When Bjørnson accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm in December 1903, he was 71 years old, and perhaps the most famous Norwegian ever – both in Norway and abroad.
In its statement of 14 September 1903, the Nobel Committee wrote that it had discussed giving the award to Ibsen and Bjørnson jointly. Both authors, however, could be said to be too prominent to share the award, and the Committee had learned that Ibsen “is a man of ill health, whose flame of life is dwindling”, whereas Bjørnson, despite his respectable age, was still in full vigour.
The Committee statement emphasises that Bjørnson “is a great epic and dramatic bard; yet he might shine even brighter as a lyricist”. He is “in the vanguard of contemporary folk life narrators”. In his writing, Bjørnson has “dedicated himself to the service of pure and enlightened ideas”, and he “unifies ethical and poetic health”. He has created key works that are “ideal in nature”, as required by the will of Alfred Nobel.
The Committee concluded that Bjørnson, according to some newspaper notices, expressed a wish for Ibsen to be awarded the prize in its entirety – if there were plans to award it to the two authors jointly. Bjørnson had responded to allegations that his renewed political attitude towards Sweden was motivated by the idea that he could some day be awarded the Nobel Prize. The Committee did not wish to take such rumours into consideration, for several reasons. If Bjørnson were to decline the prize, the Committee had decided to give it to the French poet Mistral, who, in fact, was awarded the prize in 1904.
On Thursday 10 December 1903, the clouds lay heavy over Stockholm, but the city looked its best, with flags hanging from every public and private building. The award ceremony itself took place in the Great Hall at the Swedish Academy, which was festooned with garlands and laurel wreaths. The hall was full to bursting, and members of both the Swedish government and the Norwegian cabinet in Stockholm were present. The royal delegation arrived at seven thirty: The King and Princess Ingeborg, the Crown Prince with Princess Therese, and finally, Princes Carl and Eugen.
Only three of the Nobel Prize winners travelled to Stockholm to receive the award in person that year: Becquerel, Arrhenius, and Bjørnson. Bjørnson was the last to receive his award from King Oscar II: the draft for the monetary award, the diploma, and Nobel’s great gold medal. All award winners were greeted with applause, but when “Bjørnson took the stage as the last one, the applause grew in strength and duration”. Bjørnson had barely got back to his seat before “Ja, vi elsker” sounded forcefully from the balcony.
In his presentation of Bjørnson at the award ceremony, Academy Secretary Wirsén reiterated the Committee’s statement: “Bjørnson is so generally known and his works are so familiar to educated Swedes that it is unnecessary to give a comprehensive appreciation of his universally and gladly acknowledged merits”.
Afterwards, a banquet was held in honour of the Nobel Prize winners at Grand Hotel, with 230 guests present.
In his acceptance speech, Bjørnson focused on the role of literature as part of human progress and development: It is essential that “we have our faith in life reinforced, not diminished”. In art, we search for meaning in life. The responsibility of authors is greater than that of others, because writers are at the front of the train of development. Without naming names, Bjørnson distances himself from both Ibsen and Tolstoj, whom had both been candidates for the prize. Ibsen was his “ill old friend”, who “had lit many a lighthouse along the Norwegian coast.” The problem with Ibsen, however, was that he was “so sharp in his alerts that it made people wary”. Tolstoj’s mistake was that “he lured people with ideals that were beyond human might”. Bjørnson held up Victor Hugo as an ideal, because even though this author also had flaws, “these flaws are all blown away by his mighty breath of life”. Bjørnson concluded by toasting the Swedish Academy’s “prosperity in everything that keeps literature healthy and strong”. His speech got a resounding, and lengthy, applause. Bjørnson finished with a “Long live!” to the Swedish Academy, which was followed up with a quadruple hurrah.
Later evaluations of this award have expressed scepticism towards Ibsen being snubbed. The issue of Bjørnson’s renewed attitude towards Sweden right before he received the Nobel Prize was never really resolved, and Bjørnson’s motivations have been questioned.