Ingeborg Refling Hagen

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Ingeborg Refling Hagen (19 December 1895 – 30 November 1989) was a Norwegian author and teacher.

Early life

Ingeborg Refling Hagen was born in Hedmark, Norway, in the parish Tangen besides Mjøsa, as the fourth child of the local miller. Her childhood was enriched by strong folk tradition and story-telling, and also a strong religious consciousness, mostly derived from her mother, who taught in the spirit of Hans Nielsen Hauge.

Ingeborg as the roots and rock of culture, drawing by Oddmund Mikkelsen, 1985

Her father died early, and the family had to work hard for self-support. Ingeborg herself and her younger sisters were forced into child labour and hard work. This incident forced her to quit elementary school, and apart from a year at a public high school, seven years of children's school were her sole official education.

From 1911, she worked as a nurse for the Kielland family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and during this time, she studied Shakespeare in her leisure-time. Later in life, she stated that she also learned to understand the emigrant's plight. From Newcastle she brought with her a vivid memory of the "dock-rats", English orphans on the Newcastle quay. Later, in her writings, she interpreted these children as a preview[citation needed] to the rise of fascism. The dock-rats haunted her for years, and she described them later as a nightmarish vision of Hell. Another curious remembrance of her Newcastle years is a strong geordie accent she developed in socializing with other members of the local lower class (whenever she spoke English in later years). This trait is said to have amused her brother who lived in Boston when she visited him there in 1947.

The experiences the hard work gave her made way for strong socialist sympathies later in her life. She supported the Norwegian Labour Party for most of her life, but was mostly considered a left-winger. She opposed the official political statements done by the party in later years, as well as protesting the official school policy. But in whole, she applauded the idea of the welfare state, and even wrote a poem about it. In spite her criticism, she remained on friendly terms with Einar Gerhardsen throughout her life.

Writing career and activism

She published her first books in the 1920s, and was soon regarded as a great talent. Her novels at the early stage were dark and expressionistic, based on her native environment, Hedmark. She was the first to make use of the local dialects from this part of Norway, thus inspiring Alf Prøysen.

She made a lyrical breakthrough in 1933, with a book of Immigrant poems, describing the immigrant's longing for home. This book became her greatest success.

During this time, Hagen supported the republicans in the Spanish civil war, and began to warn against the rise of fascism, along with authors like Nordahl Grieg and Arnulf Øverland. Earlier on, she had made a journey to Italy, and experienced a fascist rally, and a public speech given by Benito Mussolini. When she later used this experience in a novel, she was accused of exaggerations, as the Norwegian right-wing press at the time did not understand the actual danger.

Her political attitude led to active resistance during World War II, and she was arrested for opposing the Nazi regime late in 1942. She managed to get out of imprisonment by playing mad, and was released in 1944, living in isolation for the rest of the war - none other than her most trusted friends and family knew at the time that she in fact was quite sane. When the Germans turned their backs towards her, she revealed that her sick-bed was stuffed with books, and she taught her nurses while they tended her. After some months, the nurses showed remarkable insight in classical literature, and they became her devoted friends for the rest of her life.

In 1946 Hagen took part in the conference held by Eleanor Roosevelt, "The world we live in , the world we want", assembling women from all over the world, many of whom had participated in the war resistance.

From 1945 and on, Hagen gradually built her own "post-war resistance", trying to find a way to hinder fascism from rising again in Norway. This had begun while she was at hospital, and became the root of her cultural work for children, called "Suttung", rather a pedagogical principle than a movement. She gradually gathered teenagers and students around her, and read with them, and those that she taught, passed the knowledge on. They read the classics, poets like Henrik Wergeland, Ibsen, Hans E. Kinck, Dante, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Dostoyevsky and others. Further on, she studied William Shakespeare, the Greek playwrights and Homer, and folk-tales from all over the world.

The movement grew, and established in time a theatre for presentations of plays written by Henrik Wergeland and Hans E. Kinck among others. The theatre proved that Wergeland was in fact playable, and even an exciting and profound playwright.

Hagen tried to give Norwegians a better understanding of Henrik Wergeland, and therefore she established her known "flower feast" on his birthday - a celebration that is still held alive. The value of her work has been important to a number of Norwegian cultural personalities, and even for the younger members of the royal family.

Ingeborg Refling Hagen continued to write poems until she was almost 90 years, and her dark and dramatic side mellowed into a mild summer evening in her late production. She died in her bed in 1989, in fact in the very chamber in which she was born.

Personal life

Hagen never married. She stated herself that she in a way was "called" to a duty, and would not risk the life of a man in her task. She meant she would be better off alone. Her second collection of poems, Jeg har møtt en engel (I have met an angel), hints on some strong erotic longing, and as the story goes, she was attracted to one man. "But", she said late in life, "one man in my life is enough for me". The man in question died from her, and left her heavy with grief. This can also be spotted in one of her early novels, Brudgommen (The Bridegroom), later made to a great choral work by her brother-in-law, Eivind Groven.


Ingeborg Refling Hagen was in many ways a self-taught philosopher, who based her way of thinking on[citation needed] romanticism, Plato and the church fathers. This was strangely blended with a vast knowledge of world literature. She was in a way connected[citation needed] to Carl Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious when she fitted together different pieces of literature into a whole. This notion is most clearly perceived in her analysis of the entity she often called The Old One, similar to Jung's archetype "the old man" or philemon. Hagen recognized the figure in several fairy-tales. In this respect, she unknowingly takes a Mythopoetic point of view.

In her autobiographical works, her fictional "self" learns how to listen to her own "old one", and gaining wisdom from it. She called it "a grey and wide eye inside her mind". In a wider sense, this way of thinking is connected to her respect for old oral traditions handed down. In many of her books, one finds an old storyteller, giving advice, pointing out the way, or setting the plot. This also occurs in her poems.

From childhood she had been somewhat of a visionary, and in her autobiographical works she describes her visions in many places, often prompted by hard pondering on philosophical problems occurring in literature. She developed a clear feminist statement based on an interpretation of the Bible, especially Mother Mary and Eve, whom she often compared as female archetypes. She was, however, known to think of males as weaker in many ways than her own gender, and discussed many times the relationship between man and woman, and the way they treated children. She would often criticize certain types of self-righteous women. Much of her thinking in this respect derived from the fact that she herself had experienced what a defenseless child could suffer under the hands of a mighty farmer's wife. She believed that women often would discriminate pauper's children on behalf of those they themselves had given birth to. She often cited the Norwegian phrase: "One's own children, other people's brats", to explain an attitude she opposed.

Ingeborg Refling Hagen's basic philosophy and thinking is a strange blend of old Christian ideas and socialist thinking. The vision of collecting all myths and stories in one universal system of thoughts was in a way her lifelong project, as she put it: "making an archive for those that are to follow, so that they can work further". This way of thinking may be characteristic for her generation - the thought of a common ground for stories prompted her English contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien in his epic project of a mythology for England.

Hagen's philosophical outlook can most easily be spotted in her 1972 poem Guds Tuntre (The Courtyard Tree of God). Here, she describes the Norse World Tree Yggdrasil as planted by God, and takes comfort in the mythic explanation when she gets "dizzy from hurrying thoughts". She finds a quiet point, Tangen, and decides to work from there. Here, she finds friends and family, but acknowledges that "life comes from the same root". Yggdrasil is in fact the revolving earth, and all the world, all humanity, are inside its branches.

Then, war comes, and the father in the poem enlists to defend the country. His farewell-song contains the statement that a conquering power never will win over a small country, mostly because the country always will live in the stories and the songs. The poem is patriotic, and universal at the same time. The father advises his children to

"...learn all the stories, all the songs, all the inherited wisdom from the generations before. Own the language, and you will prevail. Through the stories, you will find your way to the roots of the old tree, which is rooted in the old days, and spreads its branches all over the world. The people with a memory will live."


Ingeborg Refling Hagen is buried at the cemetery at Tangen, Hedmark, alongside her sister, Hilda Johanne Hagen, who also died unmarried. Eivind Groven, who was married to her youngest sister, lies in a grave close by with his wife.


Preceded by
Hans Jonas Henriksen
Recipient of the Norsk kulturråds ærespris
Succeeded by
Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa