Grundtvig, Nikolaj Frederik Severin

(1783-1872)
   A Danish poet and theologian, Grundtvig took a degree in theology but did so without an active Christian faith. The experience of falling in love, as well as his reading of some of the major writers of romanticism, cased him to catch a glimpse of the possibility of uniting matter and spirit. Influenced by both the ideas of universal romanticism and the tenets of its nationalist variety, Grundtvig came to see a parallel between the neoplatonist contrast between spirit and matter, and the Old Norse division between gods and giants. He first expressed these ideas in Lidet om Sangene i Edda (1806; Something about the Songs in the Edda). He went further along the same lines in Nordens Mytho-logi (1808; Norse Mythology), in which the end of the world that was foretold among the ancient Scandinavians was interpreted as a result of sin against a deity who was essentially a stand-in for the Christian god.
   Having thus developed a coherent national romantic vision, all Grundtvig needed was a Christian awakening before he could see Nordic paganism as a fallen religion, but nevertheless one structurally similar to Christianity. His dramatic poem Optrin af Kiempelivets Undergang i Nord (1809; Scenes from the End of Heroic Life in the North) is marked by his preconversion vision, while Optrin af Norners og Asers Kamp (1811; Scenes from the Battle of the Norns and the Gods) shows that he had experienced a religious crisis that caused him to develop a strong personal Christian faith. He applied that faith to a reading of Danish history and concluded that Denmark was a strong nation in times of strong Christian faith, and weak in times of doubt and spiritual lukewarmness. This vision of history was expressed in Roskilde-Riim (1814; The Roskilde Rhymes), a versified history book.
   In addition to having a strong personality, Grundvig also seems to have suffered from bipolar disorder. Guided by his personal faith, which allowed him to hold Danish history and Christian doctrine in a single vision, he vehemently attacked those theologians who did not share his views. As a result he was marginalized professionally, and his response is expressed in the mystery play Paaske-Lilien (1816-1817; The Easter Lily), in which he sees Christ's resurrection replicated both in his own spiritual awakening and in the religious movement that he was trying to get under way in Denmark.
   The capstone of Grundtvig's religious system was his discovery that Martin Luther had not been completely right when insisting that the relationship between human beings and the deity is mediated primarily by the word of God as found in sacred scripture. In place of an emphasis on a written text, which is subject to all manner ofinter-pretations, including those based on extreme rationalism, Grundtvig stressed what he called the living word, which comes to a person through such sacraments as baptism and communion and addresses itself to people's emotions. This idea was an effective tool in his fight against those tendencies among the Danish clergy that were not to Grundtvig's liking.
   Two aspects of Grundtvig's activity as a spiritual leader bear mention. As a poet he was an immensely productive writer of hymns, many of which have become part of Danish church life. Grundtvig's hymns address themselves to the Christian fellowship more than to individual Christians. Also, his pedagogical ideas were groundbreaking. Instead of an educational system that emphasized rote learning and theory, Grundtvig wanted balanced human development. The Danish folk high school came to be the vehicle for this kind of education, and it remains a strong tradition in the Scandinavian countries up to the present time.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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