life were the novelists Joel Lehtonen (1881-1934) and Pentti Haanpaa (1905-55). A champion of social reform was the Swedish-language poet Arvid Morne. The conflicts rising from the civil war (1918) inspired the playwright and short-story writer Runar Schildt. The tensions of 20th-century industrial society are reflected in the novels of Toivo Pekkanen (1902-57). Frans Sillanpaa, who won the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature, gained fame for his lyrical impressionist novels. Dominating Finnish literature in the mid-20th cent. were the novelist Vaino Linna and the prolific novelist, poet, and playwright Mika Waltari.


With Iceland's loss of political independence (1261-64) came a decline in literature, although the linguistic tradition continued and the old writings were still venerated. In the 13th and 14th cent. the sagas of antiquity flourished; many were based on Eddic poems (see Edda). Chivalric romances appeared c.1300, emphasizing classical and ecclesiastical themes and showing French influence. From the 14th to the middle of the 16th cent. many foreign works were translated; Old Norse works were copied and compiled, and new religious poems were written in the old meters. The 14th cent. also saw the development of the rimur, metrically ingenious narrative poetry based on the sagas; it was popular until the 19th cent. and was revived in the 20th.

Continental romanticism and a newly aroused nationalism fed the romantic revival begun in the 1830s by the poets Bjarni Thorarensen (1786-1841) and Jonas Hallgrimsson (1807-45). The first writer of the modern Icelandic short story, Hallgrimsson also influenced Jon Thoroddsen, who wrote the first published Icelandic novel. This movement, whose practitioners created what became the classic Icelandic style of the 19th and 20th cent., was continued by Grimur Thomsen (1820-96), writer of heroic narrative poems; Benedikt Grondal (1826-1907), romantic and humorous poet; Steingrimur Thorsteinsson (1831-1913), lyric poet, satirist, and translator; and Matthias Jochumsson (1835-1920), whose plays mark the beginning of modern Icelandic drama. The towering figure of the period was the historian and statesman Jon Sigur­sson.

The periodical Verdandi [the present], founded in 1882, advanced a new realism : strongly socialistic, individualistic, and anticlerical, and influenced by the Danish critic Georg Brandes. Notable realists include the short-story writer and social critic Gestur Palsson (1852-91); the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927); and the anticlerical satirist and lyric poet Thorsteinn Erlingsson (1858-1914). Einar H. Kvaran (1859-1938), at first a realist, later turned to religious and spiritual themes in his short stories about the poor in Reykjavik. Jon Trausti (pseud. of Gu­mundur Magnusson, 1873-1918) in his fiction depicted medieval as well as modern Iceland.

The 20th cent. saw the rise of a more introspective writing, influenced by Nietzsche and the French symbolists. One group of writers, part of the Icelandic colony in Copenhagen, wrote in Danish to reach a wider public. They were led by Johann Sigurjonsson (1880-1919), a romantic dramatist. Others were the romantic novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson and the cosmopolitan dramatist Gu­mundur Kamban. A neoromantic movement arose in the 1920s; it had as a leading spirit the poet, scholar, and critic Sigurdur Nordal, author of the prose poem Hel (1919). Among the neoromantics were the novelists Gu­mundur Hagalin and Kristmann Gu­mundsson and the lyric poets Davi­ Stefansson and Stefan Sigurdsson.

With the urbanization of Iceland's population came the rise of a working class and new patterns of life and thought. Kamban and Trausti early became socialists; Hagalin turned from conservative journalism to become thoroughly identified with the new socialist middle class. The most noted writer of this period was the Nobel laureate Halldor K. Laxness. The establishment of British and American bases in Iceland during World War II introduced foreign literary influence, and Icelandic independence (1944) increased nationalist and patriotic emphasis. In the 1950s the introspective "atom poets," including Stefan H. Grimsson and Hannes Sigfursson, won acclaim. Major writers of the late 20th cent. include Agnar Thor­arson, Elias Mar, Oddur Bjornsson, Hannes Petursson, and Jokull Jakobsson.