Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath



We will be choosing our third book to read in our trip through Scandinavian Lit. The first two books are Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’ll be posting (stealing) some reviews of possible choices.


Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2014

This magnificent epic is set in Norway in the fourteenth century. While the central character of the novel is Kristin Lavransdatter, others come to the fore as important characters, especially her parents, her husband Erlend and her once-fiance, Simon and their families as well.

Author Sigrid Undset divided this epic into three separate novels and that seems to work quite well to describe the central action. The first volume follows Kristin from her days of young childhood, through an engagement, spell in a convent, a tempestuous affair and eventually marriage to Erlend.

The second volume moves us from her father’s farm/estate of Jorundgaard to Erlend’s gigantic estate of Husaby in western Norway, and the birth of 7 of their children. There is an enormous change in their lives because of Erlend’s deep involvement in Norwegian politics, his emprisonment and being stripped of his wealth and property.

The last volume is so well named, The Cross, moves the action back to Kristin’s estate of Jorundgaard and the trials of their later lives all the way up to the time of the plague coming to Norway.

This is a marvelous tale, gripping from beginning to end. While the action swirls around the actual history of Norway at the time, it is the lives of the two main fictional families involved, and a significant role for the life and family of Simon Darre as well.

The structure and writing of Sigrid Undset is so astonishing that I have to regard it as one of the finest novels I have ever read. This was my second read. I first read it back in about 1980. I had stumbled upon Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book A DISTANT MIRROR: THE CALAMITOUS 14TH CENTURY. I was so taken by that work that I devoted an entire year of my “pleasure” reading to read works of that period (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante and others, and then to read later works set in the 14th century which included Kristin Lavaransdatter.

That’s year’s project excited me and I shared much of it with colleagues at Webster University and someone suggested I put together an interdisciplinary course on the 14th century in which we would all read these various works, including the Tuchman book. It was such a marvelous success and all of us, 7 or 8 faculty and some 60 or so students had a great semester.

However, at that time I didn’t write about any of the books I was reading. Thus, when I started my project of reading and commenting upon winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I realized it was time to once again read this 1000 page work and this time write my comments on the novel.

In this more careful and critical reading I was even more impressed with Sigrid Undset’s achievement. How does one take something like 14th century Norway, about which relatively few readers know much, and make it a gripping, telling and comprehensible experience? I think the key to that is the character of Kristin herself.

In the first volume we meet her when she is a small girl and spending a good deal of time with her father who has a large estate farm in eastern Norway. She is very young and knows nothing of farming, the seasons of the year, animal care and so on, and so her father, in a most loving and natural manner, instructs her. It all so obvious as to what a caring and loving father would do. And we, the readers, get an introduction to rural life and farming and social customs of early 14th century Norway.

By taking the very young Kristin as the lead character, we readers are introduced to her world just as she is. She has to ask all the very naïve questions. It makes the whole narrative more plausible since she, as well as her father, would have accepted the 14th century ways and beliefs just as automatically as anyone living at the time. It makes the reader’s experience so much richer and easier to digest.

Later, when Kristin has been engaged to a local notable man, quite a few years her senior, she is unsure about the marriage. Her understanding and caring father agrees with her plea to let her spend a year or so in a convent near Oslo, and thus the structure of the narration continues to educate us, the readers in a very natural manner.

Kristin knows virtually nothing of city life nor convent life. Again her natural ignorance is a boon to us readers who, mainly, will know very little of 14th century city life or convent life.

While in the convent she meets the man who becomes the love of her life, Erlend. He literally sweeps her off her feet and this young naïve 15-16 year old becomes his lover and decides she must marry him.

All this is told by focusing on the young and naïve Kristin, so Undset’s narration can educate us slowly into understand these situations just as Kristin herself learns.

In this tempestuous part of the novel (though a huge portion of the novel is one degree or other of tempestuousness) we follow Kristin who challenges the understanding and kindness of her loving parents, especially her father, and she pleads to break the engagement to Simon and for her to then marry Elend, who not only has had a wife, but a paramour with whom he has two children. It’s all so much for the parents this time, more than even for Kristin, and we readers get it all as first hand events within the family in a most believable manner.

But she does marry Elend and moves off to his huge castle-like estate, again as the naïve little girl, only 17 and pregnant, but married. Now she (and we readers) have to learn what it’s like to live in a giant estate of a warrior knight, involved in national politics and, young Kristin becomes the madamn of the estate, responsible for running it in his frequent absences pursuing his life as warrior.

All through the novel it is Undset’s brilliance to use people naïve about their surroundings to bring to us, the readers, again, most of whom will be fairly unlearned in the history and culture of 14th century Norway, a story which we can understand all as well as Kristin.

Even in her ‘OLD AGE’ (just about 50) at the end, she travels alone as a pilgrim to a convent in western Norway and becomes a nun, once again and for the last time, is the ignorant unexperienced one learning, along with us, the nature of this life.

The story is magnificent. It covers a huge scope of Norwegian live of the period, is filled with scary and touching drama, with joy and excitement and with constant unease as to what in the world will come next.

This is a masterpiece of literature that I would recommend to all. Just as a story of the lives of these people it has all the drama one could desire. As a history of the period and place it is brilliant and so detailed in description that one has the sense of having studied Norway’s history of the first half of the 14th century.

I highly recommend it to all.

There are only two YEAR dates given in the novel. We know the date of Kristin’s death and her mother’s death. Taking those two dates alone, and the clues from the text along the way, I did put together for myself a rough date chart of many significant events along the way. I thought it might be a useful tool for people who might come to this novel.


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