Frank Hugus

title.none: Rossel, ed., History of Danish Literature

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.003 95.05.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Frank Hugus, University of Massachusetts (Amherst)

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Rossel, Sven H., ed. A History of Danish Literature. Vol. I of A History of Scandinavian Literatures. Lincoln, Nebraska London, England: University of Nebraska Press University of Nebraska Press, 1992 1992. Pp. xvi + 710. ISBN: ISBN 080323886X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.03

Rossel, Sven H., ed. A History of Danish Literature. Vol. I of A History of Scandinavian Literatures. Lincoln, Nebraska London, England: University of Nebraska Press University of Nebraska Press, 1992 1992. Pp. xvi + 710. ISBN: ISBN 080323886X.

Reviewed by:

Frank Hugus
University of Massachusetts (Amherst)

To insure the overall success of this ambitious undertaking, the General Editor of the multi-volume series of the history of Scandinavian literatures, Professor Sven H. Rossel, enlisted the services of an impressive array of scholars. The contributors to Volume I thus include some of the foremost authorities on Danish literature. The resulting A History of Danish Literature fully reflects the care and expertise that went into its planning.

Moreover, Professor Rossel has taken a fresh and intelligent approach to the task of producing a comprehensive history of Danish literature. To such traditional entries as "The Middle Ages" or "The Modern Breakthrough", Professor Rossel has added chapters on "Danish and Faroese Women Writers" and "Children's Literature". No previous Danish literary history has included separate entries on these increasingly important topics.

Nonetheless, a word of caution is advisable: No single volume, not even one that contains a daunting 710 pages, can hope to do justice to the nuanced intricacies of nearly two millennia of literature. Some lapses and disjunctions must inevitably arise, and difficult choices of what to include or what to omit have to be made. Indeed, the present volume is somewhat uneven in its treatment of the early periods of Danish literary history. Only 119 of its 631 pages of literary analysis are devoted to the literature of the Medieval through Baroque periods, that is, these 119 pages attempt to encompass an immense span of approximately 1600 years from roughly the Birth of Christ through the end of the 17th century. This works out to a sparse thirteen years per page, which, even though there is virtually nothing that can legitimately pass for Danish "literature" until well after 1000 AD (and then only in the form of copious Latin histories composed by learned Danes), still seems slightly penurious. One must not assume, however, that the early Danes had no vernacular literary tradition. They did in fact, as David W. Colbert points out in the first chapter, "The Middle Ages" (pp. 1-70), have a vibrant and pervasive oral literature that survived for centuries before it was finally written down, either in Latin translation or (much later) in the Danish language itself.

Colbert begins "The Middle Ages" with an extremely brief synopsis of Denmark's historical and cultural setting in the Roman Iron Age and moves briskly through the Viking Age. This account is, however, too cursory to be of much value to readers who are not already reasonably familiar with the social and cultural history of Scandinavia in the first millennium A.D. Nor does it reveal how very different the pagan culture was from the later Christian-Medieval culture. As examples of the earliest form of Danish literature, Colbert focuses quite appropriately on runic inscriptions (pp. 2-5), but even here there are problems. Absent from this abbreviated discussion is the important fact that until well into the Viking Age itself, there was no such thing as a separate Danish language let alone a distinctly Danish culture. The Vikings and their forebears (whether they were from what is now Denmark, Norway, or Sweden) spoke the same language with minor regional variations (a northern descendant of proto-Germanic) and were part of a homogeneous culture (which derived from the pagan Germanic culture). Defining runic inscriptions found in Denmark as "Danish" literature is thus somewhat artificial. And, in discussing the metrics of runic inscriptions, the failure to stress how important the poetic device of alliteration was for Germanic poetry in general and Scandinavian poetry in particular somewhat trivializes the inquiry. Moreover, one cannot equate the function of Bronze Age (ca. 1500-500 B.C.) rock carvings (very few of which are found in Denmark in any case) with that of the later runic inscriptions (p. 3). Serving as a cleaner parallel to the Bronze Age pictographs are the Iron Age rock carvings and petroglyphs and the Viking Age picture stones (which are not mentioned in the discussion), although neither type of pictorial carving occurred in great abundance in Denmark.

More successful is the section "Christianization and the Latin Middle Ages: 1100-1300" (pp. 5-20), especially the pages that deal with Saxo Grammaticus (pp. 11-18), whose influence on succeeding generations of Europeans is rivaled only by that of his Icelandic contemporary, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Still, the reader is not given a clear picture of the grandeur and scope of Saxo's sweeping Latin-language epic—nor of how (let alone why) the Danish cleric's version of Nordic history and mythology is often at odds with Snorri's. Instead of limiting his elucidation of these differences to a glancing reference to Saxo's and Snorri's treatment of the stories of Hother and Hadding (p. 13), Colbert might well have expanded his discussion and elaborated on Saxo's rendering of the Baldur myth that inverts the accounts found in Snorri's Edda and in the so- called Elder Edda.

Perhaps the most informative and authoritative section in the first chapter of this volume is that on "The Medieval Ballad" (pp. 46-70). The "true vernacular" literature of Medieval Denmark seems, to an overwhelming extent, to have consisted of ballads. Reconstructing what form these ballads must have had and how they evolved over time is a formidable and not entirely satisfactory exercise. Yet, Colbert does the best that one can with the few clues that remain. Here again, however, there is some unnecessary confusion. The frequent references to Pioriks saga (pp. 54 f.) should have been placed in their proper context by the explanation that this saga is a Norwegian/Icelandic compilation from the late 12th or early 13th century that may have been translated from (or at least based on) Middle Low German sources.

F.J. Billeskov Jansen's contribution "From the Reformation to the Baroque" (pp. 71-119) is a masterful summation of the beginnings of a cosmopolitan Danish vernacular literature. The importance of the Protestant Reformation for the cultural directions of 16th- and 17th- century Denmark cannot be overstated, and Billeskov Jansen provides the necessary background information to permit even the non-specialist reader to gain an appreciation of the Danish ramifications of this seminal event. His account of the brief heyday of Danish school drama around 1600 (pp. 88- 91) gives life to a facet of early modern Danish literature that is all too often consigned to oblivion.

The remaining chapters in A History of Danish Literature ("The Age of Enlightenment" by P.M. Mitchell, "From Romanticism to Realism" by Sven H. Rossel, "The Modern Breakthrough" by Niels Ingwersen, "Between the World Wars" by Sven H. Rossel and Niels Ingwersen, "Danish Literature, 1940- 1990" by Poul Houe, "Faroese Literature" by W. Glyn Jones, "Danish and Faroese Women's Writers" by Faith Ingwersen, and "Children's Literature" by Flemming Mouritzen) are lucidly written and factually sound.

On balance, A History of Danish Literature can be recommended to the general reader, albeit with the reservations concerning the first chapter outlined above. Also, apart from providing titles to literary works in Danish, the present volume presents all citations from Danish works in English translation. Such minor shortcomings aside, the novice who wishes to learn the salient facts about Danish literature will profit from the encyclopedic scope of the volume. Even those who have worked in the field for some time will find valuable insights in this literary history. P.M. Mitchell's essay on Ludvig Holberg (pp. 126-137), for example, or Sven H. Rossel's "The Theory of Romanticism" (pp. 168-172), or Niels and Faith Ingwersen's assessments of various long-ignored Danish women writers (pp. 274-276 and 588-605), not to mention the volume's final chapter on children's literature (pp. 609-632) present the reader with ample food for thought. Appended to the volume is a copious "Bibliography" (pp. 633-655) which, with its many references to titles in English, can be used as the basis for additional readings in the field by those whose command of Danish is minimal.