No series on great literature would be complete without due attention being given to Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian novelist and convert to the Faith, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, four years after her reception into the Church. Her two most celebrated works are Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, both of which are multi-volume historical epics set in medieval Norway. The first was published in three parts between 1920 and 1922 and the latter in four parts between 1925 and 1927.
Although Kristin Lavransdatter, unlike The Master of Hestviken, was written prior to Undset’s reception into the Church, the seeds of conversion are evident in the tone and tenor of the story, in its moral fabric, and in the all-pervasive atmosphere of Thomistic ethical reality.
The novel’s plot follows the trials and tribulations of the eponymous heroine from her childhood to her death. The young Kristin betrays her family, and especially her wise and holy father, in her succumbing to willful passion and its woeful and complex consequences. The reader winces as the young and headstrong girl makes mistake after mistake, failing to follow with faith and reason the path of wisdom and virtue.
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She learns from her mistakes, sometimes painfully slowly, by learning to live with their consequences, loving even as she is often deprived of the love she needs. It is as a wife and mother, embracing the struggle and suffering of married life, that she comes of age, seasoned by the experience of a life lived for others.
The novel is rooted in Norwegian history, of which Undset had a thoroughgoing knowledge, and in the spirit of the Norse sagas, which she also knew well. The action is pedestrian in the best sense of the word, proceeding at the slow and steady pace of the seasons of the year and at the speed with which a person can travel either on foot or on horseback. Such pacing allows the reader to enter fully into the time in which the story is set by entering into the time taken by the characters themselves.
This slows us down so that we can see with eyes unblurred by the pace and frenzy of modern life, inviting an unhurried, contemplative approach to the unfolding of events as they transpire. This aspect of Undset’s novel might remind some readers of the perambulations of The Fellowship of the Ring in Tolkien’s classic, which is imbued with the same preindustrial pacing as Kristin Lavransdatter and shares the same heroic spirit of the Norse sagas, the love of which was shared by both authors and the influence of which served each of them in terms of inspiration and aspiration.
Although the pacing and historical and cultural backdrop might suggest analogies with Middle-earth, the development of character and the connection between actions and their consequences might invite parallels with the novels of Jane Austen or perhaps with The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Certainly, Undset’s characters suffer the consequences of their actions and come to wisdom through living with such consequences, as do the characters in Austen’s novels and Manzoni’s masterpiece.
The power and profundity of Kristen Lavransdatter has as its source the author’s profound understanding of the meaning of life. This manifests itself in the manner in which her characters grapple with reality as a quest for that deeper meaning which the author already grasps. Readers of the novel grapple with this reality also, empathizing and sympathizing with Kristin as she learns to cope with an unfaithful and weak-willed husband and as she learns the meaning of life and love through her experience of being a mother in hard and distressful circumstances.
The power of the story and Undset’s power as a storyteller are evident in the way in which the reader is drawn into the very presence of the angst and anger of the situations in which Kristin finds herself. We suffer with the eponymous heroine as she hungers for true happiness, finding solace in the raising of her children but feeling unfulfilled in the sense that she lacks the fullness of life. It is only as she matures, painfully slowly, that she begins to find and feel the fullness of the love that had always eluded her.
We will conclude with a few words about Undset’s other works. Her other great historical saga, The Master of Hestviken, is also set in medieval Norway and follows the sorrowful fortunes of Olav Audunssøn who, like Shakespeare’s Lear, is more sinned against than sinning. As with Kristin Lavransdatter, the key characters gain consolation amid the maelstrom of life’s misfortunes in their Catholic faith and are fortified by the wise counsel of saintly bishops and priests.
Sigrid Undset’s later works were mostly set in contemporary Norway but echoed the historical sagas in their portrayal of characters who learn from their mistakes, growing in sanity and sanctity thereby. These include Ida Elisabeth and The Wild Orchid, the latter of which tells the story of Paul Selmer and his slow and faltering journey toward the Catholic Church. An unabashed “novel of conversion,” The Wild Orchid charts the protagonist’s journey from skepticism to faith amid a backdrop of failed relationships.
At the novel’s culmination, Paul has still not taken the decisive step to submit himself to Holy Mother Church, but he appears on the brink of doing so. His final crossing of the threshold is told in the sequel, The Burning Bush, which leads him deeper into the mystery of life through the embrace of death, the ultimate paradox of the Christian life.
Sigrid Undset’s legacy as a novelist is rooted in the realism of the scholastic philosophy of which she was a diligent student. Her novels expose the shallowness of relativism and exhibit the deepest metaphysical understanding of the bedrock morality on which all human life and society is founded. She sees the real world in which people face the bitter consequences of selfish choices and in which suffering is unavoidable, yet potentially redemptive. She sees this and shows it to her readers with a crystalline clarity enriched with Christian charity. At its deepest, her fiction shows us that the acceptance and embrace of suffering is not merely the beginning of wisdom, which it is, but also, and paradoxically, that it is the path to peace and lasting joy.
Editor’s Note: This is the fortieth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”