04 January 2022
In European Collections, where we focus on printed books post-1850, many of our acquisitions come through regular contracted suppliers. These suppliers are equipped to provide the breadth of publications the Library needs to stay relevant as an international research organisation. Occasionally, however, we acquire by different means, perhaps when the publication is more niche, or second-hand, or when we have a connection to a publisher or author, amongst other reasons. As we enter a new year, I wanted to reflect briefly on the quirkier material that has entered the BL’s Nordic collections in just such ways in 2021.
Valtatiet (‘Highways’) is an early example of the Finnish avant-garde, an illustrated poetry collaboration between Mika Waltari, Olavi Lauri Paavolainen and the artist Sylvi Kunnas, who provided its striking front cover.
Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas, awaiting shelfmark
Waltari and Paavolainen were prominent members of the Tulenkantajat (‘Torch Bearers’) group of artists and writers, who introduced the trending movements of European modernism to Finland. Valtatiet was itself inspired by Filippo Marinetti’s Futurism in its manifesto-like poetry of ‘machine romanticism’ (Kaunonen), while Kunnas’s cover certainly betrays an interest in Cubist style. Both poets increasingly became more politically engaged, despite their early preference for the aesthetics and experience of modernity and modern life, and both visited Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with Paavolainen producing perhaps his most famous work as a result, Kolmannen Valtakunnan vieraana (‘Guest of the Third Reich’, 1936). This acquisition complements an extensive European avant-garde collection at the Library and importantly expands it to incorporate an example of its unique Finnish expression.
Illustration by Sylvi Kunnas accompanying the poems entitled ‘Credo’ by Olavi Lauri Paavolainen
Our Finnish collections also recently welcomed a much more contemporary literary work, Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli, which we kindly received directly from the author. Elsa won this year’s Tanvissa karhu (‘Dancing bear’) prize for poetry, the first time it has gone to a self-published work. Thrilled to be asked for a copy by the Library, Elsa sent us a beautiful note along with the book, which she described as her “wild and extravagant poetry explosion”. Thank you, Elsa! And for those of us still needing to hone our Finnish, an English translation by Kasper Salonen is available.
From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli (awaiting shelfmark)
Reaching out to creators has been an interesting way to learn about contemporary publishing in the region. I came across the work of Johannes Samuelsson through conversations around Swedish art books and projects centred on social action. Samuelsson, an artist and photographer, has developed an art practice that is directly concerned with uplifting his community in Umeå, making books that document but also form part of that social action. Johannes generously sent his work to the Library and I was particularly struck by the book Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet: En bok om kampen för en korvvagn (‘Reasonable claims for neatness: A book on the fight for a hot dog stall’).
Cover of Johannes Samuelsson’s Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet, featuring hot dog stall owner, Helmer Holm
When the Umeå authorities introduced new regulations for the design of hot dog stalls, Helmer Holm fought to retain his stall, which contravened the new rules. Samuelsson documents what he calls the “hot dog war”, amplifying Holm’s campaign, which was eventually successful, and the project is brought to life in the photobook. Attempting to represent the cultural life of the Nordic region, our collections need to be broad and relevant, identifying projects that also speak to universal issues and therefore that cut across the Library’s collections. With this Swedish perspective on local activism, on gentrification of common urban space, on art as social practice, we are hopefully adding richness to collections that interrogate similar ideas.
Cover of Art of Welfare, (Oslo, 2006) YD.2021.a.1210
We are always keen to incorporate independent publishing and smaller presses, especially where the publications complement the collections we already hold and the themes central to them. Art publishing tends to be produced with an international market in mind, with many books from the Nordic region appearing in English. After acquiring the Office for Contemporary Art Norway’s recent trilogy of new Indigenous writing, following a survey of contemporary publishing related to Sámi culture, we were fortunate to receive all outstanding issues of the publisher’s Verkstad series from them directly. Exhibition catalogues are often the place for leading thinkers to be creative, and there are unique essays throughout this series. Take, for example, Art of Welfare, produced for Elmgreen & Dragset's exhibition, ‘The Welfare Show’ – initially produced by Bergen Kunsthall, – at the Serpentine Gallery in London in January 2006.
As we constantly shape our collections to reflect the worlds they represent, working with authors, artists and independent publishers is an indispensable way to get at the heart of these cultural landscapes and to broaden the perspective of our own. We hope to continue to supplement our Nordic collections in this way, developing this unofficial “acquisitions through conversations” approach.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Leena Kaunonen, ‘Avant-Garde Moments in Nykyaikaa etsimassa by Olavi Paavolainen’, in A Cultural History of the Avant–Garde in the Nordic Countries 1925–1950 (Leiden, 2019) Avant-garde critical studies; 36. pp. 746-760. 1837.116580
22 July 2021
Like other contemporary acts of terror, the traumatic events that befell Norway on 22 July 2011 are commonly referred to in Norway by their date alone. As we approach the tenth anniversary of that day public, cultural, and scholarly reflections continue to abound, a decade’s distance precipitating not just further responses to the awful act but also reflections on the responses themselves. The purpose of this post is not to describe or focus on the traumatic events of 22 July 2011 but to attempt an overview of these responses, with an expanded list of references, and discuss how the cultural memorial process has developed.
Two publications recently acquired by the British Library go some way towards anthologising the artistic and literary responses that have figured in the shaping of the cultural memory, a concept which Astrid Erll defines broadly as ‘the interplay of present and past in socio-cultural contexts’. The compilation of attempts to come to terms with 22 July captures the multiplicity, the plenitude, and the unending nature of memorialisation, or what Erll simply calls ‘different modes of remembering identical past events’. Norway’s official memorial processes and their inevitable complication, or sometimes rejection, are testament to the tensions between individual and collective memory, between progressive and tragic memory narratives, and between symbolic expressions and the urge to return to the raw facts.
Cover of Stemmene etter 22. Juli (‘Voices after 22 July’) by Ingvild Folkvord
Bearbeidelser: 22. Juli I ord og bilder (edited by Anne Gjelsvik), where ’bearbeidelser’ might be translated as ‘processings’ or ‘comings to term with’, includes responses to the tragedy by writers such as Vigdis Hjorth and Karl Ove Knausgård alongside analysis of these contributions by academics. Ingvild Folkvord’s Stemmene etter 22. Juli (‘Voices after 22 July’) again looks at the responses to the event through ‘voices’, whether in poetry, on the radio, social media, or the courtroom. They build on and contextualise earlier anthologies such as Respons 22/7, which brought together immediate reflections in 2011. These are books ‘about and with artistic attempts to come to terms’ (Gjelsvik), embodying the idea that memories of collective trauma necessitate a simultaneous interrogation of memorialising, as society is anxious to do justice to the victims and to perfect a process to ‘never forget’.
That process began in the immediate aftermath of the attacks as thousands gathered outside Oslo Cathedral with flowers and candles, the ‘blomsterhavet’ (sea of flowers). This spontaneous manifestation of mourning and defiant collectivity developed into more such acts like the ‘rose marches’ on the mainland near Utøya, all of which were embraced and encouraged early on by officials tasked with developing a memorial process. Five months after the attacks, the Norwegian government announced that two national memorial sites would be created in Oslo and in Hole near Utøya, a process led by KORO (the body responsible for the ‘production, collection management and public-engagement activities relating to art in public buildings and other public settings’. Memorial sites have emerged over the decade, none more famous and divisive than Jonas Dahlberg’s Memory Wound, the winner of the main memorial competition. Dahlberg set out to cut through the Sørbråten peninsula creating a new inaccessible island, on which the names of the victims could be carved, visible from the headland but unreachable. The project met with huge resistance from the local community leading to its eventual abandonment. The fate of this and other memorial sites are detailed by the 22 July Centre, part of the research project ‘July 22 and the Negotiation of Memory’ based at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, focusing on the ‘cultural afterlife of the terror attacks’. Their websites are an excellent source of information on all the memorial initiatives that exist and continue to be inspired, including the programme for this year’s anniversary.
Lysning (The Clearing)
In different ways, two of the more universally appreciated memorials focus on the specific event, the ‘reality of suffering’, rather than the aesthetic of an ‘epic symbol’ of trauma, as critic Kjetil Røed says of Memory Wound. Lysning (The Clearing), designed by architects 3RW, is a large, raised metal ring featuring the names of the victims, positioned in a contemplative, private spot on Utøya. Ahmad Ghossein’s Relocating the Past resurrects on the opposite side of the street a newspaper display panel smashed by the bomb in the first attack at Oslo’s government quarter, with copies of newspapers published on 22 July 2011. Both are quiet, powerful and harrowing, one an almost spiritual memorial to the victims, the other integrating catastrophe into the banal and everyday. Both take you to 22 July 2011.
Relocating the Past memorial
Undoubtedly ‘different modes of remembering’ in approaches to public memorials also play out in what is referred to as the sub-genre of ‘22 July literature’. A best-selling example of the sobre, detailed, journalistic recapitulation of events is Åsne Seierstad’s En av oss (One of Us). Seierstad states that, ‘Everything in this book is based on testimony. All the scenes are constructed according to witnesses’ accounts.’ The account plots the history of several victims against the perpetrator’s own before precisely detailing the events of 22 July, the aftermath and the trial. Seierstad comprehensively rejects any suggestion that the perpetrator was ‘one of us’, a product of Norwegian society like the victims themselves: ‘This is also a book about looking for a way to belong and not finding it. The perpetrator ultimately decided to opt out of the community and strike at it in the most brutal of ways’.
En av Oss has been challenged for that rejection, ruling out as it does the idea that something fundamental within Norwegian politics and society gave rise to the attacks, or even that they were ideologically motivated rather than the aberration of a pathological character. Books such as Sindre Bangstad’s Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia argue ‘not that Norway is a society that is exceptionally racist, but rather that Norway should be seen as unexceptional in this respect, and therefore as confronting the same challenges regarding racism, intolerance and discrimination as other western European societies in the modern era’. Given the success of the right-wing Progress Party in the first elections after 22 July 2011, commentators point to the attacks being an extreme manifestation of the negative views of social democracy, women’s rights, migrants and Islam that ‘have gained popularity and become increasingly mainstream’ (Rees).
Cover of En av Oss by Åsne Seierstad
Seierstad’s objective is however to centre the event and to platform victim testimonies. As Karl Ove Knausgård writes in his positive review, ‘that day becomes something concrete, not a phenomenon, not an affair, not an argument in a political discussion but a dead body bent over a stone at the water’s edge. And, once again, I cry. Because that body has a name, he was a boy, he was called Simon. He had two parents and a little brother. They will mourn him for the rest of their lives’. Knausgård’s conclusion marks the difference between a cultural memorial process and socio-cultural analysis, both of which are surely necessary in the national process of coming to terms.
Centring victim perspectives and supporting survivors has been the approach of film responses to the event. Two films were released in 2018: Paul Greengrass’s July 22, based on Seierstad’s book, and Erik Poppe’s Utøya: Juli 22. While the first decided to feature the perpetrator, Poppe’s film is a near-single-shot of events solely through the eyes of those attacked. In 2020 six-part TV drama 22 Juli brought journalists, police and medical professionals into the picture. Perhaps the most well-received film project has been Reconstructing Utøya, in which ‘four of the survivors relive their painful memories, convinced of the importance of remembering’. They are joined by twelve young Norwegians and a psychologist in an empty monochrome film studio, as the trauma of 22 July is reconstructed, processed and documented on screen without any frills. Of course, these films are insertions into the national mourning narrative but, especially in the case of Reconstructing Utøya, they remind us of the very real and specific trauma of the survivors. As the recent outputs from a long-running research project at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies show, many survivors struggle with post-traumatic stress a decade on.
The focus on testimony and fidelity to the events and experiences is one way of doing justice to the victims and of processing the trauma. It runs the risk, as indicated above, of evading analysis of the political and ideological threads that also need to form part of that processing. The focus also risks doubling down on trauma so that the victims become victims again and again. Lastly, it might also narrow the possibilities of working through trauma, something creative fiction might work against. Jan Kjaerstad’s Berge (2017) is on the face of it about a murder case from 2008 but it is considered firmly a part of 22 July literature, arguably acting as a ‘literary experiment capable of “opening up” the public debate on what happened on and after 22 July’ (Folkvord and Warberg). Likewise, Vigdis Hjorth’s Leve posthornet focuses on events prior to 22 July, yet its references to it are unmistakable. The selection of ‘22 July literature’ listed below includes texts that show how creative approaches, narratives that allow themselves to go beyond the events or to spin off them obliquely, complicate the official cultural memory process, with its progressive national ‘vi-et’ (we-one) narrative and its potential towards ‘national innocence’.
This blog is only a selective overview of the cultural memory of 22 July, which will continue to build and reshape itself as years pass. Official memorial sites, journalistic, forensic accounts of the events, trauma narratives, and creative fiction are all necessary layers of a necessarily complicated collective and individual process. Any single approach is insufficient in itself, requiring the ecosystem of conflicting interpretations to reflect the full picture. And yet always ‘det er noe som mangler’ (there is something missing), as Kjaerstad writes in Menneskets vidde. And the sheer loss brought on Norway on 22 July resonates through the loss, the lack at the heart of those attempts to come to terms. There is always something missing.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
The sources below represent a selection of material available online or in the British Library’s collections.
NOU 2012: 14, Rapport fra 22. juli-kommisjonen [Government Report from 22 July Commission], published 13 August 2012, in Norwegian
Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS), ‘The terror attack: Experience and reactions among Utøya survivors’
‘22 July Literature’
Tiril Broch Aakre, Redd barna (Oslo, 2015), awaiting shelfmark.
Gunstein Bakke and Eirik Ingebrigtsen (eds.), Respons 22/7 (Oslo, 2011), YF.2013.a.50.
Sindre Bangstad, Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia (London, 2014), ELD.DS.142586.
Brit Bildøen, Sju dagar i august (Oslo, 2014), YF.2018.a.14963.
Aage Storm Borchgrevink, En norsk tragedie: Anders Behring Breivik og veiene til Utøya (Oslo, 2012), YF.2013.a.10433, English translation by Guy Puzey, A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the massacre on Utøya (Cambridge, 2013), SPIS364.152354092
Tomas Espedal, Bergeners (Oslo, 2013), YF.2014.a.12373
Eivind Hofstad Evjemo, Velkommen til oss (Oslo, 2014), awaiting shelfmark.
Ingvild Folkvord, Stemmene etter 22. Juli (Oslo, 2020), awaiting shelfmark.
Anne Gjelsvik (ed.), Bearbeidelser: 22. juli i ord og bilder (Oslo, 2020), awaiting shelfmark.
Cato Hemmingby, The dynamics of a terrorist targeting process (Basingstoke, 2015), ELD.DS.40121 .
Jan Kjaerstad, Menneskets vidde: essays, artikler, tekster (Oslo, 2013), YF.2014.a.2273.
--, Berge (Oslo, 2017), awaiting shelfmark.
Geir Lippestad (with Jon Gangdal), Det vi kan stå for (Oslo, 2013), YF.2013.a.17579. Reflections from the lawyer who represented the perpetrator.
Åsne Seierstad, En av oss: En fortelling om Norge (Oslo, 2013) YF.2014.a.15979 English translation by Sarah Death, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (London, 2014) ELD.DS.12045.
Kjetil Stormark, Da terroren rammet Norge. 189 minutter som rystet verden (Oslo, 2011), YF.2013.a.55.
Henrik Syse (ed.), Norge etter 22. Juli. Forhandlinger om verdier, identiteter og et motstandsdyktig samfunn (Oslo, 2018), Open Access
Unni Turettini, The mystery of the lone wolf killer: Anders Bering Breivik and the threat of terror in plain sight (New York, 2015), YC.2017.a.2138.
Mattis Øybø, Elskere (Oslo, 2016), YF.2018.a.3462.
Articles and Essays
Dorthe Refslund Christensen and Kjetil Sandvik, ‘Death in Times of Secularization and Sacralization: The Mediating and Re-Mediating of the Utøya Tragedy in the Norwegian Public Sphere’, in ibid. (eds.), Mediating and Remediating Death (London, 2016), ELD.DS.62556.
Cora Alexa Døving, ‘Homeland Ritualized. An Analysis of Written Messages Placed at Temporary Memorials after the Terrorist Attacks on 22 July 2011 in Norway’, Mortality, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 231-246.
Ingvild Folkvord and Silje Warberg, ‘Jan Kjærstads roman Berge. En åpning av den offentlige samtalen om terrorangrepene 22. juli 2011?’, Edda, vol. 106 (2019).
I Hjorth and L Gjermshusengen, ‘Et minne i bevegelse’, Tidsskrift for Kulturforskning (2) (2018).
I Hjorth, ‘Hvorfor minnesteder? En undersøkelse av den minnepolitiske håndteringen av 22.juli-terroren’, Nordisk kulturpolitisk tidsskrift, vol. 21 (2018).
I Hjorth, ‘Memory Wound: Minnested mellom virkelighet og virtualitet’, Norsk medietidsskrift, vol. 26 (2019), https://www.idunn.no/nmt/2019/03/memory_wound
Knausgård, Karl Ove, ‘The Inexplicable: Inside the mind of a mass killer’, New Yorker, May 25, 2015.
Unni Langås, ‘“22. Juli” Litterære konstruksjoner av et nasjonalt traume’, European Journal of Scandinavian Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2016, pp. 81-101.
Ellen Rees, ‘Åsne Seierstad’s En av oss: Perpetrator and Victim in the Construction of National Innocence’, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Spring 2018), pp. 1-22.
James E. Young, ‘Utøya and Norway’s July 22 Memorial Process: The Memory of Political Terror’, in The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between (Amherst, MA, 2016), YC.2017.a.192.
Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (eds.) with Sara B. Young, Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (Berlin, New York, 2008), 5525.239250 no.8
03 March 2020
On 13 March, the British Library are hosting two events under the banner of Nordic Comics Today. In the afternoon, we will welcome Kaisa Leka and Karoline Stjernfelt to showcase their work. Kaisa will speak about the life of a disabled woman in the world today, and how comic art responds to disability, while Karoline transports us to the 18th-century Danish royal court through her prize-winning graphic history I Morgen Bliver Bedre (‘Tomorrow will be better’). The event will be introduced by Dr Nina Mickwitz from the University of the Arts, who’ll ground us in contemporary comics cultures in the Nordic region.
‘Votes for Women’ from Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Women in Battle: 150 Years of Fighting for Freedom, Equality and Sisterhood (London, 2018) ELD.DS.339036
In the evening we turn to feminism and welcome best-selling author Marta Breen to talk about Women in Battle, the story of fearless females in the continuing journey towards rights for women today (created in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl and translated into English by Sian Mackie). Marta will be in conversation with Kaisa Leka and UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, as they discuss the power of comics and graphic literature to engage people around social justice.
A photo of Kaisa Leka from her trip around the U.S.A. reproduced in Imperfect (Porvoo, 2017), awaiting shelfmark
There are some tickets remaining for both events. The afternoon is free to attend but still requires a ticket. We are also delighted to be able to display parts of the Hero(ine)s exhibition, first shown at the University of Cumbria and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in 2018, which features iconic comic heroes re-interpreted and reimagined in their female form. This can be seen all day at the Knowledge Centre.
from Kaisa’s Place of Death (Porvoo, 2015), YD.2019.a.6235
Comics and graphic novels certainly have a place amongst the Library’s universal and international collections, especially given the emergence of Comics Studies as an academic discipline in recent years. That’s not to say comics needed rehabilitating through academic approaches. It might be best to say, with Douglas Wolk, that comics are not a genre but a medium, and that graphic art cuts across genres. Also, the ubiquity of images in the internet age and the implications on reading habits go hand in hand with the fairly recent rise of graphic literature. So, if you want to understand the world today, a task which the BL’s collections are surely there to serve, then you need to read some comics!
also from Place of Death
Let’s take a look at the work of our featured authors. Kaisa Leka, a Puupäähattu prize-winning Finnish artist and adventurer, has created numerous innovative books with her partner and ‘faithful sherpa’ Christoffer Leka. Imperfect (awaiting shelfmark) is a beautiful travel diary about their trip across the U.S.A. made up of the postcards they sent to Christoffer’s nephews and niece every day. Place of Death is a sort of parable about ‘fear and the kindness of strangers’, the characters being the authors’ (plus families’) alter egos.
Cover of Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre (Copenhagen, 2016) YF.2020.b.319
Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre won the best debut category of both major Danish comics awards, the Ping Award and the Claus Delauran Award. To be published in three parts, ‘The King’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘The Doctor’, the exquisitely illustrated books take us to the late 18th century and the reign of Christian VII. The German royal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, wielded increasing influence in the court, having an affair with the Queen Caroline Matilda, and eventually becoming de facto regent in 1770. I Morgen Bliver Bedre captures that political chaos and the splendour of the court.
A ball scene from I Morgen Bliver Bedre
Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl’s Women in Battle tells the story of women’s rights and we’re fortunate to hear about it just after International Women’s Day and just before the British Library opens its Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights exhibition. It sketches 150 years of struggle through figures such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Malala Yousafzai. Marta and Jenny Jordahl have previously collaborated on the books 60 Women you should know about and The F Word, while Marta has also just published Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (‘How to be (a Scandinavian) feminist’) (awaiting shelfmark).
Cover of Women in Battle
Last but not least, we should definitely also say a word about our wonderful chairs for the events, Nina Mickwitz and Hannah Berry. Nina’s monograph Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (awaiting shelfmark) shows the documentary potential of comics through early 21st century non-fiction examples. She has recently co-edited the collections (with Dr Ian Hague and Dr Ian Norton) Contexts of Violence in Comics and Representing Acts of Violence in Comics, and is currently interested in mobilities and negotiations of social norms and identities in comics, as well as the transnational mobilities of comics themselves.
Depicting women’s struggle against slavery in Women in Battle
Hannah Berry is the UK Comics Laureate and her graphic novel Livestock won the Broken Frontier Award for Best Writer. Check that out as well as her two previous graphic novels Britten and Brülightly and Adamtine here at the Library.
We look forward to introducing you to these exciting creative voices and stay tuned for more Nordic events at the library over the coming year!
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels work and what they mean (Cambridge, MA, 2007) YK.2007.a.19819
Marta Breen, Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (Oslo, 2020) awaiting shelfmark
Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Kvinner I kamp: 150 års kamp for frihet, likhet, sösterskap! (Oslo, 2018), awaiting shelfmark
Nina Mickwitz, Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (Basingstoke, 2015) awaiting shelfmark
Nina Mickwitz, Ian Hague, and Ian Norton, Contexts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445377
——, Representing Acts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445165
Hannah Berry, Britten and Brülightly (London, 2008) YK.2011.b.11102
——, Adamtine (London, 2012) YK.2012.a.19765
——, Livestock (London, 2017) YKL.2018.b.3075
10 September 2019
This autumn, as part of our ‘European Literature Focus’, the British Library will be hosting a number of events featuring writers and writing from across the continent. So we thought we’d give you a quick taster here to whet your appetites.
Lars Saabye Christensen, Echoes of the City, translated by Don Bartlett (London, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark. Norwegian edition: Byens spor - Ewald og Maj (Oslo, 2017), YF.2018.a.9337
First up, on Monday 7 October, you can hear Norwegian Lars Saabye Christensen in conversation with Georgina Godwin. In a rare UK appearance, he will be talking about his latest novel to appear in English translation, Echoes of the City, which traces an Oslo community’s slow recovery from a period of crippling austerity after the Second World War. Christensen is one of Norway’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers; he has been awarded the country’s top literary prizes and his breakthrough novel Beatles (1984), a coming-of-age story about four teenage Beatles fans in 1960s Oslo, remains a bestseller in Norway over 30 years after its publication.
Elif Shafak © Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch
On Tuesday 8 October Rosie Goldsmith, director of the European Literature Network and a familiar and welcome face at British Library events on European literature, chairs ‘Future Library: Art, Ideas and Time’, a discussion with artist Katie Paterson, novelist Elif Shafak and philosopher Roman Krznaric about Paterson’s ‘Future Library’ project. This is a public artwork in Oslo, begun in 2014 and designed to unfold over a century. A forest has been planted just outside the city to supply paper for an anthology to be published in 2114. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the anthology appears. Elif Shafak contributed a text in 2017; other contributors so far have included Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and the Icelandic author Sjón.
Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (London, 2018). ELD.DS.290811
Fans of Dutch literature are in for a treat on Saturday 12 October, when Bart van Es, author of Costa Prize-winning The Cut Out Girl, joins bestselling novelist Herman Koch, rising literary stars Esther Gerritsen and Jeroen Olyslaegers, and historian Simon Schama at a special day of talks on new Dutch writing presented by the Dutch Foundation for Literature in association with Modern Culture. And if you’re not (yet) a fan of Dutch literature, a day exploring the complex history and current politics of the Netherlands, and the chance to discover the latest Dutch books in English translation will surely make you one!
Recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová
Two further events take the revolutionary changes in Europe in 1989 as a starting point. On Friday 25 October there is a rare chance to meet a new generation of Slovak authors at ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’, part of a series of events under the same name presenting contemporary Slovak writers and artists to English audiences, organised with the support of Fond na podporu umenia (the Slovak Arts Council) and the Embassy of the Republic of Slovakia. Three leading contemporary writers – Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová – will present their recently published works (translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood) and discuss with host Lucy Popescu how Slovakia has changed over the past 30 years.
Rosie Goldsmith, November 1989, Berlin Wall
On Tuesday 26 November Rosie Goldsmith returns for ‘Riveting Germans: After the Wall’, chairing a discussion of German literature and its translation into English since 1989. Prize-winning authors Durs Grünbein, Julia Franck and Nino Haratischvili, and translators Charlotte Collins, Karen Leeder and Ruth Martin will consider what what has or hasn’t worked for UK readers of German literature, and what the the impact of the East-West divide has been on German authors. The event is organised in collaboration with the European Literature Network, the British Council, Goethe-Institut London, Frankfurt Book Fair and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London, and marks the publication of a German-themed issue of The Riveter, the magazine founded by Rosie with the aim of making European literature popular and accessible across the UK.
Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak
Finally, on Thursday 29 November, ‘Doctor Zhivago: A Pasternak Family Affair’ looks at a much-loved Russian classic in a new light. Translator Nicolas Pasternak Slater and picture editor Maya Slater present their recent work on a new translation of Doctor Zhivago illustrated with 70 pictures by Boris Pasternak’s father, the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak, and just published by the Folio Society. They will also reveal how members of the Pasternak family living in England experienced the writing and publication of the novel.
Booking is now open for all these events and you can find full details and purchase tickets via the links above. We hope you’ll be able to join us to celebrate and discover some of the literatures of Europe this autumn.
19 June 2019
The Duke of York’s Theatre is currently playing Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play that Michael Meyer suggests ‘marks Ibsen’s final withdrawal as a playwright from the polemical field’. It is marked everywhere by a curious sense of withdrawal, as the protagonist John Rosmer, heir to the Rosmersholm legacy and former clergyman, stirs himself towards a revolutionary popular politics, before abruptly asserting its futility. Likewise, the complex love affair between Rosmer and Rebecca West reaches the possibility of marriage, before that becomes impossible because of Rebecca’s guilt over her complicity in the suicide of Rosmer’s first wife and her manipulation of Rosmer towards her radicalism. Hints of idealism amidst the angst-ridden interactions dissolve into a resignation to unchangeable political, psychological and moral realities. This kind of thematic disappointment works also on the level of language, and Toril Moi suggests it depicts a dark modernity ‘where language has come to seem untrustworthy’. This makes you wonder: if the play is about the impossibility of communication, what does it mean to read and experience it at one remove, in translation?
First edition of Rosmersholm (Copenhagen, 1896) BL 11755.bbb.34.
Ibsen is notoriously difficult to translate, hence the many translations and adaptations of his plays over the last century. This includes the new four-volume Penguin Ibsen, the third volume of which contains a new translation and critical apparatus for Rosmersholm and will be released in December this year. Mark Lawson reminds us of one of the problems of translating Ibsen: that he wrote in Danish in Norway at a time of linguistic transition, when Danish remained in use but was being superseded by Norwegian. ‘This means that the translator … needs two different sets of dictionaries and thesauri and a strong sense of the historical evolution of Scandinavian languages.’
Portrait of Louis Napoleon Parker, National Portrait Gallery 1917
This combination of disappointed ideals and the thankless task of the translator emerge in the preface to the first English translation of Rosmersholm (London, 1889; 11755.e.13.) by the playwright, poet and musician, Louis Napoleon Parker. Parker writes how Ibsen was slowly becoming known to English audiences and, regarding his translation, ‘It claims only one merit: it is done from the original, and it is done as literally as my limited skill in juggling words would permit. An ideal translation is, like other ideals, monstrous rare of attainment. This is not an ideal translation; but that it is faithful I will pledge the word of one who has hitherto been considered indifferent honest.’ In his autobiography, Parker mentions an ‘obsession’ with Rosmersholm, ‘the only useful lesson in playwriting I ever had’. After first translating from an early German version, probably Marie von Borch’s (Berlin, 1887; 11755.c.2.), he returned to the original, feeling ‘instinctively that there were slips and lacunæ’ in the German.
Title Page of Louis N. Parker’s translation alongside his dedication to H. Rowland Brown Cup.403.m.4.(7.)
The Ibsen Society of America see the first translations, including presumably Parker’s Rosmersholm, as being particularly faithful but also outdated: ‘older literary translations can impede meaning as much as they preserve it, as one soon discovers when struggling through any of the arch British-Victorian translations’. A couple of the tricky motifs to transmit into English, according to Toril Moi, are the verbs svælge (‘swallow’) and kvæle (‘strangle’). For Moi, these verbs ‘evoke ideas of forced or silenced expression’ in a play about the struggle to connect through language and the actual abyss between Rosmer and Rebecca, as well as between Rosmer and the outside world. These verbs are strange to a Norwegian reader in their contexts and therefore stand out. Rendering into comprehensible English, translators often miss the specific motifs of swallowing and suffocation, which Moi holds central to her understanding of the play.
Let’s compare a couple of passages from Parker’s 1889 work, Charles Archer’s 1891 translation (11755.df.45.), Michael Meyer’s 1966 version (X.908/8346.), Mike Poulton’s 2008 adaptation (YK.2009.a.18115), and Moi’s own renderings in her critical work.
The end of Act 2 sees Rosmer lament the impossibility of his political project due in part to his deep guilt over his wife’s death. Moi has it:
ROSMER: I shall never conquer this – not completely. There will always be a lingering doubt. A question. I’ll never again be able to bask in (svælge i) that which makes life so wonderfully delightful to live.
REBECCA: [leaning over the back of his chair, more slowly] What kind of thing is it you mean, Rosmer?
ROSMER: [looking up at her] Quiet, joyous freedom from guilt.
REBECCA: [takes a step back] Yes. Freedom from guilt.
Moi cannot retain the idea of swallowing but opts for a phrase that keeps a bodily sense, of absorbing something. This is lost in Meyer’s and Poulton’s translations, which go with the verbs ‘enjoy’ and ‘losing the one joyful thing’. Parker and Archer settle for ‘revel in’, retaining at least the preposition and therefore some idea of physicality.
The scene takes a turn when Rosmer asks Rebecca to become his second wife, a proposal she rejects for no clear reasons at this stage. Rosmer’s plea is about shaking off the burden of the past in marriage, demanding, according to Moi’s version, to ‘let us strangle (kvæle) all memories in freedom, in pleasure, in passion’. Meyer writes, ‘let us lay all memories to rest in freedom, and joy, and love’, a significantly more peaceful image. Poulton offers a more violent image in the verb ‘drown’. However, closer to the original, Parker and Archer prefer the verb ‘stifle’, a motif of suffocation.
One last example that provides interesting comparison is the word vidnesbyrd, the ‘testimony’ or ‘proof’ Rosmer asks of Rebecca to restore his faith, essentially demanding that she takes her own life. Moi prefers to see this as ‘bearing witness’ because the concept is distinct from ‘proof’, as it ‘has to do with a person’, whereas ‘proof’ ‘often refers to things or facts’. This word isolates one translator among our selection. The very first translation, the one that was a product of an obsession with the most faithful rendering, Louis Napoleon Parker’s work is the only version not to use the word ‘proof’. He employs the awkward formulation, ‘Let me have a token!’ The word ‘token’ insists on a visible and tangible manifestation of something in a way that ‘proof’ does not quite manage.
As strange as it sounds in Parker’s rendering, perhaps Parker’s ‘token’ is a more accurate translation after all, and, if anything, his version helps to remind us of Ibsen’s own strange language.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Louis N. Parker, Several of my Lives (London, 1928), 010855.f.42
Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford, 2006) YC.2006.a.19524
Mark Lawson, ‘The Master Linguist: The Problem with Translating Ibsen’, The Guardian (29 October 2014)
17 November 2017
To English-speaking readers, the name Vesaas is perhaps best known through the work of the Norwegian poet and novelist Terje Vesaas (1897-1970), whose most famous work, Is-slottet (‘The ice palace’: Oslo, 1963; X.908/1343) was filmed in 1987 by Per Blom, winning the Grand Prix at the Flanders International Film Festival in 1988. In Norway, however, it equally calls to mind his wife, the poet, translator and children’s author Halldis Moren Vesaas, who was born on 18 November 1907 in Trysil, in the county of Hedmark.
Both of them came from farming backgrounds in rural Norway, but broke away to pursue a teaching career. Terje Vesaas suffered pangs of guilt for years over his decision not to take over the family farm in Telemark, but Halldis grew up in an environment more favourable to her literary gifts, as her father was Sven Moren, a poet and playwright. The eldest child and only daughter in a family of five, she showed a natural aptitude for teaching and went away to train in Elverum before taking posts in Hamar and Oslo. However, after publishing her first collection of poems, Harpe og dolk (‘Harp and Dagger’: Oslo, 1929; YF.2011.a.23158) at the age of 22, she set off for Switzerland the following year to work as a secretary; her next volume of poetry, Morgonen (‘Morning’) came out in this year.
After spending three years in Switzerland, she returned to Norway and married Tarjei Vesaas in 1934. They returned to his home district of Vinje and settled on the Midtbø farm there when he took up an appointment at a local school. For both of them, nature and the Norwegian landscape in all its pitiless grandeur were important sources of inspiration and a reminder of the timeless renewal of the natural world during the dark days of the German occupation. Their use of the Norwegian Landsmål (Nynorsk) fully explored its potential as a world literary language, capable of expressing with subtlety and directness the darker psychological themes of guilt and mortality as well as the eerie splendour of an ice-cave or the beauty of the mountain pastures in spring.
Halldis Moren Vesaas’s poetry celebrates every stage of woman’s life from girlhood through marriage and motherhood to the sorrow and solitude of widowhood (Terje Vesaas died in 1970) and the joy of discovering new love in later years. As well as composing eight books of poetry, she wrote and translated for the theatre, acting as a consultant for Det Norske Teatret in Oslo and sitting on the board of the Riksteatret (1949-69). One of her most notable translations is her version of Racine’s Phèdre (Fedra: Oslo, 1999; YF.2011.a.5500), where her poetic language fully conveys the passion and drama of the original. Her fascination with Greek subjects is also evident in Den gode gåva (‘The good gift’: Oslo, 1987; LB.31.a.2374), a retelling in verse for children of the myth of Demeter and Persephone with exquisite illustrations by Kaja Thorne. Her achievements were recognized not only in Norway, where she was awarded the Bastian Prize (1961) and the Norsk kulturråds ærespris (1982) and made a Commander of the Order of St. Olav in 1984, but also in France, where she was honoured with its second-highest order as a Knight of the National Order of Merit. She died in 1995.
Halldis Moren Vesaas had the ability to speak not only to adult audiences on the world stage but also to children. In 2007 a a lively and playful collection of poems for the young by both Halldis and her husband, Eg sette brillene på min katt (‘I put spectacles on my cat’), was published, colourfully illustrated by Inger Lise Belsvik.
Halldis's experience as a teacher had equipped her to write for younger readers with verve and charm, without a trace of condescension but with an intuitive understanding of the child’s world and emotional and psychological needs, in verse and stories such as Hildegunn (1942) and Tidleg på våren (‘Early in spring’: 1949).
Her poetry evokes the joy of life with such sensuous vigour that it seems only fitting to allow it to speak for itself:
That you laughed aloud with gladness
when the rain came, and the first drop
fell, so strangely heavy and warm
and lay on your cheek a second or two –
that the wind which whirled the leaves
so brusquely round the trunk of the tree
sent a wave of happiness
and frost through all my blood –
that something that was nothing
still can follow me everywhere,
so that you know that nothing
as happened to me since that time –
Just because we were together?
Halldis Moren Vesaas, ‘At du –’, from I ein annan skog (‘In another forest’) Translation © Susan Reynolds Halstead, 2017).
Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.
07 November 2016
In a recently broadcast episode of the Sky Arts series Treasures of The British Library Professor Robert Winston looked at an 18th-century book from the King’s Library that includes some delightful images of Sami skiers.
In the illustration chosen, the skiers can be seen on a downhill run, one nonchalantly balancing a pole on his shoulder, the other manoeuvring his skis to break his descent. As the author Knud Leem (in the 1808 English translation of the original text) describes it, ‘by a certain wooden machine, of an oblong figure, fastened to their feet, commonly called wooden sandals, they are carried with such rapidity over the highest mountains, through the steepest hills …. that the winds whiz about their ears and their hair stands on end’.
The book in which the illustration appears, Beskrivelse over Finmarkens Lapper, published in 1767, is a long and detailed (over 600 pages in the original) description of the Sami people of Finnmark in northern Norway and was written by the Norwegian missionary and linguist Knud Leem who lived amongst the Sami for a number of years. The parallel text in Danish and Latin is accompanied by over a hundred illustrations by O.H. von Lode based on Leem’s descriptions, and together they provide a fascinating insight into how the Sami lived at this time. The subject matter ranges from the basics of everyday life such as shelter, clothes and food to reindeer herding, marriage customs and religion, the latter covering both the religion which Leem pointedly describes in the original title as that ‘previously’ practised by the Sami, and the Christian conversion which was the focus of his work.
Leem’s father, also a priest, had worked in Finnmark for a number of years and it is probably from this family connection that Leem’s interest in the Sami people was originally awakened. He studied theology in Copenhagen (Norway was at that time part of the Danish kingdom and was yet to establish a university of its own) and while waiting for an appointment in the mission to become vacant, he spent two years in Trondheim learning the Sami language. In contrast to earlier attempts by missionaries to teach Danish to the Sami, Leem’s belief was that in order for missionary work to succeed, he and future missionaries needed to be able to communicate with the Sami in their own language. He writes that in this way ‘… a much greater progress in the salutary knowledge of the true God is made’. During the years he spent in Finnmark from 1725 to 1733, he would preach and conduct services in the Sami language, at times in the open air.
As well as his ethnographic work on the Sami people, of which there are three copies in the British Library, Leem also wrote a Sami grammar (En lappisk Grammatica, 1748), a Danish-Sami dictionary (En lappesk Nomenclator, 1756) and an extended Sami-Danish-Latin dictionary (Lexicon Lapponicum bipartitum, 1768-81, the second part of which was completed by Gerhard Sandberg and published after Leem’s death). Copies of the grammar and of the first dictionary form part of the Hannås collection, a collection of Scandinavian linguistic material donated to the British Library in 1984 by the antiquarian bookseller Torgrim Hannås. The Leem titles from this collection have now been digitised and are available online through our catalogue.
En lappesk Nomenclator (Trondheim, 1756) Han.135
The other substantial piece of work for which Leem is remembered today also has a Hannås connection. It is a study of Norwegian dialect words, Norske Maalsamlingar fraa 1740-aari, which was only published many years after his death, in 1923. The editor of that work was Torleiv Hannaas, a professor at Bergen University and father to Torgrim Hannås. The bookplates of both these distinguished book collectors, father and son, appear in our copy of Leem’s Grammatica.
Bookplates in En lappisk Grammatica (Copenhagen, 1748) Han.110
Knud Leem’s contribution to the area of Sami studies, both linguistic and ethnographic, continues to be important and recognised to this day.
Barbara Hawes, Curator Germanic Studies
References and further reading
Knud Leem, An account of the Laplanders of Finmark, their language, manners, and religion.
(London, 1808) L.R.80.c.1
Knud Leem og det samiske : foredrag holdt ved et seminar i regi av Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab 11.-12. oktober 2002. (Trondheim, 2003) Ac.1060(2)[2003,No.2]
Professor Knud Leems Norske Maalsamlingar fraa 1740-aari-handskr. nr. 597. 4to i Kallske samling. Ed. Torleiv Hannaas. (Kristiania, 1923) Ac.5561/27
Treasures of the British Library will be broadcast on Sky Arts at 21.00 on Tuesdays until 22 November 2016.
19 October 2015
As one of the co-curators for our current Animal Tales exhibition, one of the most enjoyable parts of the process was selecting the exhibits. An opportunity to spend time exploring the collections, to revisit the known but also to make new discoveries, is a stimulating part of the work. One of the frustrations was that, with such a broad subject area, we were not able to include all the items we might have liked. There were inevitably some that ‘got away’. One such, a personal childhood favourite, was the story of the Three Billy-Goats Gruff. It comes from the compendium of Norwegian folk tales collected and edited by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the 19th century. These tales are much-loved classics in Norway, printed in many editions over the years.
The story’s original Norwegian title in full (a bit less snappy than the English one we know) was De tre Bukkene Bruse, som skulde gaa til Sæters og gjøre seg fede which roughly translates as ‘The three Billy-Goats Gruff who were going to mountain pastures to fatten themselves up’. ‘Bruse’, which is the name of the goats, was translated as ‘Gruff’ in the first English version, and this translation has stuck ever since but in fact the word refers to the hairy tuft on a goat’s forehead, as shown on the splendidly regal goat below, illustrated by Otto Sinding in an 1896 edition.
The story was originally published in Christiania (as Oslo was called at that time) in 1843 in the third of four parts of Norske Folkeeventyr (Norwegian folk tales).
The first English translation came in 1859 in Popular Tales from the Norse by G. W. Dasent. It was also included in the shorter, illustrated edition in 1862, A Selection from the Norse Tales for the use of children. From an introductory note in this edition it becomes clear that the subtitle ‘for the use of children’ has been very deliberately chosen. Dasent muses regretfully that ‘this selection has been made to meet the scruples of those good people who thought some of The Norse Tales too outspoken for their children’. Luckily for us, The Three Billy Goats Gruff was not one of those considered unsuitable for Victorian tastes and, unlike most of the stories in the collection, it has continued to enjoy popularity in this country down to the present day.
Like many of the items featured in Animal Tales, this is a story about animals that allows the teller and the listener to explore some very human situations and emotions. The Three Billy Goats Gruff has echoes of other European folk tales of the time on a very similar theme, such as the Grimm brothers’ Little Red Riding Hood: in essence it is the story of a journey during which the protagonists pass from danger to safety.
And the story itself? The action unfolds as follows: three goats of different sizes, small, medium and large, have to cross a bridge on their way to pasture. Under the bridge lurks a fearsome troll intent on gobbling them up. The first two goats get over by promising bigger goats to come. The final, largest, goat confronts the troll and sees him off in style, with the following words (in Dasent’s lively translation):
Well, come along! I’ve got two spears,
And I’ll poke your eyeballs out at your ears;
I’ve got besides two curling stones,
And I’ll crush you to bits, body and bones
So what made the story so appealing to my younger self? In part it was the satisfaction of the goats outwitting the troll, in part it was the structure of the plot, simple, but with clever use of repetition (the presence of ‘three’ being a recognised feature of folk tales). I remember too what fun it was to hear the story being read aloud. This is, after all, a story that was preserved for many years as part of an oral tradition. The narrator can do a lot with the goats’ voices which are described as rising in volume according to the size of the goat. Stamping one’s feet to echo the sound of the goats tramping over the bridge and joining in with the roar of the troll, brings a mounting intensity to the story which culminates in the thrill of the troll’s resounding defeat!
Barbara Hawes, Curator Germanic Collections
16 May 2014
Every year on their National Day, the 17th of May, Norwegians remember the signing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814. This year the festivities are particularly special as they will mark the 200th anniversary.
Cover of an 1837 edition of the Norwegian Constitution. Kongeriget Norges Grundlov, tilligemed en Samling af de Lovbestemmelser der nærmest omfatte Norges constitutionelle og unionelle Stilling. 1378.a.5.
1814 was a key year in Norway’s history. Until then, Norway had been part of the Danish kingdom but under the Treaty of Kiel, Denmark had been forced to cede Norway to Sweden. This unilateral ‘transfer’ of their country was met with resistance by many Norwegians and, led by Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark, a number of prominent Norwegians convened an assembly at Eidsvoll. 112 representatives were sent from all over the country and a constitution formulated in just over a month. Independence was declared and Christian Frederik elected King.
‘Riksforsamlingen på Eidsvoll 1814’ by Oscar Wergeland. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Oscar Wergeland’s painting of the Eidsvoll assembly now hangs in the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament), behind the speaker’s chair. This image is one of the best known historical paintings in Norway, having been reproduced on stamps, bank notes and commemorative memorabilia. It is often accompanied by the words ‘Enig og tro til Dovre Falder’. Meaning ‘United and true until Dovre falls’, it was an oath taken by those men who formulated the constitution, swearing that they would remain as constant as the Dovre mountain range.
The events of the rest of the year were no less momentous. Following a Swedish attack on Norway in July, Christian Frederik was forced to step down but not without securing a promise for the constitution to remain. In November 1814 Norway entered a union with Sweden which lasted until 1905. The constitution was amended to reflect the union but remained more or less unchanged.
In today’s Norway, 17 May is a public holiday, a day of parades and parties. In town centres up and down the country children process through the streets to marching bands. Participants are often colourfully dressed in their bunad (local costumes). In Oslo the parade takes place on Karl Johan’s gate, and culminates at the Palace, where, members of the Norwegian Royal Family wave to the children from the balcony.
Children celebrating 17 May. Picture by Evelina Gustafsson from Wikimedia Commons
Although Norway doesn’t officially have a single national anthem, the one that is in practice regarded as such, Ja vi elsker dette landet (‘Yes we love this country’), features prominently in the celebrations. The words were written by the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and the music composed by his cousin, Rikard Nordraak. It was first performed in 1864 during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the constitution.
The British Library’s Norwegian collections include many interesting items relating to the 1814 constitution. Not least the works of Henrik Wergeland, the writer and early human rights activist, who perhaps more than any other single person is associated with 17 May in the minds of Norwegian people. The son of one of the original members of the Eidsvoll assembly, he championed the right of Norwegians to celebrate the day at a time when it was seen as act of rebellion against the Swedish union. He also wrote a history of the Norwegian constitution. Before he died, he left behind a silver cup with instructions that it should be used in future celebrations of the day at Eidsvoll:
“Long live freedom! May its birthday always be celebrated at the place where it was born!”
Barbara Hawes, Curator Scandinavian Studies
09 April 2014
Interest in ‘the Vikings’ seems boundless, and the current Vikings exhibition at the British Museum makes the subject particularly topical. Googling ‘Viking’ produces forty-seven million hits – though most of them may be for computer games or brand names – and a search on our catalogue under vernacular forms of the term produces over 250 titles in Scandinavian languages and thousands more in English, with dozens of the latter published this year already in the BL catalogue. Beyond that narrow focus, however, the holdings of the British Library are very rich in printed materials, from the 16th century to date, relating to pre-Christian Scandinavia.
A recent article in the Evening Standard by the great medievalist David Dumville aimed to counter the ‘revisionist’ and ‘politically correct’ views that have “covered up the crimes of a bloody era” during the past half-century. He admitted that “Vikings are in general not coterminous with Scandinavians” yet capitalised the word as if it were an ethnic label – as misleading as using ‘Cowboy’ or ‘Cossack’ to describe the entire cultures of the USA or Russia, from their art forms and technology to their political systems and modes of warfare. The ancient Scandinavians’ name for themselves was ‘Northmen’ and for their language and culture ‘Norse’ (norrœn).
Of the two Old Norse nouns víkingr (m.) and víking (f.), the first meant ‘pirate or sea-rover’ (OED), the second an overseas plundering expedition. Their etymology is contested but related to the noun vík, ‘bay’, or the verb víkja, ‘to turn away’ etc., referring either to people from a bay area – such as the Vik region around the Oslofjord (though its inhabitants were called víkverjar, not víkingar) – or to those who ‘set out’ on raiding voyages. But such ‘vikings’ formed only a fraction of the Norse peoples. Overseas trading voyages had been undertaken long before then, for instance by the peaceful ‘farbönder’ of Gotland, while the fact that travel by boat was so much faster than overland was the basic reason why so many Norse groups lived near and moved around on water. Will scholars ever agree to stop using the over-worked term ‘viking’?
The causes of the increase in overseas raiding around 800 were both external and internal. The main external one was the expansion of the Carolingian empire, its threatening proximity provoking aggressive reactions. The major internal factor was technological, the rapid development of open-sea sailing ships at that time. (The best surviving examples are the beautiful Gokstad and Oseberg vessels – displayed in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.) Another was the breakdown of a centuries-old social system in increasingly violent power struggles among the elites that eventually reduced the number of kingdoms in Scandinavia from dozens to the three still existing ones.
Oseberg ship, built around 820, buried 834, now in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo (Picture by Daderot from Wikimedia Commons)
An aggressive warrior ethos – already vividly described in the Old English Beowulf poem, preserved in the British Library – saw raiding and pillaging as a perfectly honourable pursuit, enriching the participants. Change came only with the adoption of continental Christianity and feudalism, which no longer permitted unprovoked attacks on co-religionists. When the neighbouring Slavic, Finno-Ugrian and Baltic peoples likewise converted, the now christianised Norse elites – after a short period of ‘crusading’ around the Baltic – simply ran out of legitimate targets.
Peter Hogg, former Head of Scandinavian Collections
Stefan Brink and Neil Price (eds), The Viking world (London, 2008) YC.2009.b.524
Gareth Williams, Vikings: life and legend (London, 2014) Catalogue of the British Museum exhibition
Saga book of the Viking Society for Northern Research (London, 1892- ) Ac.9939; volumes over three years old are also available online at http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/
Proceedings of the Viking Congresses (quadrennial since 1950). Volumes catalogued separately. See also: http://www.vikingcongress.com/
Viking and Medieval Scandinavia (Turnhout, 2005- ) 9236.374400
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- A woman for all seasons: Halldis Moren Vesaas
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- The Goats that Got Away
- “May its birthday always be celebrated…”
- Who or what were ‘the Vikings’?