Books and translations



1857Fribytaren på ÖstersjönThe Freebooter of the Baltic
1859Den siste AthenarenThe Last Athenian
1862Bibelns lära om Kristus(Christ According to the Bible)
1865Medeltidens magiThe Magic of the Middle ages
1871Lille Viggs äventyr på julaftonThe Adventures of Little Vigg ...
1874Romerska sägnerRoman Legends
1876Faust (transl. from Goethe)
1877Romerska dagarRoman Days
1882Dikter: första samlingen(Poems: first collection)
1886Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi ITeutonic Mythology
1887Fädernas gudasagaOur Fathers' Godsaga
1889Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi IIInvestigations into Germanic Mythology. II
1891Vapensmeden(The Armourer)
1891Dikter: andra samlingen(Poems: second collection)

(* If there is no English translation, I have given a rough translation of the Swedish title within parentheses)

Fribytaren på Östersjön (1857)
The Freebooter of the Baltic

His first book. A fairly straightforward tale of adventure in the romantic tradition, with some political overtones. Set in 17th century Sweden and featuring piracy, witch-hunts and an abortive coup d'etat. Somewhat plagued by the long-windedness typical of the serialized novel. The nautical scenes are influenced by Trelawny (Adventures of a younger son).



Singoalla (1857-1894)

Rydberg's "favourite child", his most popular book and the only one of his novels that still "survives". Originally published in 1857 in an obscure literary calendar, it was successively rewritten throughout his life, finally achieving widespread recognition in 1894 with the 4th edition, illustrated by Carl Larsson.

Singoalla is a dark and romantic tale, full of symbolism and wide open to psychological interpretations. The scene is a stylized medieval landscape, somewhat like that of the prerafaelites. The hero, the young knight Erland, meets Love in the shape of gypsy girl Singoalla; and at the same time he symbolically faces his own "nature". But their love is not permitted by Society, and his true nature has be repressed - of course vainly. The resulting sins can only be atoned through Death by Plague - or, in later editions, by a life spent as a hermit monk.

Illustration by
Carl Larsson

Original water-
colour by C.L.


Singoalla: the Movie (1949)


Den siste Athenaren (1859)
The Last Athenian

An openly polemic novel, "a javelin thrown against the enemy" - the authoritarian Church of the 19th century - "with the justified intention to wound and kill". The scene is Athens in the times of the last heathen emperor, Julian the Apostate; the theme is the tragic victory of a fanatic, dogmatic and bigoted Christianity over the last remnants of the noble, sensual and harmonic civilization of classical Greece.

The Last Athenian has been regarded as a landmark in the history of the Swedish novel; its intellectual ambitions raised the status of the whole genre. During Rydberg's lifetime it was probably his most widely read book, though it has aged more rapidly than Singoalla. It was also his first to be translated into English, running into three editions in the USA. Foreign readers might discern some influence from Bulwer-Lytton (The last days of Pompey) and Charles Kingsley (Hypatia).



Bibelns lära om Kristus (1862)
("Christ According to the Bible")

Rydberg first achieved fame (and notoriety) not through his novels, but with a theological tract that denied the divineness of Christ, using arguments from the New Testament. It engaged him in a long and bitter fight with the then still mighty Church of Sweden, and made him - more or less willingly - the hero of dissidents longing for a liberal and "rational" Christian creed.

Bibelns lära om Kristus has been called the most important Swedish non-fiction book of its century and has been credited with permanently damaging the authority of the Church among the "educated classes". Its influence also spread to other Scandinavian countries. But it was never translated to another language.

Later Rydberg added appendices that gave a clearer picture of his own theology (which was hardly more "rational" than that of the Church, although this was not generally noticed at the time). He also toned down the vitriolic polemics of the early editions, without changing his basic theses.


Medeltidens magi (1865)
The Magic of the Middle Ages

An inspired piece of popular scholarship and propaganda. Its subject is medieaval magical practices and beliefs; but its target is the contemporary Church that according to Rydberg still lived in the Dark Ages. Its "dualistic" world-view (God and Devil, Heaven and Hell) is seen as the root of all Evil, and the terrors of the witch-hunts as its logical consequences.

Medeltidens magi, written in 1864 and published the following year, can be seen as the apogee of Rydberg's anticlerical campaign. After 1868 he gradually mended his relations with the Church, and the book was not reprinted in Sweden during his lifetime.



Lille Viggs äventyr på julafton (1871)
Little Vigg's Adventures on Christmas Eve

A short christmas tale for children and grown-ups alike. Originally written for a newspaper, later revised several times, printed in many editions and widely translated.

Influenced by Dickens' Christmas tale, by norwegian author Björnstjerne Björnsson (who advocated a "national" literature written in a simple language), and by Rydberg's parliamentary alliance with the Peasant's party. The element of political satire, strong in the early editions, was softened in the last revision (1895). The gift-giving julvätte ("Christmas pixie") was to have a lasting influence on Swedish traditions.

In 1981 a "modernised" edition ("The Christmas Tomten") was launched on the international market, following the success of The Tomten. New illustrations were produced, and the julvätte had to quit smoking.


Finnish Vigg (1895)  

Romerska sägner om apostlarna Petrus och Paulus
Roman Legends about the Apostles Paul and Peter

A collection of pious legends, written in 1874. According to Rydberg they were based on stories he heard in Rome. They were belittled by himself and have been largely ignored by the scholars; but they sold well and were translated into several languages. I think they might be seen as an effort by the author to make peace both with his own childhood faith and with an important section of the public.



Faust (1876)
(translation from German)

Goethe’s famous tragedy was important to Rydberg for several reasons. The translation became his breakthrough at the Swedish cultural scene, paving the way for offical recognition; the decade-long work was his poetical training ground; and the book itself possibly saved his life during the crisis of the 60s.


Romerska dagar (1877)
Roman Days

Another result of Rydberg's journey to Rome was a collection of essays, widely admired for their lucid style and language. Six of them are psychological portraits of the first emperors, from Julius Ceasar to Nero, with fascinated emphasis on the latter. Another two offer new (and deeply personal) interpretations of two famous works of art - Venus de Milo and the San Ildefonso group.

This book has also been published under the title Romerska kejsare i marmor ("Roman Emperors in Marble")



Dikter (1882-1891)

His poetry: limited in volume (two collections in 1882 and 1891, about 60 pieces in all), but often regarded as the summary of his work. Mixes romantic and classicist traditions to a (sometimes) very personal blend. Specialty: archetypal expressions of contemporary intellectual, moral and religious concerns, using powerful mythical images. The two peaks, surely of "world class" level: the dramatic dialogue Prometheus and Ahasverus and the furious anti-capitalist indictment The New song of Grotte. The most highly regarded by his contemporaries: the heroic Dexippos and the idealistic Cantata. The one known by all Swedes: The Tomten.

A good selection of Rydberg's poems can be found in
The North! To the North! : five Swedish poets of the nineteenth century
edited and translated by Judith Moffett. Southern Illinois University Press, 2001.

There is also an older sample - perhaps of less poetical merit - in
Anthology of Swedish lyrics from 1750 to 1925
Transl. in the original meters by Charles W. Stork. New York 1930.


Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi I-II (1886-1889)
Teutonic mythology
(literally: "Investigations into Germanic Mythology")

It started in 1881-2 as an attempt to save the Old Norse Eddaic myths from allegations of Christian and Classical influence. Soon he became absorbed by the idea that they were not only very ancient but also fragments of a vast and coherent mythical epic.

To the dismay of his friends, he spent nearly a decade trying to reconstruct and prove this epic. The results, published 1886 and 1889 in two labyrinthine volumes, were largely dismissed by other scholars as poetical imaginations. My own belief is that the epic can be read as a subconcious myth of his life.

The first part of the investigations was translated into English in 1889 by Rasmus Anderson; the second volume was translated more than 100 years later by Wiliam P. Reaves..


valand link The master-smith Valand and his Sword play a central role in the Germanic epic. This image links to a water-colour by
Swedish poet Karin Boye (1900-1941),
who was fascinated by Rydberg's myth.


Fädernas gudasaga (1887)
Our Fathers' Godsaga

The reconstructed mythical epic "retold for the youth", i e in a literary form. The result is a kind of early fantasy - and quite readable. It is also supplemented by an exhaustive mythological dictionary.

Both the English translation (first published in 2003) and the German one is illustrated by John Bauer, an artist otherwise famous for his Troll paintings.


Drawing by Bauer


Vapensmeden (1891)
("The Armourer")

In 1891 Rydberg, after a long silence, returned to fiction with yet another historical novel ­ though this time without any realistic pretensions. The scene is Sweden during the age of reformation; but the author is no longer a radical Reformer. Instead he preaches tolerance and a mild humanism; he emphasizes the importance of the historical heritage; and he defends the (literally) vital role of art, in opposition to all demands for political usefulness.

Vapensmeden is written by an old man trying to come to terms with his life. There is more poetry than action; there is sorrow but also reconciliation.



Varia (1894)

A collection of essays, forewords, speeches and short stories, which together give a fair (though "official") picture of Rydberg's position on philosophical, ethical and literary/artistic questions towards the end of his life.

To the first page

18 jan 2009