Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Literary and intellectual traditions among the five Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) vary to a larger extent than is perhaps obvious to the foreigner. While four of the languages are derived from the same Old Norse roots, Finnish belongs to the Finno-Hungarian group of languages. Similarly, although politically the countries have often been linked or involved in complex Rituals of conquest, war and interdependence, the major foreign cultural influences have varied during the last centuries. Finland was primarily influenced by Russia, Sweden by Germany, and Denmark and Norway to a greater extent by England. It is worth noting that, of the five countries, Sweden in particular is inclined towards insularity: while Swedish authors sell (both in translation and in the original) in Norway and Denmark, the converse is almost never true of Danish and Norwegian authors. Thus the countries are here largely treated individually.

Iceland, obviously, has an immensely rich and rewarding fantastic tradition in its fornaldarsagor, the pseudo-historical Sagas of giants, dwarfs, gods and heroes, in many cases probably surviving orally since before Iceland's colonization in the 9th century and written down in the 13th century. These in turn inspired the rímur of the 14th century – poetic renderings of the imaginary, fabled pseudo-past of the Eddas. Peculiarly, however, this rich mythological heritage – at least as far as its fantastic content goes – has not much influenced modern Icelandic literature, which for its nonrealist elements has largely turned to Magic Realism, often coloured by Icelandic tradition, but in tone more reminiscent of South American than of Northern European tradition. Instead, the mythology of the Eddas has inspired primarily Anglo-Saxon fantasy authors, among them William Morris, E R Eddison, Fletcher Pratt, C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and Poul Anderson; indeed, a fairly large portion of the sagas have been translated by fantasy authors, Morris having translated the Eyrbyggja and the Grettla and Eddison the Egla, while Anderson attempted the considerably more risky task of reconstructing the lost Hrolf Kraki's Saga from the extant fragments and paraphrasings.

Denmark and Norway were united from the late Middle Ages until 1814, when Norway was lost to Sweden due to Denmark's unsuccessful alliance with Napoleonic France. Thus the two countries share a common early literary tradition. Although large parts of the sagas stem originally from Denmark and Norway, modern Danish/Norwegian literature really begins with Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), an immensely prolific scholar and author of almost every kind of literary work, many fantastic – e.g., his most famous satirical novel, Nicolai Klimii iter Subterraneum (1741; trans as Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground 1742; new trans 1960), a lively utopian fantasy, comparable at its best to Jonathan Swift.

In the early 19th century, the Romantic Movement (> Romance) triumphed in Denmark. Its primary exponent, Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850), inspired primarily by the German Romantics, wrote a number of plays and narrative poems hugely influential in Denmark and clearly fantastic in nature. To these belong his dramatic poem Sankt Hansaften-Spil (1802; trans as Midsummer Night's Play), the mythological legend Vaulundur's Saga (1805) and the undiluted fantasy play Aladdin (1805). Among Oehlenschläger's disciples, the most influential was Nicolai Grundtvig (1783-1872), a poet, historian, educationalist and bishop. Grundtvig not only contributed his own fantastic and heroic Romantic poetry but also popularized Norse Mythology via his huge work on Nordic mythology and his translations of numerous Sagas, among them Beowulf, Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum and Snorri's Heimskringla.

The next major Danish fantasist is the most famous: Hans Christian Andersen. The first four of his 168 fairytales appeared in Eventyr, fortalte for Børn ["Fairytales, Told for Children"] (coll 1835 chap): "The Tinderbox", "The Princess on the Pea", "Little Claus and Big Claus" and "Little Ida's Flowers". Later came Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885), whose poetry was strongly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and is evocative of a fantastic realm of supernatural horrors, strange romances and alien mythologies. The major work of Nobel laureate Johannes V Jensen (1873-1949), Den lange rejse (1908-1922; trans from 1922 as The Long Journey), is a 6-vol novel cycle detailing the long journey of humankind from prehistory (Prehistoric Fantasy) to the historical period, and incorporating ancient Mythology, Icelandic sagas, Bible stories and pure imagination – as well as a wealth of scientific detail. Jensen also included a wealth of fantasies in his visionary Myter (1906-1944; cut trans as The Waving Rye), which in its freeform combination of stories, myths and essays is probably his most original work.

Other major fantasy authors of the present century include Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), with her collections of Gothic mysteries and imaginative fantastic tales, and Martin A Hansen (1909-1955), whose burlesque Jonathans rejse ["Jonathan's Journey"] (1941) tells of the righteous blacksmith Jonathan, who captures the Devil in a bottle and sets off to present his captive to the king, on his way travelling through many of Denmark's classical fairytale adventures. Frank Jaeger (1926-1977) is among the few Danes to have written a pure Otherworld fantasy, Iners. Since Danish literature has always accepted the nonrealist, modern Danish prose can boast numerous examples of fantastic Fabulations, from those of Sven Holm (1940-    ) and Dorrit Willumsen through Ib Michael, Per Højholt – who has developed what he calls the "dead end" story inspired by Jorge Luis Borges – and Svend Åge Madsen, whose numerous works are creating an Alternate World that comments on our own.

Currently the most important Danish fantasist is, arguably, Erwin Neutzsky-Wulff (1949-    ), a productive author of poetry, essays, sf and fantasy, among the latter being Den treogtredivte marts ["March 33rd"], Faust and Verden ["The World"], an immense novel trying to encompass the totality of human experience in an imaginative, experimental play on time and history.

In Norway, although Holberg played much the same part as a central literary precursor as in Denmark, the Fantastic did not become a similarly entrenched part of fiction, and Norwegian literature instead turned much more firmly in the direction of social realism. Nevertheless, occasional important works of fantasy have appeared, among them Professor Umbrosius by Sven Elvestad (1884-1934), where the history of the world is retold backwards and where the author offers occasional jubilant comments on how progress has now managed to replace such curses as democracy, schooling, writing and technology. Egil Rasmussen (1903-1964) published at least two novels which can be characterized as fairly pure Howardian Sword and Sorcery, Legenden om Lovella ["The Legend of Lovella"] and En konge rider hjem ["A King Rides Home"]; Peder W Cappelen (1931-    ) has used Norse and Icelandic mythology and sagas as the basis for short stories and a number of plays including Tornerose ["Sleeping Beauty"] and Loke ["Loki"].

The most-read fantasy author in Scandinavia today is the Norwegian Margit Sandemo. After a long career as a writer of popular stories and serials for weekly women's magazines, she started in 1980 an immense series of novels called Sagan om isfolket ["The Story of the Ice People"], totalling 45 volumes; in it she chronicles the Tengil family through the centuries as they interact with historical events and with elves, fairies, goblins and magic.

On a different level, modern Norwegian fantasy can boast at least two authors of high accomplishment: Tor Åge Bringsvaerd (1939-    ) and Øyvind Myhre (1945-    ). Bringsvaerd's first major fantasy is the experimental Syvsoverskens dystre frokost: En underholdingsroman på liv og død ["The Sad Breakfast of the Late Sleeper: An Entertainment of Life and Death"] (1976), a Surrealist fragmental fantasy set in modern New York; the book remains one of the most impressive Modernist experiments in Norwegian literature. Bringsvaerd has later published more traditional mythologically anchored fantasy novels, including Minotauros (1980) and Ker Shus (1983).

Øyvind Myhre (1945-    ), on the other hand, is a wholly traditional storyteller, clearly influenced by the UK and US fantasy tradition. His five major fantasy novels all deal with the birth of the modern world, in the sense that Myhre writes of the break between the pagan and the Christian universe but also of the birth of intolerance, hierarchical systems and power structures. In De sidste tider ["The Last Days"] (1976) an individual who lacks destiny is born into a totally predestined world on its course towards destruction; Kongen of gudene ["The King and the Gods"] (1979) is set in 7th-century England and deals with a conflict between heathen and Christian; Grønlandsfarerna ["The Greenland Travellers"] (1981) tells of Torgils, who sets out on a mission to Christianize the world, but is visited by the wrath of the Aesir; it is an impressive portrayal of the last days of the saga period and of men torn between faith and tradition, comfort and belief. The most impressive of Myhre's novels may be Makt ["Power"] (1983), a historical fantasy of the monolith builders of Boyne Valley, Ireland. In a totally different vein, Myhre has written an impressive and original addition to the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos, Mørke over Dunwich ["Darkness Over Dunwich"] (1991).

Finland was from the 13th century part of Sweden, but coveted by Russia; in 1809 Sweden lost control, and Finland was incorporated as an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. A Swedish-speaking minority remained as the ruling class, and Swedish remained the only official language until 1863; after Finland gained its independence in 1917, Swedish was granted equal status with Finnish as the official language. Today, roughly 6% of the inhabitants are Swedish-speaking.

The folklorist and philologist Elias Lönnroth (1802-1884) in a sense created the Finnish national literature by collecting folk poetry and myths among the Lapps, the Estonians and the Finnish tribes of Karelia and turning these into the coherent, lyrical "folk epic" Kalevala (1835; exp 1849), which largely created the Finnish nationalist movement. However, apart from some works inspired directly by the Kalevala (perhaps most importantly those of the poet Eino Leino), Finnish literature has been fundamentally realist and inspired from Sweden, Germany and Russia; it remained for modern authors like Tove Jansson and Irmelin Sandman Lilius (1936-    ) to provide the foundations for Finnish fantastic literature. Their importance can hardly be overstated; Jansson's Moomin stories and Sandman Lilius's many tales of the imaginary, magic City of Tulavall are major literary fantasy creations.

Finally, in Sweden, 19th-century Romance at last broke the dominance of Realism. The first important fantasist was Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom (1790-1855), whose unfinished fairy-play Fågel Blå ["Blue Bird"] (1814) presaged his masterpiece Lycksalighetens ö ["Island of Happiness"] (1824-1827; rev 1855), an immense Fairy poem of a journey outside Time to a beautiful Island in the sky. A later liberal Romantic, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793-1866), created another masterpiece of Swedish epic literature, Törnrosens bok ["The Book of the Wild Rose"], a vast sequence of stories and plays published from 1832 onwards; his most important work was Drottningens juvelsmycke ["The Queen's Jewel Necklace"] (1834), a pseudohistorical novel about the murder of Gustav III but told largely around the mysterious, ambiguous figure of the androgynous heroine Tintomara.

Much different but no less important was Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940). In almost all her works the Astral Plane and natural Magic are included as self-evident ingredients, but only seldom do they occupy a central place. However, in Herr Arnes penningar (1904; trans as Herr Arne's Hoard) humans and Spirits cooperate to punish those guilty of murdering Arne; in Nils Holgerssons underbara resa (1906-1907; trans as The Wonderful Adventures of Nils) she wrote a charming fantasy of a boy's travels through a magical Sweden on the back of a talking goose. In Körkarlen (1912; trans William Frederick Harvey as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! 1921 UK) she brilliantly portrays the emissary of Death who on a New Year's Eve comes driving his old cart into a small town to collect the spirits of the dead. Additionally, Lagerlöf was a master of the Ghost Story; over 30 were collected by Sven Christer Swahn in Vägen mellan himmel och jord ["The Road Between Heaven and Earth"] (coll 1992).

Another Swedish Nobel laureate proved a first-class fantasist. Pär Lagerkvist tended towards the fantastic and symbolic, from early stories like "Det eviga leendet" (1920; trans as "The Eternal Smile"), the novel and later play Bödeln (1933; trans as The Hangman), and in novels like Sibyllan (1956; trans as The Sibyl), set in ancient Delphi, and Ahasverus död (1960; trans as The Death of Ahasuerus), about the Wandering Jew.

On a less exalted level, Sweden's primary contributions to current fantasy are Children's Fantasy. Here Astrid Lindgren is foremost, with her Pippi Longstocking stories plus the High Fantasies Mio, min Mio (1954; trans as Mio, My Son), Bröderna Lejonhäjrta (1973; trans as The Brothers Lionheart) and Ronja Rövardotter (1981; trans as Ronja, the Robber's Daughter). A younger internationally successful author of subtle juvenile fantasies is Maria Gripe, with, in particular, her Shadows series.

Other Swedes writing in the fantasy genre include Sam J Lundwall (1941-    ) and Bertil Mårtensson (1945-    ), who has written the only truly successful Swedish high-fantasy trilogy, Maktens vägar ["The Ways of Power"] (1979-1983). Peder Carlsson (1945-    ) has published two original, idiosyncratic philosophical fantasy novels, Syns, syns inte ["Now You See It, Now You Don't"] (1976) and Enhörning på té ["Did You Ever Have a Unicorn for Tea?"] (1979). Among younger authors, several writers have shown considerable originality in handling nonrealist themes, perhaps most impressively Anna-Karin Palm in Faunen ["The Faun"] (1991) and Utanför bilden ["Outside the Picture"] (1992). [J-HH]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.