The novel Synnøve Solbakken was first published in 1857, and marks a turning point with its objective and compressed style inspired by fairytales and sagas, but also by the Romsdal dialect, according to Bjørnson himself. This novel was the first in Bjørnson’s series of peasant tales. This series comprises eight novels and short stories, and many regard these tales as central to his authorship. The peasant tales also made him famous abroad. Many of the songs Bjørnson wrote can be found in his peasant tales, and several of the poems were printed in newspapers and magazines as soon as they were written. Others became part of tales and plays, before the best were collected and published in Digte og Sange (Poems and Songs). First published in 1870, Digte og Sange was later expanded and reprinted in new issues. Composers Rikard Nordraak and Halfdan Kierulf composed melodies for his poems, which went on to become the top hits of their time. Bjørnson’s songs remain immensely popular, even today.
Many regard Bjørnson’s drama trilogy Sigurd Slembe from 1862 to be one of the highlights of Norwegian national historical drama. The plays tell the story of Sigurd, and how his calling and rightful claim to the throne leads him into self-destructive battle, ending in his grisly death. Throughout his career, Bjørnson continued to address a wide range of controversial topics. First, he tackled the media and big finance, with the two plays The Editor and The Bankrupt in 1875. In 1877, he published The King, wherein he criticised the monarchy, and in the novel Magnhild published that same year he defends women’s rights to divorce their husbands. In the 1880s, he addressed religion and sexuality in the plays Beyond Our Power, The Heritage of the Kurts, and In God’s Way. In the 1890s, he addressed the class issue, in Beyond Human Might. This play portrays a labour conflict from the perspective of both the workers and the business owners.
In Beyond Our Power and Beyond Human Might, as well as in other plays, Bjørnson described how individuals with good intentions are blinded in a way that makes them dangerous.
Bjørnson was a pioneer of Norwegian drama, spearheading historical as well as contemporary domestic dramas, but none of Bjørnson’s approx. 20 dramas are still on the regular repertoire of theatres.