Norway is a small, snow-covered country in the far north of the world. I dare however say we punch above our weight class when it comes to making our mark on the world – both in terms of art and literature, and in terms of shaping the wider cultural and political landscape through institutions I’m personally engaged with in my day-to-day job, such as the United Nations.
A lot of the role played by Norway in the global landscape stems from a long tradition of literature – not only in form of its content (that has impacted everything from Hollywood blockbusters to Japanese literature), but also in form of the politics and social economy surrounding literature, language and tradition including everything from a strong national network of public libraries, to a public educational system in which literacy, reading and writing skills both in Norwegian and English are central.
The earliest Norwegian folklore stems back to the Viking ages and exists in the sagas, the Norwegian mythology that largely focuses on explaining humanity’s relationship to the natural world through characters such as Thor, the God of weather (of which we have a lot), our relationship to each other through the sayings of Odin as found in Hávamál and our place in the world between mountain giants and the sea.
These roots of mythology finds their way through the Norwegian literary landscape into the fairytales, the national romanticism, the plays of Ibsen and into the modern era where the gods of the past perhaps are best known as characters in Marvel films and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and American Gods, illustrating the breath of the reach of the traditions of this small country in the north.
You find references to these ancient traditions in Tolkien and Game of Thrones as well as within the Norwegian literature of authors such as Kjell Aukrust who we will come back to. Yet we are – as will be illustrated through this month of Norwegian literature – not only looking to the past but bridging the past to the modern international literary landscape through internationally renown Norwegian authors such as Jo Nesbø, Knausgård and Seierstad, as well as by bringing Norwegian literature into the future through young authors in the suburbs of Oslo and the new central library that will open in 2020.
Politics and literature are never far apart as will become apparent throughout this month-long exploration of Norwegian literature. From the influence of literature on modern social democracy to environmentalism and focus on energy – the story of Norwegian industry and the labour movement, through grand tales of exploration and exploitation of natural resources into the evolution of Norwegian democracy and social policies of the neighbourhoods of Oslo has over the past centuries been reflected in Norwegian literature and within the cultural and political scene in which authors always have played a central role as visionaries of the society in which we wish to live.
I am personally excited to – for this month of celebrating Norwegian literature here on the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative – further explore the literature, the libraries and bookshops of my native country – to after a few years of exploring the world at large, much like Peer did in the play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, return to my roots – to delve into the past and look to the future, and to explore further the soul of this strange, cold country in the north that has made such an impact on the world.