Kristin Lavransdatter was recently released in an Audible edition, and it’s included in a Washington Post review of the best new audiobook releases. I recently finished this Nobel-winning trilogy and used a credit on the 44 hour listen anyway. That’s how compelling this story is.
The length of this trilogy deterred me for years, but I never forgot the relishing tone of an award-winning spiritual memoirist whose writing workshop I attended one summer in Santa Fe. When asked what she was currently reading, she replied “Kristin Lavransdatter” in a tone one might use to describe dark chocolate, and the ooohs of appreciation around the room told me it would be worth it.
There’s no need to let the trilogy’s length deter you if you simply give yourself permission to take your time. You may well remain connected to the characters even when you set the book aside for months of another kind of reading. I’ve spent the past three years with Kristin, savoring Undset’s medieval Norway by reserving one volume a year for winter evenings and summer camping trips. Somewhere beside the fork of a southern Colorado river, I finished its final pages while my husband fished his way upstream.
If you’ve heard about this bewitching Scandanavian saga but haven’t picked it up because of its length, let me offer three reasons to begin reading Kristin Lavransdatter and take your time with it.
#1 KL is a lavish journey into another time and place.
Sigrid Undset’s father was a well-traveled and distinguished archeologist who died when she was eleven. His own interests were more ancient than medieval, but he gave his daughter an abiding love for the tales of the Norse and the careful scholarship of the historian. Immersed in Kristin Lavransdatter, one absorbs the sights and smells of the old north country and aches over the obstacles its people endured.
Undset biographer Yola Miller Sigerson describes the feel:
A profound study of human behavior, it is a spellbinding, meticulously researched adventure story about medieval Norway–and the adventures are both physical and psychological ones. The tapestry is as intricate and fascinating as people and societies are intricate and fascinating. The characters are dressed, live in in homes, worship in churches, eat the foods, react to events as people did at the time, but their joys and passions, their humor and its, their willfulness and weaknesses, envies and greeds, are those of people in any society–at any time–and because we recognize ourselves in them, we are immediately caught up in their story.
Reading Kristin, loneliness lingers as the barriers of distance that must be overcome especially in the isolation of winter, loom. Men must brave dangers, setting out on foot, horseback or skis, to get critical messages to family members. The silent worry of those left at home remains heavy in the heart as news travels at a painful pace while we absorb the hopes and fears of every heart. It’s okay that this takes time. It’s one of many ways Undset sinks her characters into your heart.
In Kristin, inner worlds are detailed as deeply as the homes, churches and physical landscape. Generosity is tested as resources dwindle. Courage is called for as men must defend their honor and their homes with the sword. Priests and monks must provide guidance while grappling with their own spiritual and physical volatilities. The heart of every major character comes forth in full complexity with loves, jealousies and resentments. No character is without sin; no character without some form of virtue.
#2 KL is a language lover’s dream.
Granted, we must read Kristin in translation. It’s worth it. Undset wasn’t awarded a Nobel Prize for nothing, and Tiina Nunnally won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in the category of translation for her English rendering of Kristin.
Descriptions range from lyrical to riveting. Simon, the man Kristin rejects in the first volume, becomes a critical person as the story develops. Undset’s description in one dramatic moment is an example of how she keeps us grounded while driving our curiosity about what happens next:
There was a sense of deliverance in the very sound of his dry, warm voice and in the vital male smell about him: of sweat, road dust, horses, and leather harnesswork.
This sentence simultaneously gives us the desperation in Kristin’s heart and the sensual feel of the man she must trust. Elsewhere we simply rest in the beauty of the Norwegian landscape, etched with a painter’s eye:
The countryside seemed to be settling into sleep beneath the flood of white sunlight. Ever since the dew-soaked dawn, scythes had been ringing in the flower meadows; the scrape of iron against the whet-stones and the shouting of voices could be heard from every farm near and far...A bird flapped its way, swift and mute, along the edge of the alder thicket; another flew up from a meadow tussock and with a harsh cry perched atop a thistle.
Why rush through language so lovely? Kristin Lavransdatter is a three-volume gift.
#3 KL can convert your heart.
Kristin Lavransdatter is an interior journey of pride, pleasure, sin, consequences, forgiveness, resentment, love and selfishness. It’s an eye-opening examination of conscience able to penetrate the heart.
When we meet Kristin she is a little girl, the “greatest joy” of a father who is a good and holy man. Lavrans arranges a marriage for his daughter when she comes of age, but Kristin finds Simon, her betrothed, unable to stir her passion.
She enters a convent for a brief time to reflect on the traumatic death of the friend she would have liked to marry and to prepare for her future marriage to the man her father has chosen for her. The weakness in her character is revealed when on an outing, the sixteen-year-old Kristin meets a handsome and wealthy knight and allows herself to be seduced.
Undset (writing in the 1920’s) is exceptional in her ability to evoke an erotic response in the reader while unflinchingly rendering the consequences of seduction. Everything Kristin endures for the rest of her life is rooted in the decision to abandon her father’s plan and follow her passion. Much of Volume One, The Bridal Wreath, is the story of what must be overcome in order for Ereland and Kristin to marry.
But we’re mistaken when we think we “get” Kristin after completing only the first book.
Volume Two, The Wife, reveals far more (this is the perfect trilogy to give a romantic teenager who, steeped in today’s passion-driven culture, mistakenly believes that simply following your heart will make everything turn out all right). For example, observing Ereland with his peers after their marriage, Kristin must confront the truth about the kind of man her lover really is:
When he was simply the man she loved, she had never asked about such things. She could see that he was short-tempered and impetuous and rash, that he had a particular penchant for acting unwisely. But back then she had found excuses for everything, never troubling to think about what his temperament might bring upon them both.
Kristin must deal with Ereland’s flaws and come to grips with the pain she’s caused her father. She must struggle with a root of bitterness that disrupts her marriage and she will live to see her own flaws as well as those of her husband reflected in the character of their sons. Consider Undset’s portrait of Kristin’s resentment in Volume Three, The Cross and see if you don’t recognize a resentment or two of your own:
Each time he offended her, she had tended to the memory the way one tends to a venomous sore…If Ereland had a hand in it, she forgot nothing–and even the smallest scratch on her soul would continue to sting and bleed and swell and ache if he was the one to cause it.
Kristin and Ereland do love each other; it’s just that each must endure the other’s deficits and they’re far from successful, though moments of great tenderness are theirs as well. This is the life story of a 14th century Norwegian woman, and we must follow Kristin from cradle to grave to rightly absorb its impact. It is the story of a soul in passion and in penance, in grief and in grace.
And, like Kristin herself, we may recognize our own weaknesses. Kristin can help you see the results of your own selfish choices and set you back on the royal road of conversion. Young adults who read Kristin may be helped to avoid the consequences of rash romantic choices. Men will find in Lavrans a model of a strong and holy man, in Ereland the weakness of one driven by passion. And in Kristin, we all will note the consequences of harboring an unforgiving heart.
Kristin Lavransdatter is simply a stunning work of fiction, masterfully evoking the haunting Norwegian landscape, the mystery of life for medievals whose pagan roots still tantalize while the Christian faith calls with the liturgical year’s renewal and the comfort of confession.
The tale is told so thoroughly, weaving in and out of the minds of every major character, that one sees oneself many times before the journey’s end. In that seeing, the truth may inflict a wound leading to recognition and repentance. And that can lead to healing and happiness.
Which makes Kristin Lavransdatter worth its weight in gold.
Reads & Other Seeds
A Slate review declares, “If HBO is looking for its next miniseries, it should give Kristin Lavransdatter the proper adaptation it deserves.” Read the rest of Ruth Graham’s tribute to Kristin here.
Carrie Frost Fisher has written a lovely piece for First Things on motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter. See “Under Her Heart” here.
Bookish Girl provides a detailed introduction to Kristin. Read it here .
Struggling with resentment? Listen to Kristin’s Resentment on the Catholic Stuff You Should Know podcast.
Is Kristin Lavransdatter just for women? Tyler Blanski gives an emphatic no: “Kristin Lavransdatter will make you weep and shout and stay up way too late with eyes as big as saucers. But you will sleep like a baby, and in the morning you will wake up with a bonfire in your heart. ‘That’s right,’ you’ll say, your voice husky from drinking mead with kinsmen after a long Alpine hunt. ‘Real men read novels.'” Read the rest of his manly review here.
Next: She was raised in an atheist household. She convinced a married man to leave his wife for her. She converted to Catholicism and won the Nobel Prize for literature. Her books were banned in Nazi Germany and she fled Norway before its Nazi occupation. She returned to her homeland in 1945 and died in 1949 read Sparrowfare’s three part series, Fascinating Facts about Kristin Lavransdatter’s Creator, Sigrid Undset.
Undset’s own conversion unfolded as she researched the saints for Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. Sparrowfare has the story: Sigrid Undset’s Real Passion Revealed.
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