Kristin Lavransdatter

In pursuit of my interest in all things relating to the history of Northern Europe, and on my wife’s strong recommendation, I read Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of books written by the Norwegian author and Nobel laureate, Sigrid Undset. Comprised of The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, Kristin Lavransdatter is an unusual work of literature. It looks back on the medieval period without the romanticism of many fantasy authors while also avoiding the stark ugliness which characterize many modern “realistic” portrayals of the Middle Ages. In other words, while being a firmly modern writer, she comfortably and capably depicts the time period as it was in accurate detail without feeling the need to push an agenda on the medievals in her portrayal.

However, the portrayal of history, though realistic, is not the central strength of these books. This book is about people. Real people. Flesh and blood people who jump off the page and into the life of the reader. The story follows Kristin, the daughter of Lavrans, a wealthy farmer and respected nobleman, from her birth to death, chronicling her temptations, sins, falls, and triumphs throughout the course of her life. In the first book we see her girlhood and meet the main characters: her faithful Christian father, Lavrans, her betrothed, Simon, and her immature and somewhat disreputable love interest, Erlend, as well as many other people who populate this world. In the second book we see her life as Erlend’s wife, raising her children and attempting to atone for her past sins. In the final book we see her driven hard upon the shores of God’s mercy in the last part of her life.

At many times during the first book, I wanted to hate both Kristin and Erlend, but as the story progressed, I simply wasn’t allowed to do that for long. These characters are not stock figures in a melodrama but real people who fail and repent time and time again. I felt that nothing in the story was forced or false, but that the characters are all understandable in their motives. Though this is a world of suffering and sorrow, it is also a world clearly ruled by a gracious and sovereign God. Unlike many modern novels of the Middle Ages, the depiction of the Church is extremely positive. The Church is the one unchanging and reliable thing in Kristin’s life. The books certainly have their share of bad priests, but the Church overall, and God through the Church, is a nurturing, forgiving and stabilizing force for Kristin. This becomes much more meaningful when one realizes that Sigrid Undset, an atheist scarred by images of World War I, converted to Catholicism while she was writing these books.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a must read for any fan of good writing. In the realm of 20th century Christian literature in the modern vein, this ranks right up there with Eliot’s Four Quartets, the stories of Flannery O’Connor, and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, another Christian book just as misinterpreted by its secular admirers. The depiction of God’s word, of humanity, of the Church is piercingly beautiful. I began reading Kristin Lavransdatter for its Northernness. I ended up loving it for its humanity.

5/5 Stars

Comments

Jennifer Mcmaster said…
Hi Rick,
How young would you say these books would be appropriate for? My two older girls love this period (as well as a few others).

Thanks,
Jenn
Rick said…
Hi Jenn!

It's been a few years since we've seen you guys, so I'm having a hard time remembering exactly how old your oldest girls are. I'm pretty sure they're not 15 or 16 yet, though, which is the earliest age I'd recommend for this book.

A large part of the first book centers on the fact that the betrothed Kristin is seduced by Erlend, and ends up breaking off her engagement with her fiance. She ends up being pregnant before her wedding, which she manages to hide from her father until her very wedding night. In the second book, she is dealing with the estrangement and guilt from her sins in the first book and her husband, no big surprise, having a few extramarital flings of his own on the side.

There is nothing explicit in the books, at least in the Charles Archer translation that I read. I've heard that the newer translation includes some racy scenes. The sin is always treated as sin and from a Christian perspective rather than from a trashy Romance novel perspective. The results of sin are always starkly portrayed as well, so no one would get the idea that Kristin has an enviable life. However, the subject matter itself might be a bit too much for a young teenage girl to handle.

I'd recommend reading it yourself first before letting the girls try it.
Jennifer McMaster said…
Thanks, Rick for the thorough explanation! Good to know there is a modern version to be more aware of, also. You're right, D. and M. are just 12 and 11 so we'll put these on our list for future reading. Say Hi to MaryBeth!
Jenn