Karl Adolph Gjellerup (YEHL-uhr-oop), cowinner of the 1917 Nobel Prize in Literature, was an influential writer and thinker at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. He was born in the vicarage where his father was pastor. After his father’s death, when Karl was only a toddler, he went to live with another male relative, also a pastor. Gjellerup grew up assuming he, too, would become a minister. During his years at the University of Copenhagen, however, he was influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin and the critic Georg Brandes, and he came to question seriously his religious faith. He also discovered at this time a talent and a passion for writing and a fascination with languages, including Greek, Norse, English, and German. His first writings, published under the pseudonym Epigonos, included the novel En Idealist (an idealist) and the treatise on evolution Arvelighed og moral (heredity and morals), and presented a radical and controversial atheistic worldview.
In 1883 Gjellerup took his first extended trip through Europe, studying painting in Rome and meeting other intellectuals in several countries. His writing took a marked turn after this trip. Rather than presenting theological arguments, he devoted his energies to historical and classical themes and to lyric poetry and drama. His tragedy Brynhild is the greatest work of this period, and in acknowledgment of it he was awarded a state pension for life. It was not a large sum, but it enabled him to write without worrying about income and also enabled him to marry his longtime friend Eugenia Anna Caroline Heusinger in 1887. Over the next five years, he continued to travel through Europe and produced more tragedies, a collection of poetry, translations of stories and poems from the Edda and the Norse Sagas, criticism of art and music, and the novel Minna, one of two works for which he became known in the English-speaking world.
In 1892 Gjellerup moved to Dresden, Germany, where he made his home (when he was not traveling) for the rest of his life. Although he wrote criticism of German art and music for his Danish readers, many of his literary works from this last period were written in German. He felt that Germany was his true spiritual and intellectual home, and he became much more popular in Germany than in Denmark. In the early twentieth century, he became interested in India and in Buddhist thought. After years of struggling with and against his own religious tradition and contemporary philosophical ideas, Gjellerup was drawn to the Buddhist concept of the individual personality being subsumed in Nirvana. His novel The Pilgrim Kamanita was one of the first popular accounts of the Buddhist worldview available in the West.
When Gjellerup won the Nobel Prize in 1917 (shared with another Dane, Henrik Pontoppidan), the award was met with only slight interest in Denmark, whose people had long since begun to think of Gjellerup as a German. During his lifetime he produced important works of fiction, poetry, theology, drama, and translation, but his reputation diminished rapidly after his death. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, none of his works was available in English.
Bredsdorff, Elias, Brita Mortensen, and Ronald Popperwell. “Danish Literature 1870-1950.” In An Introduction to Scandinavian Literature: From the Earliest Time to Our Day. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1952. Gjellerup is given a very brief mention in this comprehensive volume, which does provide illuminating contextual information about, for example, Georg Brandes, who influenced Gjellerup, and Johannes Jørgensen, whom Gjellerup influenced.
Marble, Annie Russell. “A Group of Winners: Novelists and Poets.” In The Nobel Prize Winners in Literature, 1901-1931. Rev. ed. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1932. A brief analysis of Gjellerup’s work and reception, focusing on The Pilgrim Kamanita and Minna, the two works translated into English for which Gjellerup is chiefly known in the United States.
Zberae, Nicolae. “K. Gjellerup: A Master of Expression of Indian Thought.” Indo-Asian Culture 19, no. 1 (1970): 30-33. An appreciation of Gjellerup’s works, primarily The Pilgrim Kamanita, which present the teachings of Buddhism in a positive light. Zberae finds that Gjellerup was an important early figure in revealing Indian thought to Western readers.