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Karl Gjellerup (1857-1919)


Danish poet and novelist who together with his compatriot Henrik Pontoppidan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917. In Denmark Gjellerup's award was received with little enthusiasm. He had been regarded long as a German writer. Because Sweden was neutral during World War I, the divided prize did not create political speculations about partial decision, but showed on the other hand cultural allegiance between the Nordic neighbors.

"Some author or other – I should even say, were I asked, a very famous one –  has said, that in hours of sorrow nothing is so sad as the remembrance of happy days. Of course I have not the courage to dispute the truth of his words, especially as the have been so often repeated that they are almost proverbial, otherwise I should have thought that, in such hours, it would be still sadder if one had no happy moments upon whih to look back." (from Minna, 1889)

Karl Gjellerup was born in Roholte, in southern Zealand, the son of a minister. His father, Pastor Carl Adolph Gjellerup, died when Karl was three years old. He was brought up in Copenhagen by his mother's (Anna Fibiger) cousin, the minister and poet Johannes Fibiger.

Gjellerup was expected to have a career in church. In 1874 he entered the University of Copenhagen, where he studied theology, graduating in 1878. However, under the influence of Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, and the critic Georg Brandes, he had already started to feel attraction to atheism before taking the degree. Brandes's university lectures arouse much attention – he advocated free development of the individual and naturalism in literature.

Although Darwin's The Origin of Species was not against religion, its argumentation did not support the account of the creation in the Bible. Gjellerup's break with Christian faith was the subject of his two early novels, but later he became interested in Buddhism and other Oriental religions. En Idealist (1878), Gjellerup's first published work, depicted a young intellectual, who denounces theology and religion. In was followed by Germanernes Lærling (1882), where the central character, a young theologian, undergoes similar crisis as Gjellerup – he becomes a freethinker and develops his own beliefs. In 1884 appeared Brynhild, about the fate of the Nordic warrior maiden, the most important valkyrie figure in the Volsunga saga. The verse drama, inspired by Wagner's Der Ring der Nibelungen, earned Gjellerup a state pension for life. Thamyris (1887) drew on ancient Greek mythology. (Other Nobel writers interested in Buddhism: Hermann Hesse)

In 1883 and 1884 Gjellerup travelled in Italy, Greece, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and Sweden. From 1885 to 1887 Gjellerup lived in Dresden, Germany. Dissatisfied with the limitations of naturalism, Gjellerup published En klassisk maaned (1884) and Vandreaaret (1885), in which he began to formulate his new aesthetic. Gjellerup was influenced by Goethe's and Friedrich Schiller's humanism and idealist philosophy with its views that what would normally be called 'the external world' is somehow created by the mind – physical world does not exist independently of the human mind. These thoughts, his combination of the demand for truth with an idealism, were developed in two novels: Minna (1889), a love story set in the Germany of his day, and The Pilgrim Kamanita (1906), set in India and examining the idea of reincarnation. In Minna the title character is contrasted with the frivolous artistic circles of the times.

"When my first book appeared forty years earlier, it had been influenced by German idealism. Just three years later (in the thesis awarded the gold medal) I was a follower of English naturalism, after which I returned to a position under those elevated signs of the zodiac which constitute my rightful habitat, only this time the guiding star was not Hegel as in En idealist, but Kant and Schopenhauer." (from autobiography, see Nobel Prize winners)

Gjellerup married in 1887 Eugenia Bendix, née Heusinger, a cousin of Georg Brandes; her first husband had been the musician Fritz Bendix. In 1892 Gjellerup settled permanently in Dresden with his family, and began to write in German. A Nietzschean contempt for the masses appeared in some of his plays in the 1890s. Also Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev were important writers for him – their influence was especially seen in the novels dealing with ethical problems.  Møllen (1896), a story about crime and passion, was inspired by Emile Zola. Gjellerup's later works include Die Opferfeuer (1903) and Die Weltwanderer (1910, Verdensvandrerne), which dealt with Buddhist concepts of rebirth and soul's wandering towards nirvana. The book was used as part of the Thai high school curriculum. Christian themes were dealt in Der goldene Zweig (1917). Gjellerup died on October 13, 1919. Although Gjellerup was greatly admired during his life time, his posthumous reputation is undeservedly diminished.

For further reading: Grænsegængeren, en belysning af Karl Gjellerups forfatterskab med særlig henblik på idealisme by Jesper Jørgensen (2004); Karl Gjellerup - ein literarischer Grenzgänger des Fin de Siècle by Olaf C. Nybo (2002); Neighbouring Nobel, the history of thirteen Danish Nobel Prizes by Keld Nielsen (2001); Karl Gjellerup - en biografi by Georg Nørregård (1988); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by Tyler Wasson (1987); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); 'Karl Gjelerup: A master of expression of Indian thought' by Nicolae Zberae, in Indo-Asian Culture 19:1 (1975)

Selected works:

  • En Idealist: Shildring af Epigonus, 1878
  • Det unge Danmark, 1879
  • Arvelighed og moral, 1881
  • Rødtjørn, 1881
  • Germanernes Lærling, 1882
  • Aander og tider, 1882
  • Romulus, 1883
  • G-Dur: En Kammer-Novelle, 1883
  • Brynhild, 1884
  • En klassisk maaned, 1884
  • Vandreaaret, 1885
  • Saint-Just: Historisk Sørgespil i fem Handlinger, 1886
  • Thamyris, 1887 (1: Kampen med Muserne; 2: Helikon)
  • En arkadisk legende, 1887
  • Hagbard og Signe, 1888
  • Minna, 1889
    - Minna (translated by C. L. Nielsen, 1913)
  • Min kaerligheds bog, 1889
  • Herman Vandel. Sørgespil i tre handlinger, 1891
  • Wuthhorn, 1893
  • Kong Hjarne skjald, tragedie i fem handlinger, 1893
  • Pastor Mors, 1894
  • Hans Excellence: Skuespil, 1895
  • Fra vaar til høst, 1895
  • Møllen, 1896
  • Ved Grænsen, 1897
  • Gift og modgift, 1898
  • Tankelaeserinden, 1901
  • Offerildene. Et Legendestykke, 1903 (Die Opferfeuer)
  • Der Pilger Kamanita, 1906 (Pilgrimmen Kamanita)
    - The Pilgrim Kamanita (tr. 1911; tr. John E. Logie, 1999)
  • Den fuldendtes hustru, 1907 (Das Weib des Vollendeten, 1910)
  • Verdensvandrerne, 1910 (Die Weltwanderer, 1910)
  • Rudolf Stens Landpraxis 1-2, 1913 (Reif für das Leben, 1916)
  • Den buddhistiske Kanon, 1914
  • Sind wir noch Christen?, 1915
  • Guds venner, 1916 (Die Gottesfreundin, 1918)
  • Den gyldne gren, 1917 (Der goldene Zweig, 1917)
  • Das heiligste Tier, 1920
  • Madonna della laguna; eine venezianische Künstlergeschichte, 1920
  • Karl Gjellerup, der Dichter und Denker, sein Leben und Selbstzeugnissen und Briefen, 1922
  • Den ældre Eddas gudesange, 1973
  • Under ørnebregner & Poeten og døden, 1997
  • Blandt russere i Moskva og Skt. Petersborg, 1999

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