I’m always surprised how few people have heard of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. To be fair, though, I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled on an article in a Catholic blog a decade ago and then, with some disappointment, trudged through the stilted thees-and-thous translation I found in the library. But even after returning the first volume of the 1928 trilogy, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Next time, I heeded recommendations and found a copy of Tiina Nunnally’s luminous translation, and the rest was history: ten years and half a dozen readings later, I seldom stop thinking about Kristin—at least not for very long. It’s become a minor life goal to make this masterpiece more widely known. Here I offer just a glimpse of why I think the book deserves a wider readership—especially a Protestant one.
Danish-born Sigrid Undset lacked a university education. But beginning in childhood she prowled archaeological digs with her historian father and voraciously read whatever she could find about the Middle Ages—from sagas and ballads to scholarship—and, in this way, she came to feel at home in medieval Norway. In addition to other medieval- and modern-themed works, she created Kristin as a forty-something single mother of young children. Later, in the 1940s, the Catholic convert drew from her Nobel Prize-winnings to support refugee children and the resistance of Stalin’s invasion of Finland, and to speak out against Nazism while exiled abroad. Endearingly, she also wrote a play version of the Norwegian folktale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and staged a puppet performance at a children’s hospital. It’s rather hard not to love Sigrid.
I’m not sure the same can be said for the character she created: Kristin Lavransdatter. But I think that’s part of why Kristin, the novel, is so compelling.
When Kristin is a little girl, she befriends a wandering monk named Brother Edvin who becomes a spiritual father of sorts. Edvin tells her, “No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we fear and love.” I’ve puzzled over this statement for years, but I think Brother Edvin is speaking of idolatry—and I can think of no better fictional portrayal than Kristin of the heart’s propensity to twist even good and proper loves to God-defying ends. This rather Augustinian (not to say Calvinistic!) thread trails through the novel from beginning to end.
As Kristin grows up, part of her feels drawn to become a nun—her understanding of what it would look like to dedicate her whole life to God—but she realizes that more than she loves God, “she love[s] the world and long[s] for the world.” When Brother Edvin visits her home of Jørundgaard, teenaged Kristin asks the monk for counsel, uneasy about the engagement her father has arranged for her with a kind young nobleman named Simon. Edvin tells her, “I would impress upon your heart, my daughter, that you should pay close attention to the way God tends to the welfare of the people here in the valley […] Thank God for the good gifts He has given you, and don’t complain if you think you are lacking something else that you think would be beneficial” (73). But Kristin has been so sheltered in her home valley that its blessings loom too large for her to see clearly, and her youthful longing for the world overwhelms her contentment.
This is still true after she spends a year away from home, completing her education at Nonneseter convent. One festival day, she gets lost in a crowd and fatefully rescued from ruffians by a handsome older man, Erlend Nikulaussøn. After this frightening ordeal, she comes home to the nuns not chastened but exhilarated. The abbess tells Kristin that the day’s events were a merciful intervention: “God has clearly shown you the truth about the world,” she warns the young girl. On the contrary, though, Kristin comes away from the experience thinking “it was as if the whole world had been good to her,” and this sweet feeling lingers over the coming months, as she and Erlend begin a clandestine romance.
Kristin is already engaged to a good, respected man she likes, with the blessing of both families. But the handsome, impulsive, rather profligate Erlend is different from anyone she’s known in her sheltered valley, and once she falls in love with him, she can’t bear to return to the more staid Simon. What’s striking is that as Kristin gives herself to this relationship in ways she can’t take back—including behavior she knows is sinful and scandalous—she feels herself slipping away from the anchors of home, family, and even faith. She tries to convince herself that once she breaks things off with Simon, life can be like it was before—she’ll just go to confession, get married to Erlend, and that will be that—but she begins to learn that sin’s effects aren’t so tidily contained. For instance, to soothe her own conscience, she takes an interest in gossip, “looking for evidence that other people, like herself, were not without sin.”
Insistent on having her own way—which she ultimately gets, wearing down her father until she’s allowed to marry Erlend—she’s also heedless of the shame that her selfishness and deceit bring on her parents. And because of the sin bound up with their love, Kristin finds resentment against Erlend rooting in her heart from their earliest days of marriage. When, months later, she goes on a penitential pilgrimage to St. Olav’s Cathedral at Nidaros, Kristin comes to some recognition of this:
She had repeated the prayers that were placed on her lips. She had given out the alms that her father had placed in her hands … She had clung to everyone who offered her protection and support … and then she had flung herself into passionate sinful desire[.] … Goodness and love she had accepted from everyone, as if they were her right. … But the first time someone confronted her, she had risen up like a snake and struck … Just as she would have risen up against God Himself if He had placed His righteous hand on the back of her neck (403–404).
Kristin’s upbringing in the most loving and godly home can’t protect her from the vicious reality of her own heart in rebellion against God. Her story isn’t always a pleasant read, but its stark honesty about human sin intrigues and humbles me every time. Likewise, Kristin’s and Erlend’s marriage is nothing to swoon over, to put it mildly. While Undset starts with young love triumphing against steep odds, she doesn’t flinch from showing how passion also begets sorrow. (Something similar can be said of the novel’s take on motherhood.) But as Kristin fights with her husband’s deep flaws and especially her own, the novel unfolds a greater love story between her soul and God.
What does Kristin fear and love most? What is the truth about the world, as she discovers it? I’ve only offered some hints here; in my next article, I want to take a closer look at Kristin’s movement toward God, and how we might reflect as Protestants on her turning away from the world.
The trilogy is long—about 1,000 pages in the Penguin edition—but so is the winter: what better time to visit medieval Norway, as gorgeously and unsentimentally portrayed by Sigrid Undset? Read it for the immersive setting, the minutely researched political intrigues, and the startlingly thin boundary between Christian and pagan practices in a tumultuous era. There’s even a climactic plague. But if none of that feels sufficiently familiar, read it for the story of a soul in desperate need of grace, whose life in a fallen world turns out much differently than her dreams. That is Kristin Lavransdatter’s perennial appeal and challenge.
Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania with her husband and Basset Hound.