“Why are you reading a teenager book?” a friend of mine asked, bemused to see me with a copy of Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath. Her question was understandable: The paperback edition of the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s trilogy from the 1920s, translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, shows a pretty young couple courting in a grove, all flowing locks and blushes. The tagline on the back is about whether Kristin would dare to marry a man against her parents’ wishes. Swoon!
And in an odd way this first impression is right. Kristin Lavransdatter is an epic tale of fourteenth-century Norway, a saga of marriage and motherhood, sin and penitence, suffering and acceptance. I read it for the first time at age thirty four, and that’s a good age to meet it. But I wish I’d read it earlier. I wish I’d devoured it as a teen, let its view of life sink into me and change me long before I could really understand it. I suspect this would be a good book to grow up with.
The book has the thrilling sweep and intimacy of the great nineteenth-century novels. It covers Norwegian royal politics and the pettiest, most recognizable marital squabbles. There’s an escaped leopard, a chase by wolves, a severed hand, armed confrontations and witchcraft—even human sacrifice. There are pilgrimages and prophetic dreams, and the tenderest, most poignant emotions of young love, motherhood, and devotion to God.
Despite the medieval setting, many parts of the book feel thoroughly contemporary. Parents pass their own conflicts down to their children; when Kristin spends her first married Christmas with her in-laws she, and the reader, suddenly realize exactly where her husband gets the unsteadier parts of his character. Even the best marriages are often built on deep and sometimes secret pain. Love easily curdles into resentment—but underneath the resentment love remains and can be restored. Kristin loves her children, but often lets them get swept up in the storms of her marriage.
Erlend, the husband, is a terrific creation: romantic, impetuous, the embodiment of the saying that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. And Undset has the rare talent of making goodness as interesting as misbehavior. Kristin’s father Lavrans is far from perfect; he can be judgmental, and his well-meant advice misfires (as the best advice often does). But he’s a good man, God-fearing and humble, and his goodness makes him just as compelling a character as the volatile Erlend. In all of Undset’s characters the virtues are at least as interesting to read about as the vices, and virtue often interweaves with vice: Kristin’s maternal tenderness can become overprotectiveness and unwillingness to let go of her own image of her children. Her former fiance Simon has a talent for self-abnegating fidelity (there’s a poignant little moment where we learn that he rarely adds his own words to his prayers, preferring to repeat the set phrases), but unfortunately this fidelity is not primarily attached to his own wife.
I suppose one element of contemporary life is mostly missing: In Kristin Lavransdatter people often break the rules but rarely reject them. Very few of these characters are virgins on their wedding days, to take the most obvious example, and yet the ubiquity of sexual sin doesn’t cause them to cast aside the strictures of church and culture. They handle this problem with hypocrisy and the old brutal male compartmentalization (Sami women don’t count), but above all they handle it with penance and forgiveness. Moral relativism means never having to say you’re sorry; these characters are backsliders, sinners, and still partly pagan, but they’re definitely not relativists.
Kristin Lavransdatter can be a tough read. The final volume is called The Cross, and the title is not false advertising. This is a story about perseverance; it’s about the ways in which the saying “love conquers all” is false as well as the ways in which it’s true. When I asked friends to recommend novels about marriage this was by far the most-mentioned title, but it’s certainly not marital propaganda: This is not a book about people who are good at being married. Kristin’s marriage begins in pain, fear, and anger, as she hides a pregnancy from her father and even her husband; it ends in violence and thwarted reconciliation. And yet the book as a whole takes readers on a journey through all the shades of experience, including the brightest shades of joy and the richest shades of selfless love. This is a book which allows its characters to find about as much peace as their tumultuous hearts can bear.
Editor’s note: This post begins a series on five great novels about marriage.