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Danish literature has international reach

Although Danish is not a widely-spoken language – only about 6 million people can speak it – translated versions of Danish literature is popular all over the world.


Danish authors have left remarkable footprint in the world of literature.

The most famous Danish author is probably Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), who wrote plays, novels, poems, travel books, and autobiographies, but it was fairy tales that made him world famous. Among his most famous works are "The Ugly Duckling", "The Little Mermaid", and "Thumbelina". Andersen's stories are loved by both children and adults from nations around the globe and his works are translated into 160 languages. 

Hans Christian Andersen was born in a slum in Odense on the island of Funen and came to Copenhagen as a young man, hoping to make it as an actor. When that didn’t work out, he turned to writing. He often sided with the outsider in his storytelling, reflecting his own sense of never being fully accepted despite international recognition of his work.

The father of existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a contemporary of Hans Christian Andersen's. In his lifetime, Kierkegaard was looked down upon and Copenhagen's cartoonists never missed an opportunity to portray him as a ridiculous hunchbacked oddball with a giant nose.  

But posterity has taken a more appreciative view of Kierkegaard, and today he is considered one of the greatest philosophers of his century and an influential theologian as well. His books Either/Or, Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Anxiety are among his masterpieces. He believed that the highest task of human existence was to become oneself in an ethical and religious sense. Kierkegaard is widely recognized as the father of existentialism.

Did you know

Hans Christian Andersen is born is Odense, but moved to Copenhagen alone at the age of 14. He had a dream of becoming a ballet dancer, an actor, or a singer. 

A deep love of Africa and its people

Karen Blixen (1885-1962) may be the greatest Danish writer of the twentieth century. She attended the Danish Academy of Fine Arts and then married a cousin, journeying with him to Africa to help run a coffee plantation. She remained there for 17 years, and her fondness for the continent and for the African people she met is vividly clear in her memoirs, Out of Africa. The book was later adapted on screen, and the movie, starring Meryl Streep, won several Oscars. Blixen’s home has been turned into a museum, which can be visited on the Rungsted Coast just north of Copenhagen.    

Karen_Blixen
Karen Blixen (1885-1962)

The Vikings were the first Danish writers

The first known Danish writings are the Viking inscriptions in the runic alphabet on raised stones – called runestones - erected in the 700s and 800s and still visible in the Danish landscape. Usually the inscriptions are short poems honoring kings or warriors who had passed away.

 

The most famous runestone is the Jelling Stone, which can be visited in the town of Jelling in Jutland. This stone was erected in the 960s by Harald Bluetooth in memory of his parents, King Gorm and Queen Thyra. In his verse, Harald also celebrates his conquest of Denmark and Norway and his conversion to Christianity. The Bluetooth system on your phone is named after Harald.

 

The introduction of Christianity to Denmark by Harald Bluetooth meant that Latin became the predominant written language. Around the year 1200, Denmark produced its first major literary work, Gesta Danorum (The Deeds of the Danes) by Saxo Grammaticus.  

 

The book told the story of the first Danish kings and also contained the tale of Prince Amletus, better known as Hamlet, who later served as the model for Shakespeare's famous play.


These days, “Nordic Noir” crime novelists like Jussi Adler-Olsen (1950-) are popular all over the world. Peter Høeg (1957-), a former student with the Royal Danish Ballet, gained fame with his mystical thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow, set in Denmark and Greenland.

10 must-read Danish books

  1. The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen
  2. Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
  3. The Shamer's Daughter by Lene Kaaberbøl
  4. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
  5. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
  6. The Cronic Innoncense by Klaus Rifbjerg
  7. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  8. Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard
  9. Eksil by Jakob Ejersbo
  10. Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Other notable Danish authors

Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754): Often called the “Danish Moliére”, playwright Holberg wrote intelligent comedies that are still popular with modern audiences.  

Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872): Grundvig’s work has impacted every modern Dane: his philosophies are the base of all Danish education. A pastor, poet, and philosopher, he is also known for his hymns.  

Georg Brandes (1842-1927): A contemporary of the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Brandes was a social-liberal who believed realism in literature was more important than hyper-aesthetic writing and fantasy.  

Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885): Educated as a botanist, Jacobsen pioneered a naturalistic Danish literature. An atheist, he was the first to translate Charles Darwin’s work into Danish.  

Martin Andersen Nexø (1869-1954): Nexø was the first significant author to focus on the Danish working class. His novel Pelle the Conqueror was adapted for the screen by Danish director Bille August. A proud communist, Nexø moved to East Germany after World War II and was widely popular in Soviet-affiliated countries.  

Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950): Jensen introduced the prose poem to Danish literature. He is also well-known for his masterpiece Kongens Fald (The Fall of the King) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944.

Tove Ditlevsen (1917-1976): Ditlevsen’s direct and honest descriptions of her childhood in the slums of Copenhagen are still powerful today. Ditlevsen lived a troubled life, struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, and died by her own hand.  

Villy Sørensen (1929-2001): Best known as a short-story writer, the absurdist Sørensen is sometimes called “the Danish Kafka.”  

Klaus Rifbjerg (1931-2015). The prolific Rifbjerg wrote more than 170 books, stories, and essays. His 1958 novel Den kroniske Uskyld (Chronic Innocence) about teenagers coming of age, is still widely read.

Inger Christensen (1935-2009): Christensen was internationally acclaimed for her experimental poetry based on systemic structures. Her poetry collection Alfabet (Alphabet) was inspired by both the alphabet and the Fibonacci mathematical sequence.     

A.J. Kazinski is the pseudonym of the thriller writing duo Anders Rønnow Klarlund (1971-) and Jacob Weinreich (1972-). Their novels, including The Last Good Man, have been published in more than twenty countries.  

Jakob Martin Strid (1972-) is one of several Danish children’s authors with an international audience. He draws his own illustrations.