“…it’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.” – Sigrid Undset
I first came across Sigrid Undset during my first year of teaching. The school where I taught had a set of world literature texts that they were discarding (the books were in great shape and to this day I puzzle over why books full of world literature classics were being discarded) and I snagged one of them and over the course of a few weeks of casual reading made my way through a variety of selections by writers I knew like Hugo and Goethe and de Maupassant and Cervantes – and writers I sort of knew like Strindberg (“Half a Sheet of Paper” shows how flash fiction should be done) and writers I didn’t know – like Sigrid Undset.
The world lit collection contained a selection from Kristin Lavransdatter I. (For those familiar with the work, it’s the chapter where Kristin and Ingeborg become lost in the forest and are rescued from the German boys by Erland.) I found it rich, engrossing writing, though the pace was not such that it appealed to me in my youth. Still, I remembered the careful accrual of detail and the power of the writing and made a mental note to read more Undset.
It’s taken me about 40 years to get back to her. Perhaps I needed those years to develop a palate able to appreciate what rich gift patient, thorough storytelling is. If so, I am grateful; Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath is the embodiment of what we should mean when we talk about great storytelling.
Before I go into talking about Kristin Lavransdatter I, it seems to me that I should mention something that perspicacious readers might come back and throw in my face: my lack of enthusiasm for “series” novels. We currently are drowning in a deluge of novels, mostly fantasy or sci-fi, though there are some historical ones, too, I think, that come in series format – the “vampire” series (like Twilight), the wizardry/magic series (like the Harry Potter books), and the alternate history/literature series (of which there are examples of alternative Jane Austen works and alternative biographies of historical figures like Anne Boleyn). I’ve been, I freely admit, dubious at best, dismissive at worst of all this, deeming many of these efforts (How DOES one turn out a 100-150k word installment every six months as these authors seem to do?) approximately as Truman Capote did the efforts of Jack Kerouac: “That isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.” In fact, in one of these essays I went so far as to suggest that writers should just give us their epic in one fell swoop, as the Bard would say, rather than torment us with An Awfully Big Adventure Vols. 1-26 Inclusive. I still say that in many cases this would be preferable. Should writers really be looking to the authors of Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and Tom Swift for literary models?
I also freely admit that I began Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath with some slight misgivings based on this particular prejudice of mine. Cliffhangers are all well and good for serials like they used to show at Saturday matinees, and they certainly served the marketing interests of the periodicals wherein Dickens, Thackeray, et. al., published their 19th century masterpieces, but generally speaking when I take on a novel I want the entire saga even if it does run 1000-1500 pages. I’ve been proven wrong about this once already, of course, by the great Thomas Mann. Now his fellow Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset further contests my claim and proves it lacking. This probably only goes to prove that, like politicians, writers, even those with scholarly training such as I, simply betray their biases whenever they try to appear rational. To quote a favorite poem, “Such, such is life….”
Kristen I (forgive the title reference shorthand) begins with a journey, an apt beginning because that journey becomes a metaphor for the novel. Seven year old Kristin and her father Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn go up into the mountains so that he can see about some of his tenants (Lavrans is a man of means, a wealthy farmer [in England he would be the equivalent of a country squire] descended from “old lineage,” an important element in the story). They don’t travel alone; a man of Lavrans’ importance travels in an entourage both for comfort and safety. At one point they stop for a picnic – an outdoor feast, more accurately – and then all take naps. Kristin wakes early and, while everyone else continues to slumber, wanders off by herself. She wanders down to a mountain stream in the company of her father’s powerful but gentle stallion. Something unnatural startles the animal and he runs away. Kristin sees a figure who is later identified to her as an elf queen who tries to lure her to go with her. Kristin screams and runs away and her father, who hears her, rushes to her rescue. For the rest of the journey he will not let her out of his sight.
This particular story points to all the important elements of Kristin’s character: she is courageous and adventurous to the point of acting in risky ways; she has a deep bond with her father, a bond that colors all her relationships with men, particularly with her husband Erland; she is guided by her will and her emotions (and eventually her faith); she does not understand herself any better than the rest of us understand ourselves. These characteristics make for what might be understatedly described as an interesting life.
As the novel unfolds, covering slightly more than a decade of Kristin’s life, details and more details accrue about Kristin; her father Lavrans and her mother Ragnfrid; her childhood friend and foster brother Arne Gyrdsøn; her sisters Ulvhild and Ramborg; her betrothed (whom she betrays) Simon Darre; her spiritual mentor Brother Edvin; and her lover and eventual husband, Erland Nickulaussøn. Much is revealed about Kristin’s character through her interactions with these and other lesser, but still significant, characters such as Fru Aashild, Sira Eirik, and Bentein Priestson.
What we get in Kristin I is the story of a strong willed person who follows her own drum beat, no matter what sort of trouble that drum beat leads her into. Her friendship (and nascent romantic feeling for) Arne Gyrdson leads her to meet him secretly; and that act exposes her to Bentein Priestson’s attempted rape. Her decision to seek help from men in the woods outside Oslo once she and Ingeborg become lost exposes her to the attempted assaults of the German youths; but that act also results in her first meeting with Erland Nickulausson, the man she eventually marries. Her decision to involve herself with Erland leads her to break off her betrothal to Simon Darre; that decision eventually will affect not just Kristin and Simon but her husband Erland, her sister Ramborg, and her community.
One might think that there would be many memorable lines in such a complex narrative with a strong proto-feminist heroine, but that is not the case. This is because Undset is a writer who patiently adds detail, shading, and insight in her development of characters so as to show us why as well as how events play out. She is not concerned with the well turned phrase (though there are those, they often lose their force out of context, so carefully is Undset’s narrative text woven) or the bon mot. Consider, for instance, this brief exchange between Arne and Kristin during their final parting:
[Arne] went on, “I was wondering whether you meant that you would rather have been married to me rather than to any other man.”
“I probably would at that,” [Kristin] said quietly. “For I know you better much better.”
Knowledge is hard won and sometimes bitter once gained for Kristin. Partly that is so because of her over protective parents; partly it is so because she acts always as her will and emotions lead her, and damn the torpedoes. As she says herself:
“I’ve done many things that I thought I would never dare to do because they were sins. But I didn’t realize then that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people.”
Kristin Lavransdatter is at various times a quixotic character, a troubling character, a frustrating character, a disappointing character. She is always, though, true to herself and real for us as readers. Like another great 14th century character, Enguerrand de Coucy from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, she makes that distant time – and the people of that time – whole and real and familiar.