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Narrative literature (historical) : Slovenian

  • Literature (fictional prose/drama)Slovenian
  • Cultural Field:
    Texts and stories
  • Author:
    Hladnik, Miran
  • Text:

    Slovene historical narrative started with the 500-line epic poem Krst pri Savici (“The baptism by the Savica”) by France Prešeren in 1836, dealing with the defeat of pagan Slovenes by Christians in the Bohinj valley in 772. The only survivor, the leader Črtomir, finds that his betrothed Bogomila has been baptized and has entered a convent to fulfill a pledge to the Virgin Mary (in requital for Črtomir’s survival). This prompts Črtomir to receive baptism at the Savica waterfall to become a Christian priest. The story thus allegorizes a national dilemma on how to negotiate the nation’s separate identity in a changing world imposing new historical developments.

    In 1843, Jožef Žemlja’s Sedem sinov (“Seven sons”) was published, printed in the newly-introduced Illyrian alphabet with Czech-derived haček diacriticals, signalling an alignment of Slovene national epic into the Illyrian and Pan-Slavic movement. Later on, Anton Aškerc persistently used historical topics in his epic poems: Primož Trubar: Zgodovinska pesnitev (“Primož Trubar: Historical epic”, 1905); Mučeniki: Slike iz naše protireformacije (“The martyrs: Images from our Counter-Reformation”, 1906).

    The historical tragedies by Friedrich Schiller were being translated from 1848 on, triggering original history-dramas by Josip Jurčič (Tugomer: Historična tragedija iz dobe bojev polabskih Slovenov s Franki, “Tugomer: Historical tragedy from the era of battles between the Polabian Slavs and the Franks”, 1876; Veronika Deseniška, “Veronika from Desenice”, 1886, on a theme which was to remain popular in the 20th century) and Anton Medved (Viljem Ostrovrhar, 1894; Kacijanar, 1895; Za pravdo in srce, “For justice and heart”, 1896). The first Slovenian musical drama (spevoigra), Miroslav Vilhar’s Jamska Ivanka (“Ivanka from the cave”, 1850), was on a historical topic, as were the first Slovene operas: Teharski plemiči (“The nobles from Teharje”) by Anton Funtek and Benjamin Ipavec, 1890; Urh, grof celjski (“Ulrich, Duke of Celje”) by Funtek and Viktor Parma, 1895.

    The most influential form of historical literature was the historical tale or novel. Starting with Franc Malavašič’s Erazem iz jame (“Erasmus from the cave”, 1845) and Valentin Mandelc’s Jela (1859), 83 narratives (of more than 10,000 words by 39 authors; among whom one woman) were published before 1914, predominantly in periodicals, with a peak in the years 1905-10. Throughout the 19th century the subtitle zgodovinska povest (“historical tale”) predominated as historical narrative continued to flourish; in the 20th century the standard labelling became zgodovinski roman (“historical novel”).

    Several Walter-Scott-like historical novels were composed by the “Slovene Scott”, Josip Jurčič, beginning in 1864 with Jurij Kozjak, slovenski janičar. (“George Koziak, a Slovenian janissary”). He is also the author of the first explicitly Slovene-themed historical novel, Ivan Erazem Tatenbah: Izviren historičen roman (“Ivan Erazem Tatenbah: A genuine historical novel”, 1873). The prerequisite (inherent in the Scott formula) to give stories local colour resulted in an easily identifiable domestic geographical location.

    As regards period settings, the most widespread and prominent ones are:

    • Classical Antiquity (Alojzij Carli [ps. Lukovič], Zadnji dnevi v Ogleju, “The last days in Pompeii”, 1876);
    • the Slavic settlement and Christianization (Jurčič, Slovenski svetec in učitelj, “The Slovene saint and teacher”, 1886; Matija Prelesnik, Naš stari greh, “Our old sin”, 1903; Fran S. Finžgar, Pod svobodnim soncem, “Under the free sun”, 1906);
    • the feudal-chivalric period (Miroslav Malovrh’s opus), the dukedom of Celje (Fran Detela, Véliki grof, “The great duke”, 1885; Pegam in Lambergar, “Pegam and Lamberger”, 1891);
    • the Ottoman threat (Jakob Sket, Miklova Zala, 1884; Rado Murnik, Hči grofa Blagaja, “Count Blagay’s daughters”, 1911-13);
    • post-Reformation religious battles between Catholics and Protestants (Anton Koder, Luteranci, “The Lutherans”, 1883);
    • peasant uprisings (Koder, Kmetski triumvirat, “The peasant triumvirate”, 1884; Ivan Lah, Uporniki, “The rebels”, 1906);
    • the Napoleonic period of the Illyrian Provinces (Lea Fatur, Komisarjeva hči, “The commissioner’s daughter”, 1910; Lah, Brambovci, “Home guard”, 1911).

    Other identifiable themes are local history (especially tales about Ljubljana, e.g. Ivan Tavčar, Janez Sonce, 1885); secret societies (Malovrh, Osvetnik, “The avengers”, 1906); witches (Emil Vodeb, Libera nos a malo, 1911); outlaws/banditry (Jurčič, Rokovnjači, “The bandits”, 1884; Malovrh, Strahovalci dveh kron, “The terrorists of two crowns”, 1907; Fatur, Za Adrijo!, “For the Adriatic!”, 1909), and the biographical novel (Jakob Bedenek, Od pluga do krone, “From the plough to the crown”, 1891, about the mathematician Jurij Vega). The most prolific writers were Jurčič, Malovrh, Lah, and Fatur. Finžgar and Tavčar gained canonical status, alongside Jurčič.

    Most historical narratives revolved around a hero-figure of marked Slovenian nationality. The archetypal hero is perhaps Martin Krpan from the novel (1858) by Fran Levstik, a smuggler who helps the Austrian emperor to get rid of a dangerous enemy and is rewarded with the licence for a transport business, thus rising from the peasantry to middle-class respectability. Ferdo Kočevar’s Mlinarjev Janez (1859) does even better, rising from the peasantry to nobility.

    The genre was relatively more popular with writers from Styria than from Carniola, who preferred rural topics; women writers formed 12% of the total, which is a significantly higher proportion for this genre than for that of the rural story. Direct speech takes up half of the text, historical facts (persons or dates) are sometimes mentioned in passing (as in Jurčič’s Lepa Vida, “Vida the beautiful”, 1877), sometimes elaborated to a length of one third of the total text (as in his Ivan Erazem Tatenbah).

    Historical fiction juxtaposed Slovenian characters with non-Slovenian ones in relation to other nations, offering modes of interaction ranging from combat to deliberately ignoring the Other (this was promoted by the popular Catholic publishing house Mohorjeva), from adaptation (as in Krst pri Savici) to assimilation.

    Urban readers were often bilingually conversant with Slovenian and German, and also read novels from abroad, in the original or in translation. Slavic writers found favour until 1919: Michał Czajkowski and Henryk Sienkiewicz among the Poles; Prokop Chocholoušek, Alois Jirásek and Václav Beneš-Třebízský among the Czechs; Gogol’, Tolstoj, Puškin and Merežkovskij among the Russians. Croatian books were read in the original version and were not translated until the end of the 19th century: August Šenoa, Velemir Deželić, Evgen Tomić. Translated writers include Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Rienzi and The last days of Pompeii), Michel Zévaco, Benjamin Disraeli and Alexandre Dumas. Very few Slovene historical tales were translated into other languages: Jurčič’s Jurij Kozjak and Ivan Erazem Tattenbach, and Finžgar’s Pod svobodnim soncem.

    The writers of Slovene historical fiction were eager to show their historical erudition and went for assiduous source-documentation. Their most often-used sources were Johann Weikhard von Valvasor’s Die Ehre des Herzogthums Crain (1689), August Dimitz’s Geschichte Krains von der ältesten Zeit bis auf das Jahr 1813 (1874-76) and Ivan Vrhovnik.

    Word Count: 1089

  • Article version:
  • DOI:
  • Hladnik, Miran (2009). Slovenski zgodovinski roman (Ljubljana: Univerza v Ljubljani. Filozofska fakulteta) [The Slovene historical novel]

    Hladnik, Miran. “Database of the Slovenian historical novel”, Slovenski zgodovinski roman: Podatkovna zbirka, http://slovlit.ff.uni-lj.si/slovjez/mh/zgrom/ (30 Apr 2013)

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Hladnik, Miran, 2020. "Narrative literature (historical) : Slovenian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 16-07-2020, consulted 26-01-2022.