Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754)
writer, playwright, historian, philosphopher
Ludvig Holberg was born and raised in Bergen, Norway, but spent most of his adult life in Denmark. This has led both Norwegians and Danes to claim the prolific writer as a national author of their own. Luckily, the people of Bergen can set the record straight on that one: He was neither, as he was a Bergensian.
Actually, Holberg was a very cosmopolitan man who would probably have scorned any attempts to chain him to a country or city in this way. He travelled extensively throughout Europe, visiting libraries wherever he could find them in order to learn more about the thoughts of the time. He probably would have quite enjoyed the Internet.
Ludvig Holberg studied theology and philosophy in Copenhagen and became a professor of both. He never married, and didn't seem to develop close relationships. Instead he sat down and thought, and produced great volumes of brilliant stuff: comedies, essays, poems, and epistles.
Essays and epistles
As a man of letters, one could hardly expect Holberg not to write articles on his subjects and maybe a little more. He did, from early in life until late. He treated everyday occurrences as well as moral philosophy in his short and long works, and also wrote an autobiography, formed as a letter to a friend.
His first major lyrical work was a satirical poem called Peder Paars, parodying Virgil's Aeneid. Despite being published under a pseudonym, the poem earned Holberg a reputation as a funny man. Later he would produce reams of poems, well phrased and funny, sometimes on serious topics such as the rights of women to study.
Holberg was a great fan of Molière, and that shows in his comedies. Their plays are structured in much the same way, built around a central character who is exceeding in some very human trait such as arrogance or avarice, and mocking him sufficiently to teach the rest of us a lesson. In his best plays, Holberg manages to poke fun so efficiently that we laugh, even though we know he's making a fool out of us.
Holberg wrote his 15 first comedies in 1722 and 1723. They were in great demand, as Copenhagen had just gotten its first theater, and the playwright surfed on a wave of inspiration. Later he calmed down a little - this may have something to do with the fact that the country's new king was strictly religious and did not exactly encourage frivolous things such as comedies.
Among the most famous comedies are Erasmus Montanus, about the pomposity of those who think they are learned, and Jeppe paa Bjerget, about a poor alcoholic farmer's transformation into a nobleman, and, adds liveforever, Jean de France about fashion victims.
An author in so many ways ahead of his time would have surprised us if he hadn't produced a piece of science fiction. Niels Klim's Subterranean Journey is a Gulliveresque travel to the middle of the earth, where the protagonist sees various societies. One of them is ruled by trees and is very good, another is ruled by monkeys and is just like ours. As usual, Holberg makes fun of authority. He also takes the remarkable step of giving women equal rights in one of the Utopian countries. The author knew how inflammatory his fable could be, and therefore published it anonymously, written in Latin, in Germany.
Ludvig Holberg died on the 28th of January, 1754. Most telling about his style of writing is that he can still be enjoyed today - the wit is still clearly visible, unhindered by the usual long, intricate 18th-century sentences.
As if his extensive written products were not enough, the author was immortalized in another work of art, the Holberg suite of Edvard Grieg (another Bergensian).