Northern Lights: The Writers of Scandinavia

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Northern lights: the writers of Scandinavia

SCANDINAVIAN literature is both little-known and misunderstood. It was written in minor languages and for long it was read only by a handful of specialists.

It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century with the arrival of the Ibsen/Strindberg generation that Scandinavian literature came to the forefront of the European literary scene. Translations of their works into the major languages proliferated, although, as was only to be expected, the selection of works translated was haphazard. Many inexplicable gaps remain which must at all costs be filled.

A great deal more has still to be done. Little Iceland has an impressive literature dating back to the Middle Ages. After a period of decline starting in the fifteenth century it has experienced a miraculous renaissance in the twentieth century. Norwegian literature, which dates back a mere two centuries, nevertheless burst upon the world with an immediate, striking impact. Danish and Swedish literature goes back a century further and indeed includes a number of even older works of considerable importance, although these were mainly written in Latin. The literature of Finland, which is written in both Swedish and Finnish, dates from the Romantic period. Here we have five different literatures which together form an imposing new mountain range in the literary landscape. The more we explore it the more we become aware of its density, its complexity and its rich originality.

The volumes published in translation with the aid of Unesco seem to me, for the most part, to be fitting staging-points in this journey of exploration. The Unesco Collection would, perhaps, benefit from a more clearly mapped out route which would make it possible to establish the links between the various works that have been translated. Among the works translated into French one would like to see Renauld-Krantz's invaluable Anthologie de la Poesie Nordique Ancienne ("Anthology of Ancient Nordic Poetry', Paris, 1964) and my own Anthologie de la Poesie Suedoise ("Anthology of Swedish Poetry', Paris, 1971), which head the list, followed up by translations of anthologies of Danish and Finnish poetry, since, at least until recent times, poetry has been the most important component in Nordic literature.

Although Iceland has been relatively well represented in the Collection, especially as far as translations into English are concerned, a major effort is still needed with regard to Danish literature. It is high time the world had access to Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-c. 1206), the Danish historian in whose Gesta Danorum Shakespeare may well have found the model for Hamlet, to Nikolai Frederik Grundtvig (1783-1872), the architect of the Scandinavian identity, to Johannes V. …