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Swedish literature

Swedish literature

Swedish literature refers to literature written in the Swedish language or by writers from Sweden.

The first literary text from Sweden is the Rok Runestone, carved during the Viking Age circa 800 AD. With the conversion of the land to Christianity around 1100 AD, Sweden entered the Middle Ages, during which monastic writers preferred to use Latin. Therefore, there are only a few texts in the Old Swedish from that period. Swedish literature only flourished when the Swedish language was standardized in the 16th century, a standardization largely due to the full translation of the Bible into Swedish in 1541. This translation is the so-called Gustav Vasa Bible.

With improved education and the freedom brought by secularisation, the 17th century saw several notable authors develop the Swedish language further. Some key figures include Georg Stiernhielm 17th century, who was the first to write classical poetry in Swedish; Johan Henric Kellgren 18th century, the first to write fluent Swedish prose; Carl Michael Bellman late 18th century, the first writer of burlesque ballads; and August Strindberg late 19th century, a socio-realistic writer and playwright who won worldwide fame. In Sweden, the period starting in 1880 is known as realism because the writing had a strong focus on social realism.

In the 1900s, one of the earliest novelists was Hjalmar Soderberg. The early 20th century continued to produce notable authors, such as Selma Lagerlof Nobel laureate 1909 and Par Lagerkvist Nobel laureate 1951. A well-known proletarian writer who gained fame after World War I was Vilhelm Moberg; between 1949 and 1959, he wrote the four-book series The Emigrants Swedish: Utvandrarna, often considered one of the best literary works from Sweden. In the 1960s, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo collaborated to produce a series of internationally acclaimed detective novels. The most successful writer of detective novels is Henning Mankell, whose works have been translated into 37 languages. In the spy fiction genre, the most successful writer is Jan Guillou.

In recent decades, a handful of Swedish writers have established themselves internationally, such as the detective novelist Henning Mankell and thriller writer Stieg Larsson. Also well known outside of Sweden is the childrens book writer Astrid Lindgren, author of works such as Pippi Longstocking and Emil of Maple Hills.

There is also a strong tradition of Swedish as a literary language in Finland; after the separation in the start of the 19th century, Finland has produced writers such as Johan Ludvig Runeberg, who wrote the Finnish national epic The Tales of Ensign Stål, and Tove Jansson.


1. Old Norse

Most runestones had a practical, rather than a literary, purpose and are therefore mainly of interest to historians and philologists. Several runic inscriptions are also nonsensical by nature, being used for magical or incantatory purposes. The most notable literary exception is the Rok Runestone from circa 800 AD. It contains the longest known inscription, and encompasses several different passages from sagas and legends, in various prosodic forms. Part of it is written in alliterative verse, or fornyrdislag. It is generally regarded as the beginning of Swedish literature.


2. Middle Ages

The Christianization of Sweden was one of the main events in the countrys history, and it naturally had an equally profound impact on literature.

The Gok runestone is a case in point of how the older literature dissolved. It uses the same imagery as the Ramsund carving, but a Christian cross has been added and the images are combined in a way that completely distorts the internal logic of events. Whatever the reason may have been, the Gok stone illustrates how the pagan heroic mythos was going towards its dissolution, during the introduction of Christianity.

Literature now looked to foreign texts to provide models. By 1200, Christianity was firmly established and a Medieval European culture appeared in Sweden. Only a selected few mastered the written language, but little was written down. The earliest works written in Swedish were provincial laws, first written down in the 13th century.

Most education was provided by the Catholic Church, and therefore the literature from this period is mainly of a theological or clerical nature. The majority of other literature written consists of law texts. An exception to this are the rhyming chronicles, written in knittelvers.


3.1. 16th and 17th century Reformation literature

Swedish Reformation literature is considered to have been written between 1526 and 1658. However, this period has not been highly regarded from a literary point of view. It is generally considered a step back in terms of literary development. The main reason was King Gustav Vasas wish to control and censor all publications, with the result that only the Bible and a few other religious works were published. At the same time, Catholic monasteries were plundered and Catholic books were burnt. The king did not consider it important to reestablish higher education, so Uppsala University was left to decay.

There were comparatively few groups of writers during this time. The burghers still had little influence, while the Church clerics had their importance severely reduced. The Protestant Reformation of the 1520s left priests with a fraction of their previous political and economic power. Those Swedes who wanted higher education usually had to travel abroad to the universities of Rostock or Wittenberg.

Apart from Christian Reformation literature there was one other significant ideological movement. This was Gothicismus, which glorified Swedens ancient history.

While contributions to Swedish culture were sparse, this period did at least provide an invaluable basis for future development. Most importantly, the Swedish Bible translation of 1541, the so-called Gustav Vasa Bible, gave Sweden a uniform language for the first time. Secondly, the introduction of the printing press resulted in literature being spread to groups it had previously been unable to reach.


3.2. 16th and 17th century Renaissance literature

The period in Swedish history between 1630 and 1718 is known as the Swedish Empire. It partly corresponds to an independent literary period. The literature of the Swedish Empire era is regarded as the beginning of the Swedish literary tradition.

Renaissance literature is considered to have been written between 1658 and 1732. It was in 1658 that Georg Stiernhielm published his Herculus, the first hexametrical poem in the Swedish language.

When Sweden became a great power, a stronger middle class culture arose. Unlike the age of the Reformation, education was no longer solely a matter of ecclesiastical studies such as theology. During this era, there was a wealth of influences from the leading countries of the time, namely Germany, France, Holland and Italy. It was symptomatic that the man who came to be known as Swedens first poet, Georg Stiernhielm, was more acquainted with Ancient philosophy than with Christian teachings.

Gothicismus also gained in strength. During the Swedish Empire period, it developed into a literary paradigm, the purpose of which was to foster the idea that Sweden was a natural great power.


4. 18th century

The 18th century has been described as the Swedish Golden Age in literature and science. During this period, Sweden produced authors and literature of a much higher standard than ever before. One key factor was the political period known as the Age of Liberty 1712–1772, and the first Swedish freedom of the press act written in 1766 see Constitution of Sweden. It meant the ultimate breakthrough of secular literature.

Naturally, the impulses that invigorated Swedish cultural life had their origin in the European Age of Enlightenment. The main influences came from Germany, England and France, and these were reflected in Swedish literature. The Swedish language became enriched by French words, and ideas of liberalization were based on the English model.

Swedish literature consolidated around 1750; this is considered the start of a linguistic period called Late Modern Swedish 1750 – circa 1880. The first great works of the age were those of Olov von Dalin 1708–1763, and in particular his weekly Then Swanska Argus, based on Joseph Addisons The Spectator. Dalin gave a sketch of Swedish culture and history using language which had an unprecedented richness of sarcasm and irony. In the 1730s and 1740s, Dalin was unrivalled as the brightest star in the Swedish literary sky. He was the first to refine the language for practical purposes, in comparison with the laboured poetry of the 17th century, and he was the first author to be read and appreciated by the general public.

In the 18th century, Latin rapidly declined in popularity in favour of the national language. One of the first authors to aim his books directly at the general public was the world-renowned botanist Carl Linnaeus 1707–1778. Later key figures included the poets Johan Henrik Kellgren 1751–1795 and Carl Michael Bellman 1740–1795.

The 18th century were also the century when female writers first got widespread recognition. Sophia Elisabet Brenner 1659–1730, Swedens first professional female writer, had started her career in the 17th century, but it continued into the following century. Later, Anna Maria Lenngrens 1754–1817 often satirical writings proved to have lasting influence, and it remains a point of debate to this day how exactly to interpret "Några ord till min k. Dotter, i fall jag hade någon" A few word for my beloved daughter, if I would have had one - are the exhortions to remain at home and not get involved with literature or politics serious or satirical?


5.1. 19th century Romanticism

In European history, the period circa 1805–1840 is known as Romanticism. It also made a strong impression on Sweden, due to German influences. During this relatively short period, there were so many great Swedish poets that the era is referred to as the Golden Age of Swedish poetry. The period started around 1810 when several periodicals were published which rejected the literature of the 18th century. An important society was the Gothic Society 1811, and their periodical Iduna, a romanticised look back towards Gothicismus.

One significant reason was that several poets for the first time worked towards a common direction. Four of the main romantic poets who made significant contributions to the movement were: the professor of history Erik Gustaf Geijer, the loner Erik Johan Stagnelius, the professor of Greek language Esaias Tegner and the professor of aesthetics and philosophy P.D.A. Atterbom.


5.2. 19th century Early liberalism

The period between 1835 and 1879 is known as the early liberal period in Swedish history. The views of the Romantics had come to be perceived by many as inflated and overburdened by formality. The first outspoken liberal newspaper in Sweden, Aftonbladet, was founded in 1830. It quickly became the leading newspaper in Sweden because of its liberal views and criticism of the current state of affairs. The newspaper played its part in turning literature in a more realistic direction, because of its more concise use of language.

Several authorities would regard Carl Jonas Love Almqvist 1793–1866 as the most outstanding genius of the 19th century in Sweden. Beginning in 1838, he published a series of socially and politically radical stories attacking both marriage and clerical institutions. Several of his ideas are still interesting for modern readers, in particular the work Det går an 1839 which reached the German bestseller list as late as 2004.


6. Naturalism, or realism

Naturalism is one name for the literary period between 1880 and 1900. In Sweden, however, the period starting in 1880 is known as realism. This is partly because the 1880s had such a strong focus on social realism, and partly because the 1890s was a period of its own, the "90s poets".

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Scandinavian literature made its first and so far only impression on world literature. From Sweden, the main name was August Strindberg, but Ola Hansson, Selma Lagerlof and Victoria Benedictsson also attained wider recognition.

The breakthrough of realism in Sweden occurred in 1879. That year, August Strindberg 1845–1912 published The Red Room Roda Rummet, a satirical novel that relentlessly attacked the political, the academic, the philosophical and the religious worlds.

August Strindberg was a writer world-famous for his dramas and prose, noted for his exceptional talent and complex intellect. He would continue to write several books and dramas until his death in Stockholm. He also was an accomplished painter and photographer.


6.1. Naturalism, or realism The 90s poets

The Swedish 1890s is noted for its poetic neo-romanticism, a reaction to the socio-realistic literature of the 1880s. The first key literary figure to emerge was Verner von Heidenstam 1859–1940; his literary debut came in 1887 with the collection of poetry Vallfart och vandringsår Pilgrimage and Wander-Years. A few years later, Gustav Froding made his debut. While controversial in his own time, Froding has proven to be Swedens most popular poet.

The novelist Selma Lagerlof 1858–1940 was arguably the brightest star of the 1890s, and her influence has lasted up to modern times. Two of her major works, which have been translated into several languages, are The Wonderful Adventures of Nils 1906–1907 and Gosta Berlings saga 1891, but she also wrote several other highly regarded books. Lagerlof was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909, mainly for her storytelling abilities.


7.1. 20th century Modernism

It was in the 1910s that a new literary period began with the ageing August Strindberg, who published several critical articles, contesting many conservative values. With the advent of social democracy and large-scale strikes, the winds were blowing in the direction of social reforms.

In the 1910s, the dominant form of literary expression was now the novel. One of the earliest novelists was Hjalmar Soderberg 1869–1941. Soderberg wrote in a somewhat cynical way, at times with Nietzschean overtones, disillusionment and pessimism. In 1901 he published Martin Bircks Youth. It was appreciated by many for its literary qualities, but an even greater aspect was its depiction of Stockholm, which is widely regarded as the best portrait of Stockholm ever written. His most highly regarded work was yet to come however: Doctor Glas 1905, a tale of vengeance and passion, viewed by some as the best and most complete of all Swedish novels. Margaret Atwood, for example, has said of Doctor Glas: "It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since".


7.2. 20th century Proletarian literature

Swedish agriculture had a system with labourers called statare, who were paid in kind only, with product and housing, comparable with the Anglo-Saxon truck system. Among the few people with this background who made an intellectual career were the writers Ivar Lo-Johansson, Moa Martinson and Jan Fridegård. Their works were important to the abolition of the system.

A well-known proletarian writer was Vilhelm Moberg 1898–1973. He usually wrote about the lives of ordinary people and in particular the peasant population. Mobergs monumental work was published shortly after the Second World War: the four-volume The Emigrants series 1949–1959, about the Swedish emigration to North America. In this work, Moberg sentimentally depicted a 19th-century couple during their move to the New World; and the many struggles and difficulties they had to endure.


7.3. 20th century Childrens literature

In the 1930s a new awareness of childrens needs emerged. This manifested itself shortly after World War II, when Astrid Lindgren published Pippi Longstocking in 1945. Pippis rebellious behaviour at first sparked resistance among some defenders of cultural values, but eventually she was accepted, and with that childrens literature was freed from the obligation to promote moralism.

Astrid Lindgren continued to publish many best-selling childrens books which eventually made her the most read Swedish author, regardless of genre, with over 100 million copies printed throughout the world and translations into over 80 languages. In many other books Lindgren showed her fine understanding of childrens thought and values; in The Brothers Lionheart about death, as well as a tale of bravery; in Mio, My Son, a fairy tale about friendship. But not all her stories had deep messages. Three books on Karlsson-on-the-Roof 1955, 62, 68 are about a short, chubby and mischievous man with a propeller on his back, who is befriended by a boy. Lindgren wrote twelve books about Emil of Maple Hills, a boy living in the Småland countryside in the early 1900s, who continuously gets intro trouble because of his pranks, yet in later life becomes a responsible and resourceful man, and the Chairman of the Municipality Council.

One of few fantasy writers in Swedish literature apart from Lindgren was the Finnish writer Tove Jansson 1914–2001, who wrote, in the Swedish language, about the Moomins. The Moomins are trolls who live in an economically and politically independent state, without any materialistic concerns. The Moomins have appealed to people in many different countries and Janssons books have been translated into over 30 languages.


7.4. 20th century Detective novels

Before World War II, the Swedish detective novel was based on British and American models. After World War II, it developed in an independent direction. In the 1960s, Maj Sjowall 1935– and Per Wahloo 1926–1975 collaborated to produce a series of internationally acclaimed detective novels about the detective Martin Beck. Other writers followed.

The most successful writer of Swedish detective novels is Henning Mankell 1948–2015, with his series on Kurt Wallander. They have been translated to 37 languages and have become bestsellers, particularly in Sweden and Germany. Mankells detective stories have been widely praised for their sociological themes, examining the effects on a liberal culture of immigration, racism, neo-Nazism etc. Many of the stories have been filmed no less than three times, twice by Swedish companies and most recently in an English-language series starring Kenneth Branagh. But Mankell has also written several other acclaimed books, such as Comedia Infantil 1995, about an abandoned street boy in the city of Maputo.

Several other Swedish detective writers have become popular abroad, particularly in Germany; for example Liza Marklund 1962–, Håkan Nesser 1950–, Åsa Larsson, Arne Dahl, Leif G. W. Persson, Johan Theorin, Camilla Lackberg, Mari Jungstedt and Åke Edwardson. From 2004 and onwards, the deceased Stieg Larsson caused an international sensation with the Millennium Trilogy, continuing as a series with new novels being written by David Lagercrantz.

In the spy fiction genre, the most successful writer is Jan Guillou 1944– and his best-selling books about the spy Carl Hamilton, many of which have also been filmed. Of Guillous other works, the two most notable are his series on the Knight Templar Arn Magnusson and the semi-autobiographical novel with the metaphorical title Ondskan The Evil.


7.5. 20th century Ballads

The Swedish ballad tradition had been initiated by Bellman in the late 18th century. In the 19th century, poetic songwriting fell into decline with the rise of university student choirs, until it was again revived in the 1890s. Poets increasingly continued the tradition of having their poetry set to music to give it a wider audience. In the early 1900s, a lot of poetry of the 90s poets Gustaf Froding and Erik Axel Karlfeldt had been put to music.

Arguably the most renowned Swedish troubadour of the 20th century was however Evert Taube 1890–1976. He established himself as a performing artist in 1920 and toured Sweden for about three decades. He is best known for songs about sailors, ballads about Argentina, and songs about the Swedish countryside.

Between 1962 up until his death, the most highly regarded singer-songwriter in the Swedish ballad tradition was Dutch immigrant Cornelis Vreeswijk 1937–1987. Some of his songs were leftist protest songs where he took it upon himself to speak for societys underdogs but he himself hated to be called a protest singer. His musical universe was much broader and he was for instance heavily influenced by the rich Swedish literature. After his death, Vreeswijk also gained appreciation for his poetic qualities.


7.6. 20th century Poetry

In the 1930s and 1940s, poetry was influenced by the ideals of modernism. Distinguishing features included the desire to experiment, and to try a variety of styles, usually free verse without rhyme or metre.

The leading modernist figure soon turned out to be Hjalmar Gullberg 1898–1961. He wrote many mystical and Christian-influenced collections, such as Andliga ovningar Spiritual Exercises, 1932 and others. After a poetical break 1942–1952, he resurfaced with a new style in the 1950s. Atheistic on the surface, it was influential for the younger generation.

Gunnar Ekelof 1907–1968 has been described as Swedens first surrealistic poet, due to his first poetry collection, the nihilistic Sent på jorden 1932, a work hardly understood by his contemporaries. But Ekelof moved towards romanticism and with his second poetry collection Dedikationen in 1934 he became appreciated in wider circles. He continued to write until his old age, and was to attain a dominant position in Swedish poetry. His style has been described as heavy with symbolism and enigmatic, while at the same time tormented and ironical.

Another important modernist poet was Harry Martinson 1904–1978. Harry Martinson had an unparalleled feeling for nature, in the spirit of Linnaeus. was typical for his generation, he wrote free verse, not bound by rhyme or syllable-count. He also wrote novels, a classic work being the partly autobiographical Flowering Nettles, in 1935. His most remarkable work was, however, Aniara, 1956, a story of a spaceship drifting through space.

Arguably the most famous Swedish poet of the 20th century is Tomas Transtromer 1931–2015. His poetry is distinguished by a Christian mysticism, moving on the verge between dream and reality, the physical and the metaphysical. At the same time there in the Sixties developed a strong tradition influenced by the historical avant-garde, and the Swedish movement of concrete poetry became one of the three global representants for experimental poetry at this time, with representatives like Oyvind Fahlstrom who seemingly published the first manifesto for concrete poetry in the world 1954: "Hatila ragulpr på fåtskliaben", Åke Hodell, Bengt Emil Johnson, and Leif Nylen. In a reaction against the experimental Sixties one in the Seventies took up the beat-tradition from the US, in a continued avant-garde effort which resulted in little magazines publishing poetry, a stencil movement out of which one of Swedish main poets of today – Bruno K. Oijer – grow, and developed a lyrical performance with inspiration from Antonin Artauds "Theatre of cruelty", rocknroll and the avant-garde performance.

Dan Andersson born 6 April 1888 in Skattlosberg, Grangarde parish in present-day Ludvika Municipality, Dalarna, Sweden, died 16 September 1920 in Stockholm) was a Swedish author and poet. He also set some of his own poems to music. Andersson married primary school teacher Olga Turesson, the sister of artist Gunnar Turesson, in 1918. A nom de plume he sometimes used was Black Jim. Andersson is counted among the Swedish proletarian authors, but his works are not limited to that genre.


7.7. 20th century Drama

Several writers of drama surfaced after World War II. In the 1950s, revues were popular; some names of the era were the comedians Povel Ramel and Kar de Mumma. The Hasse & Tage duo continued the comedic tradition in 1962 and became something of an institution in the Swedish revue world for twenty years, encompassing radio, television and film productions.

With the late 1960s came a breakthrough for alternative drama of a freer nature, and theatre became more of a venue for popular tastes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the two most noted playwrights were Lars Noren 1944– and Per Olov Enquist 1934–.


7.8. 20th century Literature in pop music lyrics

This literary period began in Sweden in the 1960s, influenced by artists from England and the U.S. At first, the literary quality in Swedish pop music was little more than an imitation of foreign models, and it took until the 1970s for an independent movement to emerge. In that decade, youth grassroots music reached unprecedented popularity, and opened the possibility for unestablished artists to have their music published. Because of the common political message these bands often presented, they are classified as Progg short for "progressive". While few Progg-artists actually produced anything worthwhile, there were some acts who stood out. Nationalteatern were significant because they were not only a musical group, but also theatre performers; and in the talented leftist artist Mikael Wiehe 1946– of Hoola Bandoola Band, there was a renewal of Swedish ballad writing, in the direction of high quality proletarian lyrics.

One of the rebels of the 1970s was Ulf Lundell 1949– who abandoned the grass root movement for rock n roll. In 1976, he broke through in literature with his debut novel Jack, a beatnik novel that came to represent a whole generation. While critics were not impressed, the novel sold in great numbers and is still appreciated by many.


7.9. 20th century Finland

The Swedish language is an official language in Finland, with approximately 5.6% of the population having it as their mother tongue. Hence Swedish language literature has a considerable following in Finland, with several well-known Swedish-speaking Finnish writers, such as Bo Carpelan, Christer Kihlman and Tove Jansson. Jansson, perhaps best known for her Moomin books for children, wrote novels and short stories for adults, including Sommarboken, 1972, The Summer Book.

A cultural body representing such literature is the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland, which describes itself as "a versatile and future-oriented cultural institution of Finland-Swedish literature, culture and research." The Society is also a leading investor in the global equity and debt markets and a staunch defender of Finnish national interests, most recently against incursions by Swedish investors. This stance has caused some disquiet among Society members committed to the project of pan-Nordic literary appreciation.


8. Nobel laureates

Swedish writers awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the year it was awarded to them:

  • Harry Martinson, 1974 joint - For writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos
  • Selma Lagerlof, 1909 - In appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings
  • Par Lagerkvist, 1951 - For the artistic vigour and true independence of mind with which he endeavours in his poetry to find answers to the eternal questions confronting mankind
  • Erik Axel Karlfeldt, 1931 - For the poetry of Erik Axel Karlfeldt ". The acceptance speech elaborates: The Swede would say that we celebrate this poet because he represents our character with a style and a genuineness that we should like to be ours, and because he has sung with singular power and exquisite charm of the tradition of our people, of all the precious features which are the basis for our feeling for home and country in the shadow of the pine-covered mountains. ".
  • Verner von Heidenstam, 1916 - In recognition of his significance as the leading representative of a new era in our literature
  • Tomas Transtromer, 2011 - Because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality
  • Eyvind Johnson, 1974 joint - For a narrative art, far-seeing in lands and ages, in the service of freedom

9. Notes and references

All page number references to "Gustafson" are made to the Swedish language edition of his book.

  • Swedish Institute website, accessed October 17, 2006
  • Olsson, B., Algulin, I., et al, Litteraturens historia i Sverige 2009, ISBN 978-91-1-302268-0
  • Hagg, Goran, Den svenska litteraturhistorian
  • Nationalencyklopedin, article svenska
  • Algulin, Ingemar, A History of Swedish Literature, published by the Swedish Institute, 1989. ISBN 91-520-0239-X
  • Lonnroth, L., Delblanc S., Goransson, S. Den svenska litteraturen ed., 3 volumes 1999
  • Tigerstedt, E.N., Svensk litteraturhistoria
  • Warburg, Karl, Svensk Litteraturhistoria i Sammandrag 1904, p. 57 Online link", provided by Project Runeberg. This book is rather old, but it was written for schools and is probably factually correct. However, its focal point differs from current-day books.
  • Gustafson, Alrik, Svenska litteraturens historia, 2 volums Stockholm, 1963. First published as A History of Swedish Literature American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1961.

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