Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter

by Sigrid Undset

In her great historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman.

Painting a richly detailed backdrop, Undset immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period.

With its captivating heroine and emotional potency, Kristin Lavransdatter is the masterwork of Norway's most beloved author, one of the twentieth century's most prodigious and engaged literary minds and, in Nunnally's exquisite translation, a story that continues to enthrall.

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Her Kristin Lavransdatter books are unquestionably works of massive scope on par with JRR Tolkien's Lord Of the Rings. Tolkien and Undset both took such great care to imbue their work with eternal life. The community is not, like in so many other books, a static thing that serves as a canvas for the main character to travel across without resistance. It's so layered that it portrays almost all aspects of a woman's life during the 14th century.(I specify the era because many things have changed since then but I wish to stress that I noticed that the similarities between the times are more prominent than the differences) Talk about a woman's perspective! How layered life actually is. There is magic, most who know me will attest to my love of all things magical.

"All my days I have longed equally to travel the right road and to take my own errant path." I am not a great fan of historical fiction, especially not if the main characters are deeply religious to the point of sacrificing themselves and their happiness in order to be forgiven for their sins (their moments of passion and life, that is!). Kristin herself, stuck between the wish to do the right thing by her father and her faith and to experience true passion, could be living in any place and any time. Unable to resist the strong, powerful charisma of a "bad guy", Erlend, she experiences both the bliss of passion and the drudgery of life shared with an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky man - instead of stable, yet boring companionship with a man of her father's choice.

A historical epic divided in three installments The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross that unfolds the life of Kristin Lavrandsatter, a woman of noble ancestry in Medieval Norway, from birth to death. The resigned attitude showed by Kristin whenever she is delivered a tragic blow brings digressive inner monologues that circle around God-fearing arguments that, in my opinion, taint the luscious descriptions of the Scandinavian landscape and its powerful symbolism. To blossom in the face of Death, like Undsets characters do, requires blind faith and that is something an incredulous dilettante like myself cant indulge in; and so to all those daredevils who think like I do, I toast to life, while it lasts, and to its paradoxical absurdities, which I embrace without pretensions, hoping to reach the end of this bumpy journey with a full heart rather than fearful hope.

What matters is when the author dives deep into both thought and feeling, wrestling in such a knowledgeable yet empathetic way that it matters not that they were born in the 19th century and I was not, that they were religious and I am not, that they were holistically passionate about Norway in the Middle Ages and I am not. The woman who takes a path different from what has been ordained is a popular topic in the classics, but it is a rare piece of literature that so thoroughly and humanely follows that "fallen" life to its end. Rare is the work that brings forth a woman who, while willing and able to follow the mores of the world she has been brought up in, does not accept the assumption that she will submit to them entirely. Where Middlemarch plucks and bends but more often than not turns towards the realistic happy ending, Kristin Lavransdatter triggers the fall, follows them down, and watches these human beings wrest their own measure of self-worth from a narrative that in any other work would have ended with the finality of death. Middlemarch has both depth and breadth, but it does not send its heroine through the ravages of death and time and all the social redemption they bring long after they would have done any good. It does not send its heroine into a gorgeous world of unjust human beings and wrestle it with her to the very end. Now she realized that her mothers heart had been deeply etched with memories of her daughter, memories of her thoughts about the child from before she was born and from all the years the child could not remember, memories of fears and hopes and dreams that children would never know had been dreamed on their behalf, before it was their own turn to fear and hope and dream in secret. It is a story of a human being in a part of the world during a time of great religious focus, and never is the strength of any individual in the face of death and growth and transitioning faith taken for granted.

I am surprised to have liked it as much as I did, because there is no reason this massive book should work.

For those reading it for the first time, I strongly recommend the most recent translation by Tiina Nunnally. The original translation into english by Charles Archer, which I tried to read unsuccessfully several years ago, is filled with unauthentic arhaic language that is not true to Sigrid Undset's original Norwegian text which was written in clear and beautiful modern prose despite its medieval context. But, to quote Brad Leithauser in his introduction to the book, "her unshakable guilt in no way paralyzes her and she carries on with her life." Undset's potent message is that even though we may experience pain and sorrow over our choices one cannot squander one's life in regret and bitterness, failing to recognize the blessings and happiness we have been given.

(Though Undset's other major work, which I read as an omnibus volume before this one, the quartet of novels collectively titled The Master of Hestviken, has a male protagonist.) Undset, however, set her work at a later time (the 13th or, in this case, 14th centuries) and covered her main characters' entire lives starting in childhood, which gives her work more of an epic scope. But (although the Goodreads description ignores this fact), Undset is as concerned with her characters' relationship with God as with their human relationships; this gives the novels an added dimension of spiritual depth that was a definite plus for me.

I've seen Kristin Lavransdatter described as a book about a young woman who "defies her family and faith to follow the passions of her heart." Well, yes. The consequences of Kristin choosing herself before God a thing called sin echo, and echo, and echo for the rest of her life, affecting not only Kristin herself but everyone she loves. I am not at all surprised that Undset converted to Catholicism soon after writing Kristin Lavransdatter I'm just astonished that she wasn't Catholic when she wrote it!

If you want to read about medieval times without getting bored, this book is a great choice. I am glad I spent the summer reading this book, since it included so much history and such unique characters. I really enjoyed this book, because the characters seem very real and it is historically accurate.

This trilogy has been translated into more than 80 languages and is among the worlds most read novels.