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Henrik Ibsen’s inspirational journey through Norway

Ibsen travelled through Norway to collect myths and folktales in 1862, and the Gudbrandsdalen valley inspired him to write "Peer Gynt".

Ibsen’s journey through Norway and the Gudbrandsdalen valley was the inspirational source for several of his most famous pieces. Based on literature studies from Henrik Ibsen himself, the notes he made and the articles he wrote, as well as literature written by the people he met on his way, you will be able tofollow Ibsen’s inspirational journey day by day. 

You can follow Ibsen’s footprints and travel this route with your own vehicle or public transport.

Have a closer look at Ibsen’s route from Google Maps.

A need for inspiration

When Ibsen travelled through Gudbrandsdalen the summer of 1862, he wasn’t a proud and confident man. He was desperate. Everything the 34-year-old writer had published had been slaughtered. He got in to economical trouble as theatre director, and got unemployed when the theatre was declared bankrupt.

Ibsen’s private economy was so bad that he had difficulties taking care of himself, his wife, and their two-year-old son. The fact that he had also started drinking and that his health had been poor ever since his suicide attempts the year before, did not make things better. He was haunted by lawsuits due to many small loans for things such as clothes, shoes and rent. He was heading for personal bankruptcy.

During spring in 1862, Ibsen was exhausted and unemployed. In sheer panic he applied for a scholarship to collect myths and folktales from people in the valleys, as many other authors did at this time. The 14 March, he sent the application to the University, asking for 120 speciedaler (old Norwegian currency) for a two months travel. He was granted 110 speciedaler. He planned his trip through Gudbrandsdalen, over Sognefjell to Lysterfjorden in Sogn, over Lærdal to Sunnfjord and Nordfjord, and to Vestnes in Møre og Romsdal. 

24 June 1862, the journey begins

Ibsen departed from Christiania (the city changed its name to Oslo in 1925). He travelled by train to Eidsvoll, and then with a paddle steamer, “The Queen”, to Lillehammer.

Whether or not Ibsen was the right man for this task could be debated. According to myths, the people with social and narrative skills died during the Black Death – and Ibsen was no charmer himself; poor, nervous, introverted, drunk and unpleasant.

Ibsen checked in at Fredrik’s Hotell in Lillehammer at 10:00 pm. The host was stubborn, but the wife was sympathetic, and food and housing was impeccable. He enjoyed staying here, and did not leave until late midday the day after. 

25 June

Ibsen starts walking at 10:30 am. He meets a farmer from Lom that told him that he had been put in jail on water and bread for illegal coal burning. Ibsen continues walking north, and arrives at the old station Moshus below the Øyer church at 2:00 pm. Bad service, no wife at the farm, but the food was good. He goes fishing in Lågen (the river running through the Gudbrandsdalen valley).

26 June

Ibsen was very pleased to meet his friend Andreas Isachsen at Moshus. He was an outgoing and social actor from The Norwegian Theatre in Bergen and Christiania Norwegian Theatre. They travelled north together, and took a diligence to Holmen. They went fishing, and met the famous telegraph director Carsten Tank Niielsen and his son Yngve.

Yngve later became a history professor and wrote about this meeting in the yearbook for the Tourist Association in 1906. Ibsen noted that they ate together at Holmen station: “spekemat” (Norwegian cured meats), eggs, coffee and salted butter.

Isachsen told Yngve Nielsen many years later:

"You and your father walked around in knee lengths pants, something probably no other traveller did at that time. But this interested Ibsen. He thought a lot about this practical improvement in travelling clothes, and when we came to Vågå, Ibsen decided to adapt the idea. His own, long pants were so worn that he felt it was right to cut of the bottom part of his pants and make them knickers."

A farmer rowed them over Losna river. He told them a tale about a sea monster that Ibsen already knew from Andreas Faye’s “Norwegian Folktales” (1844), and therefor didn’t write this story down.

27 June

Ibsen and Isachsen travelled two mil (Scandinavian length measure). They travelled by diligence to Elstad, near by the Ringebu stave church. The host was kind, the food was good, with shower and possibilities for fishing.

28 June

Late departure, and a long and tiring walk to Listad in Fron, where there was expensive accommodation.

29 June – 1 July

Ibsen and Isachsen travelled 50 kilometres, past Hundorp, Sødorp, and Kvam. They took a diligence the last bit up to Loftsgård station in Otta, and then a cariole ride up to Åsåren. They were served Sunday dinner when they arrived.“Wonderful people at the farm” was noted from Ibsen. They stayed here for three days.

Word of mouth says that Ibsen walked impatient around on the farm, as the weather was bad. He tried to reach the mountains of Sel, but had to return.

2 July

Ibsen travels by cariole to Vågå. At Lalm he separated from his travelling friend Isachsen. Ibsen followed the Vågå Lake in rainy weather, until he reached the station Sve. He was grumpy after his friend had left him. He was rowed over the water from Vågåmo, from Sve to Garmo, where he got the time to study one of our countries oldest stave churches (this church was later moved to the historical museum Maihaugen in Lillehammer).

Ibsen was told that Ole Kløvstugu had experienced something paranormal in the mountains, but Ibsen had heard most of these stories before. He did however take some notes of stories that other people told: 

"There is also a man there, called Erik; he was looking for a horse in the mountains one time; when suddenly, the mountain opened like a gate, and it was so wonderful; like the mountain called for him and wanted to pull him in; but he walked as fast as he could, and when he finally dared to look around again, the mountain was closed, and there was nothing to see."

The stories have no great value in Norwegian folk culture, but some of them can remind us about hulder, troll and other devilish creatures that threaten in the mountains, like the ones Peer Gynt meets when he travels around after he ran off with the bride from Hægstad.

Ibsen continued to travel by foot the last 1,5 mil to Lom.

3 July

Ibsen is now in Lom. He visited the Rectory in the evening, where he was with preacher Julius Aars, and his daughter Elise. Ibsen was withdrawn, moody and quiet. The daughter at the farm tried to talk with him, and told him among other things about the greedy and cold hearted Mari Graffer, which became the description of one of Ibsen’s characters in "Brand".

From Ibsen’s diary "Lomsdøler – Markedet" (People from Lom - the market),it’s believed that Ibsen experienced the Gudbrandsdalen valley way of living, with fiddle music, dance and moonshine (homemade liquor), as it was market times when he was there. He used this characterized way of living several places in the story about Peer Gynt.

At the Rectory, he met the catholic preacher Chrostopher Holfeldt-Houen from Bergen, and the 23 year old lawyer Ludvig Mariboe Benjamin Aubert, engaged to Elise Aars. Ibsen now changes his travel plans and joins them. Elise Aubert writes about this visit in “Fra de gamle presegaarde” (From the old Rectories) in 1902.

4 July

Ibsen travels up Bøverdalen to Røysheim, an old and traditional station where they rented horses. A little further up the valley they leave the main road, and continue north of Geithø following Dalsvatnet and heading to Presteseter. They arrive around 10:00 pm.

5 July

They started to travel at 4:00 am, through Breiseterdalen, with rough terrain going uphill to Sognefjellet, two mil over tall mountains, and a steep descent towards Lustrafjorden (Ibsen tells about this dramatic descent to his publisher William Archer in 1898). On the plateau the weather turns bad (there is a short description of this in his diary). At 8:00 pm they arrived in Skjolden, after 16 hours of travelling.

11 days had gone since he started his journey from Christiania. Finally at Vestlandet (the western coast of Norway).

6 July

Ibsen travelled by steamboat to Lærdal. He had in fact travelled between Bergen and Christiania many times, and he had therefor been in Lærdal several times before. The boat stayed in Lærdal until midnight before it continued to Aurland. Ibsen and his travelling company spent their time relaxing at a hotel.

7 July

Once again Ibsen travelled by steamboat, and arrived at Vadheim in Sunnfjord at 3:00 pm. From there, he travelled alone to Sande where he spent the night.

8 July

Ibsen walked from Sande to Vassenden, where the river runs out in to Jølstravatnet. He then walked to Breimsvatnet.

9 July

Ibsen was probably rowed by boat over to the small town Re, where he spent the night. He enjoyed staying in Re, and in his article to “Illustrert Nyhetsblad” (Illustrated News magazine) he wrote:

"In the area around the upper part of Breimsvatnet there is one of our country’s rare views, where the mountain nature in its wildest winter costume close up the land. Here you can, just as in Ullensvangstranden in Hardanger, walk underneath blooming fruit trees and see mighty icebergs shining through the leaves.

It is “Nordfjordsbreen” (The Nordfjord glacier), a part of Jostedalsbreen, that shoots down the hills. Breheimsvatnet, with its surroundings less visited by tourists then it deserves, begins a good half mile further up Jølstervatnet; but this little road has a part to show, that in greatness and perfectness can be compared to Romsdalen or the strange point in Bøverdalen, where all roads are closed off by the mountains. The road here is really not anything but a crack between steep, monstrous, torn mountain walls filled with broken peaks and rocks, so big that one could make a whole Cathedral of them. The same wild character does the Breheimsvatn hold on the first mile up, but from there it widens out to flat fields.

From Reed the postal way goes over a mountain approximately 2000 foot in the air. The climb can be tiring enough, but the decent on the other side is in any case worse. However one would not want to regret the walk, and when you first get there, you will see down there, in Utvik, at the towns merchant, Mr Hammer, an educated and likable man, that could satisfy every challenge, that the traveller in our country with a few coins can afford."

10 July

Ibsen continued over the mountain, and reached Utvik in Innvikfjorden. From here, he travelled over the fjord to Faleide in Nordfjord. He then walked to Hornindalsvatn, and through Hornindalen to Hellesylt, where he stayed for several days.

11–12 July

It’s documented that Ibsen first stayed at merchant A. H. Jessen in Hellesylt, and that he stayed in the town for several days. He got to know these small places before they became a popular destination, and this shines through in the way he writes to the Illustrated news magazine. He wrote like a professional tourism manager would do today.

13–15 July

Ibsen was not a believer and did not go to church. It is however believed that Ibsen visited the church in Hellesylt during his stay. One of the local people, Ole Barmann wrote in his book:

One day L. Ringdal, a good friend, came to speak with the Preacher alone.
“What news do you have, Ringdal” I had to ask.
“Well,” he said, “there is a strange man that has arrived in Hellesylt. He calls himself Henrik Ibsen and says he is a student.”
I had to answer him that there was nothing to do with this.
“No, that’s true,” Ringdal agreed, “but he is a strange man.”
“What is it, that is so strange about him?” I asked.
“Well, he questions people about all sorts of things, and what they answer, he writes down,” was Ringdal’s answer.
“Oh, well there are many that do that, I mean, the man probably enjoys it.”
“Yea, well, but there is something about him that is worse then that” said Ringdal, “he is a free thinker.”
“But that’s not our problem,” I commented.
“No,” Ringdal answered, “but my errand was, the man wants to meet the Preacher, and the Preacher would have to be careful with what he says, so that there would not be arguments in the meeting.”
I promised so, and asked Ringdal to follow the man and be witness to the conversation. Ringdal was however not satisfied.
“But what if, the man were to visit the church on Sunday, the Preacher would have to be careful, with what he said, he can not trust such a writer.”
“Ringdal” I said, “do you not think that it is best to do so, that all free thinkers that possibly would come to church, would get the impression that tere is a Christian ceremony.”
Some days after, Ringdal came with Ibsen, and they were both very nice. Ibsen talked to the Preachers wife about avalanches and rockslides. We parted friendly, but Ringdal meant that the worst was yet to come.

However, Ibsen did not write about these people and their church, but he did criticize another church in his letters.

From 16 July

Ibsen took the steamboat from Hellesylt through Geiranger, and Ibsen got to see the famous waterfall “De syv søstre” (The seven sisters). He continued to Sjøholt where he visited a friend.

He stayed here for a few days, but did not write anything in his notes at this time. He did however travel to a farm near by to visit a man with a talent for telling tales. Ibsen collected many folk tales and myths before he continued his travel.

We do not know for sure which way Ibsen walked from Sjøholt. There is evidence that he travelled to Vestnes, but from here there are no notes from Ibsen himself. He could have travelled through Romsdalen, past the Trollveggen wall and over to Dovre, or maybe back through Geiranger and over to Lom and Otta. He might also have travelled to Åndalsnes and taken a boat back to Christiania – but according to local people in Gudbrandsdalen, Ibsen stayed for some time in the town of Vinstra on his way back.

According to local historians in the Gudbrandsdalen valley, Ibsen was a guest at Lunde, and also visited Hågå on his return travel, where he heard more about the deer hunter Per Gynt. Some historians also claim that Ibsen stayed in Sødorp, close to Vinstra, on his return. We therefore know that Ibsen stayed in the valley for some time, and got the inspiration to write the dramatic poem of "Peer Gynt" from a living folktale. 

12 August, the return of an inspired author

Documents confirm that Ibsen was back in Christiania at this time.

Ibsen had promised the senate that he would publish a book with between 70 and 80 different folktales from his journey through Norway. He even got a generous advance payment, but the book was never printed. The only thing that was published was four stories and some sketches. One of the stories he meticulously wrote down was about how people believe in creatures that live inside the mountains – like the story about the King of the Mountain hall in "Peer Gynt".

There is no doubt that this journey, with all its visions, experiences and stories, gave Ibsen many impulses and stimulation for his breakthrough with "Brand" and "Peer Gynt". It is also interesting to see that many of his descriptions of nature and the scenery in these plays are identical to passages in his travelogues, though some pedants have complained that certain depictions cannot be right.

After his return, Ibsen’s problems kept piling up. He applied for a scholarship to travel in Europe and get more inspiration, which he was given, and he immediately left the country and escaped his creditors. Shortly after he had left, all his possessions were sold at an enforced auction. His largest creditor managed to recover about one third of the debt, but all the stories and folktales Ibsen had collected on his journey were lost in the process.

However, it was during his stay in Italy that he wrote "Brand" and the beginning of "Peer Gynt", so Ibsen’s flee out of Norway might not have been the worst thing after all.