If runic inscriptions, dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., are to be counted, Norway has the oldest literary tradition of all the Scandinavian countries. The Vikings had a poetic tradition that was almost entirely oral. Legends were told by each generation, sagas of great heroes and mighty adventures, mostly at sea.
Court minstrels, called scalds, wrote down compositions to be sung before kings, including Harald I (850-933), the first king of Norway.
The Vikings, by Johannes Brondsted, is one of the best written documents about the age of the Vikings. Viking fans will also be drawn to The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America, translated by Magnus Magnuson and Hermann Palsson, an incredible saga detailing how Viking age Norwegians sailed in their long ships to the eastern coast of "Vinland" (America) in the 10th century.
The Middle Ages in Norway brought the spread of Christianity with a large body of literature. In the secular realm, stories from the Arthurian cycle and French romances were adopted. Following Norway's union with Denmark at the end of the 14th, a cultural decline began. Danes abolished the Old Norse tongue. When the Reformation came, many ancient Norwegian manuscripts were destroyed. Only the peasants kept national culture alive. The country didn't even have a printing press until 1643.
In the 18th century, a towering figure emerged in Norwegian literature in the form of Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754). Norway's voice in the Age of Reason, Holberg was a satirist, poet, playwright, and prose writer. Living mainly in Denmark, this Norwegian had a tremendous impact on Danish drama. His literary influence in Norway centered on historical writings and essays.
By the 19th century, Norwegian writing began to be appreciated by the world. The Governor's Daughter, by Camilla Collett, published in 1854, became the first modern Norwegian novel. Two towering writers emerged: playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and Bjornstjerne Björnson (1832-1910).
Ibsen was the first Norwegian to devote himself entirely to theater writing. His verse-plays, Brand and Peer Gynt, established his greatness, and these were followed by a number of plays, the most famous of which are A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder. Ibsen's plays today are performed all over the world and are available in various editions in book form.
Björnson won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1903. A poet, playwright, journalist, and politician, he was also deeply involved in social and religious problems. There are English translations of some of his most evocative creations, including his celebrated rustic novel Arne, first published in 1859, and his The Fisher Maiden, published in 1868.
The best female novelist to emerge between the two world wars was Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928. She was a Christian writer, and her values were not political. Today she is mainly praised for her three-volume masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter, which tells of love and religion in medieval Norway. Her later works include such widely known books as Ida Elisabeth, in 1932, and The Faithful Wife, in 1936. With the coming of the Nazis, her books were banned and she fled Norway.
Norwegian travel writing has been linked to voyages of discovery. Both Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) and Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) published detailed accounts of their travels. Nansen's books, such as The First Crossing of Greenland (1890), are still widely read, as are the works of Amundsen, including The South Pole (1912).
The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl details the saga of a modern-day Viking, who set out on a balsa raft with five comrades and sailed 6,920km (4,290 miles) in 1947 -- all the way from Peru to Polynesia. Kon-Tiki Man: An Illustrated Biography of Heyerdahl, by Thor himself, highlights his attempt to document his idea that Polynesia was settled by people migrating west from South America.
Among contemporaries, the best-selling author today is Norwegian fantasy writer Margit Sandemo, whose novel Spellbound has been translated into English. Some 40 million copies of her novels are in print. Two other popular writers today are Dag Solstad, who has a great ability to describe modern consciousness, and Herbjørg Wassmo, who enjoys international acclaim for her novels such as Dina's Book (1989), which was made into a film in 2002 with French actor Gérard Depardieu.
Finally, The Norwegians, by Arthur Spencer, is the best book on the market today for understanding the Norwegian people and their advanced society.
Lagging far behind its siblings, Sweden and Denmark, Norway only in recent years has begun to impress the world. In olden days, talented Norwegian film directors ended up in Hollywood.
One of the first Norwegian films to attract world attention was the 1951 Kon-Tiki, exploring the epic voyage of Thor Heyerdahl. It received the Academy Award that year for a documentary.
It wasn't until 2006 that another Norwegian film won another Oscar, this time for Best Animated Short Film, The Danish Poet, narrated by Norwegian screen legend Liv Ullman.
Another great Norwegian film, Nils Gaup's Pathfinder, made in 1987, was based on the legend of the Lapps. It was an enormous international success and the second Norwegian film nominated for an Oscar.
Peter & the Wolf, produced in Norway, received an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2008.
More and more Norwegian films are finding world audiences, including world releases of such films as Alexander Rosler's Mendel, Pal Sletaune's Junk Mail, and Erik Skoldbjaerg's Insomnia. Some film critics have hailed this avalanche of new films as a "Norwave in cinema."
Norwegian music made little impact on the world until the 19th century. Ole Bull (1810-80) attracted major attention and even performed on a concert tour in America. He was one of the finest violinists of his time, composing mainly virtuoso pieces for the violin.
Norway's first composer to achieve world renown, however, was Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). He produced a specifically Norwegian type of music as evoked by his "Peer Gynt Suite" (1888). His piano "Concerto" and three sonatas for violin and piano are his finest works.
After Grieg's death, the major composer was Christian Sinding (1856-1941), who achieved fame for his composition for piano, "Rustle of Spring."
The most distinguished composer of the 20th century was Fartein Valen (1887-1952), who is known for his contribution to atonal music.
In the countryside, Norway, of course, has been known for centuries for its folk music tradition. Folk music is usually performed by soloists, and instrumental is commonly played on the Hardanger fiddle, the national musical instrument of Norway.
Norwegian musicians today have an impact on the international music scene, and Norwegian jazz festivals are attended by audiences worldwide. Pop, rock, hip-hop, metal, R&B, and electronic enjoy wide popularity. Metal traditionally has been one of Norway's biggest musical exports, with such bands as Red Harvest and Enslaved performing.