Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy of novels by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset and published in 1920. There is a recent English translation by Tiina Nunnally that is recommended. Unfortunately, Athenaeum read only the first in the trilogy for our March meeting. You only feel like you’re just getting started with her tale at the end of Book 1 (The Wreath), and there is clearly so much more to her story in Books 2 and 3. That would make over 1000 pages for one month’s selection, however.
It is a shame this title is not more widely known today. Undset was a great writer and won the Nobel Prize in literature for a lifetime of literary work. Not only is it a thrilling story, but it is set in 14th century Norway, a time and place of which modern readers have little conception. Like Jane Eyre, Emma Bovary, Tess and many other heroines, the title character is captivatingly interesting. Kristin is introduced as a little girl and her childish purity and simplicity stir the reader to cherish her innocence.
Perhaps one thing that makes the story so engaging is developing an attachment to the character early on, as I did, and then going with Kristin through childhood into adulthood. This reader cherished her sweetness and innocence as a child and delighted in the descriptions of her beauty.
I loved her as if she were my own daughter, and I ached for her to be preserved and protected and brought safely into adulthood. However, the powerful forces of teenage love, family, religious faith and the impact of some natural tragedies spell the loss of innocence. Undset does a great job of showing that bad choices are not so simple to judge, and this was a source of discussion for us.
How much choice Kristin had over her fate? She could have said No, right? She could have chosen differently if she had had the strength of character of, say, a 40 year old man. But can a simple teenage farm girl be held accountable for falling for a dashing older man who pursues her with relentless passion when she is away from her home and guardians? We have statutory laws delineating ages of responsibility today to address the same issue.
And although priests and nuns, convents and religious culture permeate the world of the story, we appreciate the honesty in regards to human nature in the portrayal of surrendering to temptation when other forces of faith, friends and family would hold us back.
Those who appreciate the sexual mores of past generations will find the traditional social conventions satisfying. In 1920 as well as the 14th century, sex before marriage was recognized as a sin by most, to say nothing of the taboo of a pregnancy out of wedlock or when the wedding is still some months off. And Kristin’s tortuous guilt in both the sin against God and the betrayal of her father’s trust in her, and the violation of the honor of her maidenhood, drives her to the deep into the depths of Christian psychology of sin and guilt, and the possibility of redemption.
Undset’s frequent descriptions of Norwegian landscape and climate were luscious, as well as the darkness and stuffiness of homes at night without windows. There is a description of childbirth that is long and harrowing; I’ve never read anything or seen a film depiction of a birth that even came close.
And I’ll conclude by speculating that J. R. R. Tolkein surely read this book and loved it, because so many place names in Lord of the Rings sound like places in ancient Norway. Many parts of words are used by Tolkein such as the “gaard” in Isengaard.
I’m sorry it took my so long to get around to reading this book, which I only learned about around 2010. It is a classic that everyone should read.