Read for the North: Classic Literature from Scandinavia and the Nordics

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Explore Scandinavian classics and literature from the Nordic region with this book list of classic Scandinavian fiction. Whether you’re planning a trip, you want to tap into your heritage, or you’re just curious to read more classics by Nordic and Scandinavian authors, you’ve come to the right place!

Picture of red cottages near a Norwegian fjord, with book covers of Nordic fiction classics superimposed on top, and the words "Best Scandinavian Classics" across the bottom of the image.

I’ve been expanding my familiarity with classics from around the world, so after exploring classic literature from Ireland, Japan, and Latin America, as well as world fairy tale collections, I wanted to turn my attention further north and learn more about Scandinavian literature.

First, I learned that “Scandinavia” doesn’t technically include all of the countries I thought it did! More broadly and accurately, for my purposes I’m exploring classic literature from the Nordic region, which means Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Åland, Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.

We grew up listening to our parents read Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books (Sweden), and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales (Denmark). In high school my interest in Tolkien led me to read the Prose Edda (Iceland), and in college I read Henrik Ibsen’s plays (Norway). All wonderful examples of Nordic literature, but what else was out there?

So, down the rabbit hole I went…

A flowering meadow in Denmark in the foreground, with red-roofed buildings and a lake in the middle ground, and blue mountains in the background.

The list of Scandinavian classics I’ve curated represents a variety of countries and genres, showcasing some of the most famous [non-contemporary] Nordic authors. These books will give you a glimpse of the beautiful land of the Nordics, their people and culture and history.

If you’re participating in our 2024 Classics Reading Challenge (and it’s never too late to join!), February’s theme is to read a classic from the Scandinavian and Nordic regions.

Best Scandinavian Literature Classics

Hunger (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (published 1890)

You can’t have a list of Scandinavian classics without mentioning Knut Hamsun. Hamsun was a Norwegian novelist and Nobel Prize winner whose modernist writings predate what we typically think of as the first modernist writers (Woolf, Joyce, Kafka) by three decades! 

Although he’d previously published poetry and essays, Hunger was Hamsun’s first novel and proved to be his breakthrough as a writer. Hunger is a piercing psychological portrait and first-person narrative of a young, unemployed and unnamed man who wanders the streets of Kristiania (now Oslo) in search of food.

Once you learn a little about Hamsun’s personal life, it’s pretty obvious why he is perhaps intentionally ignored at times. Later in life, Hamsun was a Nazi supporter and after the war he was tried and fined for treason. Still, if you can compartmentalize, Hamsun is a must-read for his place in Scandinavian literature as well as modernist literature.

Recommended translator: Sverre Lyngstad

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf (1906)

Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Although she wrote numerous short stories, novels, and memoirs, one of her most famous books that’s been translated into English is a children’s novel: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. It tells the story of a mischievous boy who gets shrunken down to a minuscule size by a gnome. Riding on the back of a goose, Nils takes off on a journey across Sweden, learning to appreciate the landscape and animals, and coming of age in the process. The book was actually commissioned as an aid to teach geography in Sweden’s public schools. What a wonderful way to learn!

The first book was followed by a sequel: The Further Adventures of Nils. You can sometimes find both books in one volume, although it doesn’t have the illustrations of the hardback copy I’ve pictured here.

Growth of the Soil (Penguin Classics)

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun (1917)

In contrast to the urban setting of Hunger, Growth of the Soil takes place in a rural setting. It tells a “back-to-the-land” story of Isak, an uneducated man who settles in the remote Norwegian wilds. Through hard work and perseverance, Isak puts down roots and carves out a farm for himself and his family. Growth of the Soil explores the theme of modernism and industrialism vs. an agrarian lifestyle. But while it contains beautiful depictions of the land and the human spirit, the characters don’t lead an easy life–and some make choices that display the dark side of human nature, no matter what setting one’s in.

Kristin Lavransdatter: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920-22)

Blending romance with tragedy, Kristin Lavrandsdatter is a trilogy of historical fiction novels set in medieval Norway. Written with authentic historic detail, the saga follows the life of Kristin, the spirited daughter of a wealthy landowner. Although Kristin is betrothed to a neighboring nobleman, she begins a passionate affair with the womanizer Erlend Nikulaussøn, making choices that ripple through the course of the trilogy and Kristin’s life.

The Old Man and His Sons

The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú (1940)

Set in the Faroe Islands, The Old Man and His Sons opens with a community-wide whale hunt, immediately contrasting the ancient tradition with the trappings of modern life, like noisy cars and motorboats. It establishes the theme of the novel–a generational divide and a contrast between old ways and new. Ketil, the “old man” of the story, finds himself deeply in debt after over-bidding at the whale meat auction. Over the next few months, he and his wife struggle to scrape together more money out of their already hardscrabble existence. 

The Emigrants: The Emigrant Novels: Book I

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1949-59)

The Emigrants is a series of four historical fiction novels. (Separately, the books in the series are The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, The Settlers, and The Last Letter Home.) Set in the mid-1800s, the books follow the lives of Swedish emigrants settling in the Minnesota Territory of the United States. The central characters are Karl-Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, poor farmers with a young family, who decide to brave the difficult journey to America in hopes of a better life. They’re joined by an assortment of relatives and neighbors, and the series unfolds against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the Dakota War of 1862. By the time of The Last Letter Home, the main characters are elderly and you’ve gotten to know them intimately–walking with them through their hardships and victories. 

The Fish Can Sing (Vintage International)

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness (1957)

With its first person narration, cast of eccentric characters, and coming-of-age theme, The Fish Can Sing is reminiscent of a Dickens bildungsroman. Son of an unknown father and abandoned by his mother, Álfgrímur nevertheless lives a contented and tranquil life with his foster grandparents in turn-of-the-century Reykjavík, Iceland. One of the people Álfgrímur meets is the mysterious Garðar Hólm, a world-famous opera singer who has traveled far and wide. When Álfgrímur demonstrates a talent for singing himself, Garðar encourages him to find his own “one pure note.”

One of Iceland’s most beloved authors, Laxness wrote a number of novels that have been translated into English. The Fish Can Sing is shorter and more lighthearted than some of his other works and is a good place to start with Laxness. From there, you might consider reading his more weighty works like Independent People, or Salka Valka.

Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard

Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard by Isak Dinesen (1958 and 1962)

This collection of short stories contains “Babette’s Feast”–one of Dinesen’s most famous stories. Set in the late 1800s, it’s the tale of a French refugee who settles in a small Norwegian fishing village, and serves as maid to two elderly sisters. The sisters and their entire community are very ascetic and pious Lutherans, and initially have their misgivings about Babette, a Frenchwoman and Catholic to boot! But Babette is grateful for the safe haven and conforms to their day-to-day lives…and one day, she may have something to give them in return.

The beautiful, Oscar-winning film adaptation was my first introduction to “Babette’s Feast”, but I didn’t realise until recently that Isak Dinesen was actually a pen name for a woman–Karen Blixen. Writing under the Dinesen pen name (her maiden surname), she also wrote the famous memoir Out of Africa, as well as several other short story collections.

Included in this volume of Anecdotes of Destiny is Ehrengard, a novella set in a fairy-tale kingdom, in which a rakish court painter attempts to seduce the honorable Ehrengard, handmaiden to the princess.

The Summer Book (New York Review Books Classics)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972)

I love this book–I’d say it’s in my top 50! It’s a vignette-style novel about six-year-old Sophia, who spends summers with her family on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia has a special connection with her grandmother, who’s whimsical and young at heart despite also being at times unsentimental and rather cranky. The story invites you into their friendship and into the glorious summer world of their microcosmic island.

Tove Jansson is also known for her Moomin series of children’s books and comics about a family of hippopotamus-looking trolls, as well as illustrations for Swedish and Finnish editions of Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. (Her depiction of Gollum actually prompted Tolkien to clarify his description of the character in a later version of the book!) More on Jansson and The Hobbit here and here.

What classics from the Nordic region do you want to read, or what would you recommend that you’ve already read? Who are your favourite Scandinavian authors?

Read for the North: Classic Literature from Scandinavia and the Nordics
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12 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post, Elsie! I’m surprised to discover I already own two titles that will fulfill this month’s reading category. However, several more sound intriguing, so I may end up reading more than one!

  2. Thank you for these recommendations! I looked up Jansson’s HOBBIT art through the links here, and although I love the spare-lined style, yes, Gollum is drastically different from anything else I’ve ever seen! I can just imagine Tolkien coming across that illustration, pulling his pipe from his mouth, and wagging his head in disbelief!

    1. I know, isn’t that funny? Maybe Tolkien had him so clear in his own mind, he forgot that other people weren’t necessarily seeing what he saw!

  3. I am planning on reading Kristin Lavransdatter book one. I have had the three books series (mine come as three separate books) on my shelf for years and have never read them – so I am excited to give it a try!

  4. I actually read The Emigrants as a teenager back in the late 80s. The Danish edition of the series that I own consists of 8 individual volumes.

  5. I just checked out Growth of the Soil and I hope I’ll enjoy it. This is the first Nordic classic I’ve read and the third one in general. I’ve never enjoyed classics that much, but I think participating in the classics reading challenge is going to change that. Thank you for this list!

  6. Just finished Hunger a few days ago, and I must say I struggled with it. I’m pretty sure I’ve read it a long long time ago. Most authors suggested above were completely unfamiliar to me.
    So many great children’s authors came from that region. I would highly recommend The Wonderful Adventures of Nils to anyone who has not heard of this story, especially if you have children! I wonder why it’s not very well known in America. However, I did not know it had a sequel! In the country I grew up in Tuve Jansson is widely popular for her Moomin series. I think there are 6 or 7 books all together, some are better then others, but all worth reading.

    1. I’ve known about the Moomin series for ages, but never actually read any of the books, at least that I remember! I want to though…they sound fun.

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