Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A saga of 14th-century Norway

The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, by Sigrid Undset
    The Wreath  (1920)
    The Wife  (1921)
    The Cross  (1922)

I remember reading about this trilogy of novels on someone's blog - I just can't remember whose.  But the review really caught my interest, and when I was in Barnes & Noble one day (looking for Mark Twain actually), I just slid along the shelves to the "U" section.  There I found a Penguin omnibus edition of all three novels, a chunk of a book at 1130 pages.  After some hesitation, thinking I might do better with three separate and smaller books, I bought it.  I'm glad I did, because after I finished The Wreath, I turned over a couple of intervening pages to start the next, The Wife; and when I came to the last page of that, I carried straight on to the last, The Cross.  The three books really tell a single story, the life of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The Wreath opens in 1306, when Kristin is four years old, her parents' only surviving child.  Her mother Ragnfrid has just inherited a manor up in the central mountains of Norway, and she moves with her parents to a small rural village of hard-working people.  Her father Lavrans works right alongside his tenants and servants, as does her mother, building up their property, and with it the family's wealth and position.  Kristin is especially close to her father, whose constant and open affection balances out her mother's distance and coldness.  Ragnfrid still mourns the three sons she lost, taking refuge in faith and the Church.

The first book follows Kristin as she grows up to young womanhood.  At 14, her parents arrange her betrothal to Simon Andresson, whose family has property in the area.  She is content if not thrilled with the match, but she is happy to postpone marriage with a year at a convent near Oslo, a 14th-century version of a finishing school.  As one of the lay students, Kristin has a little more freedom than the future nuns.  During an outing from the convent, she meets under the most romantic circumstances a handsome man in silver spurs, who introduces himself as Erland Nikulausson.  He immediately begins to pursue Kristin, who is soon deep in love, willing to risk everything for him and able to deny him nothing.  Nothing can shake her faith in him, even the news that he has been excommunicated and banished for adultery, in a long-term relationship that has produced two children.  He swears that he will marry her, but they both know how difficult it will be to break the match with Simon and win her parents' consent. Though Simon generously agrees to end their betrothal, her parents initially refuse.  By the time they are finally wed, more than a year later, Kristin is pregnant with Erland's child, which she manages to conceal from everyone.

The Wife opens immediately after the wedding, as Erland takes Kristin home to his estate near Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim).  It is the story of Kristin's marriage, and there is no "happily ever after."  Kristin is constantly pregnant, eventually bearing seven sons.  She tries to hold the estate together, but she can't build the kind of partnership that her parents have.  Erland has no interest in the details of managing his property, he resents the demands of his children, he spends money too freely, and he jumps at any chance of adventure, such as building ships to patrol the northern coasts.  Eventually he will be appointed the royal sheriff of the region, which keeps him from home for long periods.  Kristin, at home with their growing family, often unwell and overworked, resents his unsteadiness and broods over the wrongs he did in leading her astray (though she was a willing, even eager participant).  Their relationship is volatile, to say the least, but their reunions are usually passionate, leading to yet another pregnancy (and more recriminations).  And then suddenly everything they have is threatened, when Erland is accused of treason, of plotting to bring in the King's half-brother to take the throne of Norway.  In defending him and pleading his cause, Kristin feels a new love and appreciation for her husband, and the bond between them grows stronger.

Unfortunately, that doesn't last long.  In the final volume, The Cross, they have settled on the estate of Kristin's parents, which she has now inherited, since Erland has forfeited his own lands.  He still refuses to take any interest in the work needed to run the property and sustain their family.  Kristin frets constantly over the futures of her seven growing sons, since the estate cannot support all of them.  Like their father, they show little concern, preferring to hunt and play with him, which drives their mother nearly frantic at times.  Each of them must find his own way, and Kristin has to let them go, which teaches her what her parents must have felt as they watched her make her choices and live with the consequences.

I can't say I know much about medieval Norway, but I think Sigrid Undset created a fascinating window into that world.  The family manor of Jorundgaard, and its village of Sill, feel like real places, communities of people.  I learned about daily life, clothes and food, customs, celebrations, work, but it never felt forced or that the author was simply showing off her research. These details are woven into the story of the people.  The writing flows, it isn't self-consciously historical, though of course I was reading a modern translation (and a prize-winning one at that, by Tiina Nunnally).  According to the translator's note, older versions use more archaic language, but that doesn't reflect "Undset's beautifully clear prose."  I think Undset also did an excellent job in portraying the place of faith and the Church in people's lives at the time, revolving around the fasts and feasts of the Church year.  Devotion to the saints was so central, but older pagan practices and beliefs were never far below the surface of everyday life.  I was interested to read in the author's note that Undset became a Roman Catholic two years after she published the last book in the trilogy.

Sigrid Undset knows how to tell a story, with action, drama and suspense, and she kept me reading along, wanting to know what happens next.  But oh goodness, this is a bleak story.  Kristin is a strong character, she freely chooses Erland with a passionate love, and she fights for her marriage. But from the time of their wedding, so long in coming, it seems that she can be happy neither with Erland nor away from him.  And since she knew the worst about him going in, and still chose him, I felt it was unfair to keep blaming him for everything and raking up old grievances.  It was a relief when the story would follow Erland, or Kristin's father, or some of the other characters for a chapter or two, though none of their stories can exactly be called happy either.  And all of this takes place amidst the struggles of daily life, in a harsh world with sudden illness, accidents, crop failures, and political unrest.

These were not the easiest books to read, and despite the strong plot and the intriguing characters, I nearly gave up a couple of times, particularly after the death of one character in the middle of the third book, which I thought a bad omen for the rest of the story.  Still, I am glad to have read them, and I can see why they are considered modern classics.


  1. Totally unknown to me - you are a braver reader than me in taking on a ginormous trilogy. It sounds like such a foreign world, but obviously the themes are age-old and resonant, even if the daily life is not.

  2. This post brings back so many memories! It's been about ten years since I read these books in quick succession (passed on an omnibus edition because it was too heavy). I remember having an issue with translation. Originally I purchased the older Archer (?) translation of The Wreath and found it nearly unreadable..I must have liked the cover better though;) I went back and bought Nunnally's new translation and there was no turning back! I got a little bogged down at one point, but can't remember now if it was midway through the second or third book. A true modern classic!

  3. I read these books several years ago, and I remember them as being beautiful, but so bleak that I was never tempted to reread them.

  4. I've been thinking about reading these books for a while and it's only the length that has been making me hesitate, so it's good to know that you found them compelling enough to go straight from one book to the next. I think you've convinced me to give them a try - though I'll wait until after I've finished reading Don Quixote!

  5. I'm nervous of starting this -- it feels like such a commitment! But I hear nothing but amazing things about it.

  6. vicki, I had meant to say something about that - the themes of family, parents & children, love & marriage, really do resonate, from the 1920s as well as the 1320s.

    JoAnn, from what I've read about the older translation, I would have found it unreadable as well! The omnibus is massive - no reading in the tub, and I couldn't just tuck it in my purse, like I do other books.

    elizabeth, that's exactly how I feel! There is so much beauty in the story - not least in the descriptions of the country itself. But I'm not sure I could re-read this, knowing what is coming.

    Helen, I think this is some of the best historical fiction I've ever read. It's up there with Dorothy Dunnett (and I did think of Thorfinn, reading it, with the Norse connection).

    Jenny, maybe the individual volumes would be easier to tackle than the omnibus? I thought maybe I'd read about this on your blog - but clearly not!

  7. I started this years ago and I was liking it, but something distracted me and I lost the thread. That you were so taken with it inspires me to pick my copy up again,

  8. I would never think that a book set in the 14th c. in Norway would appeal to me, but this sounds pretty good. :-)

  9. Jane, I find myself still thinking about the characters, days later. It really is a compelling story.

    Anbolyn, I enjoy historical fiction, but I've never read anything set in Scandinavia - I learned some geography as well as history :)

  10. I read the first volume years ago in an old translation. I remember loving the story but having a hard time slogging through the writing, so I didn't go any further than vol. 1. Your experience is a good reminder to try again with the newer translation!

  11. Kristin, there were some quotes from the older translation in the introduction to the one I read, and I don't think I'd have gotten too far with that language!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!