Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kristen Lavransdatter

Statue of Kristen Lavransdatter, Sil, Norway
Set in medieval Norway, the story of Kristen Lavransdatter is so rich in the understanding of both the seen and the unseen worlds, and their relationship, that it must be read in its entirety. It has enthralled people all over the world since its completion in 1927 by Sigrid Undset. Its historical and cultural accuracy helped win her the Nobel prize for literature.

Kristen is the favored daughter of a wealthy Norwegian landowner, born about 1260 A.D. Even as a young woman, Kristen’s spirit gets her in trouble. She loves a peasant boy, though her father has betrothed her to a neighboring landowner. When the boy is killed, his mother rages that it happened because of Kristen. Kristen is sent to a convent in Oslo until the gossip dies down. When Erlend Nikulausson, a knight of noble birth, rescues her and a friend, she quickly loses her heart, and even her body, to him.

When Kristen goes home, she insists she will marry no one but Erlend. Her father resists, but after three years of Kristen’s stubborn insistence, he gives in and Kristen and Erlend are married. Kristen is pregnant, but she has told no one, not even her husband, and wears the golden bridal wreath and long flowing hair reserved for virgins at her wedding.

Near the time of the child’s birth, Kristen is utterly miserable at all the sin she has kept quiet about. Fearful of dying in childbirth, she confesses all to her husband’s brother, a learned priest. After a difficult birth, Kristen is delivered of a beautiful, unmarked boy. Binding him on her back, she goes barefoot to the cathedral at Nidaros, to the archbishop of Norway, for absolution.

Though Kristen’s early years are very dramatic (the movie made by Liv Ullmann based on the book ends with her marriage), I loved the continuing story of her later life. At first Kristen has one son after another, five sons in five years, and is ill much of the time. But, when Erlend spends several years away in the north, she recovers and becomes just as blooming and lovely as when she was a girl. She works hard to restore Erland’s neglected household and brings honor to it.

Simon, the landowner Kristen was first betrothed to, is now married to Kristen’s younger sister. When Erlend’s attempt to return a Norwegian king to Norway’s throne fails, he is tried for treason and Simon, because of his enduring love for Kristen, contrives his release. Erland is returned to his family, but his lands are forfeited to the Swedish crown and he and his many sons must move back to Kristen’s much smaller farmstead. Kristen, in her turn, when Simon’s son is expected to die, takes upon herself the sin of witchcraft to save him.

No matter how deeply they love each other, Erlend and Kristen cannot keep faith with each other during everyday life. Kristen worries constantly that her sons will now have to leave home, as her lands will not support seven sons. When she finally says so, Erlend packs up and rides away to a small ghost-ridden northern farm, the only thing he owns. Their sons suffer and so does Kristen, but she cannot apologize. When Simon dies, he secures Kristen’s promise to go and make up with Erlend. Kristen does. The two of them are happy alone there in the unkempt place. “Yet never, more than now, had he seemed the son of chiefs and nobles. So fairly and easily he bore his tall slim form, with the broad shoulders somewhat stooped, the long, fine limbs.” When she goes home to their sons, Kristen is again pregnant.

Erlend and Kristen are not destined to live long and happily. Erlend dies defending Kristen’s honor once again, and Kristen enters a nunnery, giving herself at last to God. She nurses people when the plague comes, and finally it claims her too.

Every one of the characters in the book is filled out with humanity, including the priests who befriend Kristen. None of them forgets the past, either. Both kinds of being, the intrinsic unchangeable self and the self that unfolds in time are always sensed in these remarkable people who lived so long ago in a feudal culture that affected their every movement, while they fought, as we do, to become the people they were meant to be.

At one point, I felt I was so involved with this book I sent my copy away! Like Kristen I first married a weak and possibly dangerous man and tried to redeem our life by steadfastly providing a courteous and seemly home for us. I could easily understand Kristen’s fears and her struggle, and I was heartened as she grew into a wise and valued woman. My worn copy of this book (which came back to me) was translated by Charles Archer and J.S. Scott, but I understand a new and better translation by Tiina Nunnally is now available.

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