Holberg, Ludvig

(1684-1754)
   A poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist, Holberg is considered Scandinavia's foremost Enlightenment figure. He was born into a family mostly of farmers and merchants, but his father had worked his way up from a private to a liuetenant colonel in the Dano-Norwegian army. Well educated at the Bergen Cathedral School and the University of Copenhagen, Holberg never lost touch with practical life during a lifetime as an academic and a writer. He consistently valued useful activity above learning for the sake of learning and the vernacular above Latin; his attitudes are largely those of a middle class that was about to eclipse the old aristocracy.
   After years of study and travel and having laid the groundwork for a brilliant academic career, including books on European history as well as natural and international law, Holberg started writing satirical poetry shortly before 1720. A mock-heroic epic in four books, Peder Paars, was published in 1719-1720 and gave him quite a reputation as a creative writer. It describes the journey of one Peder Paars from the city of Kallundborg to Aars for the purpose of visiting his fiancee, but owing to the enmity of some pseudo-classical gods, he is driven off course and shipwrecked on an island named Anholt. The island of Anholt is a microcosm of Denmark, and Holberg portrays life there so as to exhibit a long catalogue of human foibles.
   Holberg was soon given additional opportunities to hold human failings up to ridicule. In the fall of 1722 a Danish-language theater was established in Copenhagen, and the second play performed there was Holberg's comedy Den Politiske Kandestøber (tr. The Political Tinker, 1915), which satirized common people who want to get involved in political life. Other comedies have touches of the tragic. Jeppe paa Bierget (1722; tr. Jeppe of the Hill, 1915), for example, presents the miserable life of a drunken peasant. Erasmus Montanus (1731, tr. 1915), a satire on learning for its own sake, also shows how easily truth may be compromised.
   Comedies by Plautus and Moliere were among Holberg's readings and served as examples for him, but he is far more than simply an imitator. His characters, although mostly types, are anchored in a realistically portrayed social and economic environment, and Holberg has a gift for depicting the absurd. His output was truly phenomenal, for by the time the theater closed in 1727 because Denmark's new king, the pietistic Christian IVV was opposed to it, Holberg had written 26 comedies. Six more were written after the theater was reopened in 1748. Many of his comedies are still performed regularly in Scandinavia.
   By the time the theater closed, however, Holberg had largely exhausted his poetic inspiration and returned to scholarship. Many volumes of historical, topographical, and biographical studies ensued, but Holberg also wrote a long utopian novel in Latin, Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (1741; tr. Journey to the World Underground, 1742), as well as seven volumes of essays and three Latin autobiographies.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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