Discover the roots of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt

Henrik Ibsen’s «Peer Gynt» is not just a fairy-tale. It’s a reflection of its time, as well as about the Norwegian culture, nature and a local legend.

Peer Gynt på Gålå 2019 (Foto: Bård Gundersen)

A deeper meaning

The dramatic poem «Peer Gynt» moves between reflecting reality and a fairy-tale with trolls and mystical creatures, but always with a profound challenge for the main character. The core of the story is, however, not merely about fairy-tales. It is something much more real and universal that everyone can relate to, no matter what country you are from; it is about the «self».

What does it mean to be «yourself»? Who, or what, are you?

A nation in change

The 1860s were just as turbulent as our own times. The industrial revolution brought both wealth and poverty, where new cities grew up and old ones became bigger and more crowded. There was a large-scale emigration to North America from the poorest parts of Europe, and also from Norway. At the same time, socialism and nationalism spread throughout society.

Norwegian culture was influenced by the national romanticism in the early nineteen hundreds, with a rediscovering of Norwegian folk literature and music that now was used to build the nation. Poets, painters and composers created pieces inspired by fairy-tales, myths and folksongs.

All of this influenced how Ibsen wrote his literature from the 1860s.

Ibsen’s search for inspiration

Ibsen applied for a grant to collect myths and fairy-tales in 1862, and luckily the government gave it to him. He wanted to travel to the western coast of Norway, where he believed there would be many unknown folktales.

On his way to the western coast, Ibsen travelled through the Gudbrandsdalen valley and over the Sognefjell mountains. He walked through the region where the stories about the local legend Per Gynt originate, and he might have been told these folk tales on this part of the journey.

After his travels, he wrote to his publisher in Denmark:

«It may interest you to know that Peer Gynt is a person who actually lived in Gudbrandsdalen, probably at the end of the last century or in the beginning of this century. His name is still well known to the local community» – Henrik Ibsen in a letter to his publisher, 8 August 1867.

The frustration and inspiration

It took some time for Ibsen to write «Peer Gynt». After his travels through Norway, he wrote his first big success «The Pretenders» in 1864, and later «Brand» in 1866.

Ibsen criticized the way Norway had handled the war between Denmark and Germany through «Brand». He argued that Norway did not help Denmark, and this was a betrayal of Scandinavia. Ibsen framed the Norwegians as smug and half-hearted, and wanted to show that telling the truth and having personal integrity were the highest ideals. Although Ibsen meant for «Brand» to be a critique, the main character in the story became a role model for many in Norway; they wanted to be proud, have willpower and show a strong personality.

The way Ibsen looked at the Norwegian people also colored the way he wrote «Peer Gynt» in 1867. Again, he wanted to show that a smug, arrogant, self-focused character is not to be idealized. But one might argue that most people see the play as entertainment, and not a harsh critique of themselves.