Danish is a small language with only around 5.6 million speakers. Yet Denmark has a rich literary tradition with authors such as H.C. Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Peter Høeg, who have all made their mark on world literature
The first known Danish literature consists of verses about kings and warriors written in runic alphabet on stone from around the year 200 to 1100.
Hamlet and Holberg
After the introduction of Christianity in Denmark the predominant language was Latin and about the year 1200 Denmark got its first major literary work “Gesta Danorum” (The Deeds of the Danes) by Saxo Grammaticus. The book was about the first Danish kings and also contained the story of Prince Amletus, better known as Hamlet, who later served as the model for Shakespeare's famous play.
During and after the Reformation in the 1500s the literary focus was on religious texts, such as the translation of the Bible and the writing of hymns. Not until the beginning of the 1700s did Denmark have its real literary father figure: Ludvig Holberg.
Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) was an extremely prolific author who wrote philosophy and history as well as plays, including 25 comedies written in the period from 1722 to 1728. Several of these are still performed regularly, and especially Jeppe on the Mountain and Erasmus Montanus have become part of the Danish national heritage.
Holberg was a man of the Enlightenment and put common sense above all else. Through his plays he demonstrated the follies of the common man to the common man himself so that he would realize their nature and laugh at them. In this way it was Holberg's mission to strike a blow for reason and common sense.
The Golden Age
Around 1800 Romanticism came to Denmark from Germany and this heralded the Danish Golden Age, which spanned the period from 1800 to 1850.
It was initiated by Denmark's first great romantic writer Adam Oehlenschläger (1779 - 1850), but in fame he was quickly surpassed by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), who by the 1840s had attracted much international attention with his stories. Andersen wrote a great variety of different literature, but today he is primarily known for his world famous fairy tales such as The Emperor's New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling and The Little Match Girl.
Photo: Hans Christian Andersen
The second great writer, and a contemporary of Hans Christian Andersen´s, was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).
In his lifetime Kierkegaard was looked down upon and Copenhagen´s cartoonists never missed a chance to portray him as a ridiculous hunchbacked oddball with a giant nose.
But posterity has taken a much more appreciative view of Kierkegaard, who today is considered one of the 19th century´s greatest philosophers. His books Either/Or, Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Anxiety are among his masterpieces. Kierkegaard is widely recognized as the father of the philosophical theory of existentialism, which particularly the French writers Jean-Paul Sarte and Albert Camus made famous after World War II.
The third of the great Danish Golden Age authors was Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 – 1872). Besides being the most famous Danish writer of hymns, Grundtvig also had a huge impact on Danish culture and education. Among other things, he founded the first folk high school in 1844 in Røddinge. Folk high schools have since become a central institution in Danish culture.
The Modern Breakthrough
Around 1870 a new direction in Danish literature, called the modern breakthrough, came into existence. The front figure was the writer and social critic Georg Brandes (1842-1927), who pleaded for a more realistic literature that could create debate in society. Brandes´ so-called Cultural Radicalism, which implies a break with inherited social norms, religion and indulges anti-militarism and openness to new impulses, still has a great effect on Danish political and cultural debate today.
Another of the period's important Danish writers, who was also known internationally, was Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885). Jacobsen was a botanist by profession and translated Darwin's On the Origin of Species into Danish. It was therefore no coincidence that Jacobsen pioneered a naturalistic literature, devoid of any divine intervention. His novel Marie Grubbe was the first example of a Danish book that dealt with women's sexuality, while his second novel Niels Lyhne was a blunt portrait of an atheist’s life and fate. This latter work inspired the great German writer Thomas Mann.
The 20th century
In the early 20th century Danish literature was characterized by different directions.
Martin Andersen Nexø (1869-1954) portrayed the life of the working class in his novel Pelle the Conqueror, which in 1987 was adapted for the screen by Danish director Bille August. The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Another of the great writers of the period was Johannes V. Jensen (1873 – 1950), who distinguished himself by writing a more existentialistic prose. Jensen won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944, and in 1999 his great novel "The King´s Fall" was voted the 20th century's best Danish novel by Danish readers.
But the greatest writer from the period is probably Karen Blixen (1885 – 1962), who also wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Blixen made her debut at the age of 49 in 1934 with the short-story collection Seven Gothic Tales. The book was written in a fairy tale style that drew on the storytelling tradition. Seven Gothic Tales became a literary sensation and Blixen followed it up with a series of popular novels and stories always written in her special "old fashioned" style that made her remark with a clear self-irony: “In Denmark my young author friends say that I am three thousand years old”. Regardless of her age or writing style, Blixen is probably the most internationally admired Danish writer of the 20th century. When Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize in 1954 he commented that it should have been given to Karen Blixen.
Photo: Karen Blixen
From World War II onwards
In the post-war period and subsequently, Danish literature has been characterized by a plethora of genres and directions that have dealt with international as well as national political and literary currents.
Tove Ditlevsen (1917-1976) was and still is one of the most influential Danish women writers. Her direct and honest descriptions of her childhood in the slums of Copenhagen have given her a very special place in Danish literature and in the hearts of many Danish readers.
Photo: Klaus Rifbjerg
Another extremely popular Danish author is Klaus Rifbjerg (b. 1931). His first novel Chronic Innocence, about young people's problems with personal development and sexuality, is an indispensable piece of modern Danish literature. Rifbjerg writes in almost every conceivable literary genre and with several releases per year since his debut in 1956, “Big Klaus", as he is called in Denmark, is also one of the most productive Danish writers.
Dan Turell (1946-1993) or "Uncle Danny" has remained an extremely popular writer and poet. In Denmark, he is best known for his detective novels, but Turell was also the Danish writer who most clearly drew on an American inspiration, especially the Beat genre, which was the great literary fashion in the 50s and 60s in the U.S. with names like Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Borroughs.
In an international context, the poet Inger Christensen (1935-2009) attracted attention with her experimental poetry, and on her death many European media lamented that the Nobel Committee yet again had unfairly passed over a great Danish female writer.
Peter Høeg (b. 1957) has also attracted considerable international attention with his novels, of which Smilla's Feeling for Snow, about a half-Greenlandic woman investigating a murder, became an international bestseller.
Peter Høeg, Foto: Poul Rasmussen
The New Millennium
Danish literature in the new millennium is still characterized by great diversity. Looking at the charts, the detective novel currently has a strong grip on the Danes, and among the most popular authors in this genre is Jussi Adler-Olsen (b. 1950), who has repeatedly topped the Danish bestseller list.
In an era of digital media, literature is still being read in Denmark. A 2004 study showed that over 25% of all Danish adults read fiction every week. In 2010, 1717 fiction books were published in Danish and in the same year Denmark's 521 public libraries issued a total of 31 million books.