It’s becoming progressively cooler here where I am dwelling west of the Atlantic, and south of the North Pole. The winter air has moved in, and, over the weekend, the leaves tumbled off the trees causing their sudden barrenness to stand in dark relief to the white winter skies. We have made several fires in the fireplace, and the shoulder shawl has remained on for much of the day. The cool air, shortening days, and sense of being housebound, causes one to peruse the book shelves to find that one certain book, the book you cannot pick up in spring, summer, or fall for there’s simply too much light, and things to do, places to go, hiking, picnics and such. And, once that one certain book is picked up, well, it’s hard to speak of what happens, but I will try to convey it. No, it might not be the best idea to speak of it. Let’s just say, the book has some sort of ability to send readers into an emotional state unlike any other book.
The book I am speaking of is the great Kristin Lavransdatter by the Norwegian Catholic writer, Sigrid Undset (b. 1882-d. 1949). If you pick up this book, I guarantee that the dear Kristin will enter your heart, and never leave. I have often found myself thinking that I shall like to meet her in heaven, only to snap out of it, remembering she is simply a character in a novel, but that’s how well the book is written.
Sigrid Undset was a convert to Catholicism, and her Catholic faith is evident in her writing. In Sigrid Undset: Catholic Viking, Stephen Sparrow writes of Sigrid Undset’s Catholic faith, and notes that Undset loved G.K. Chesterton, a fact I have never known:
For Undset, dogma was the cornerstone of belief. “One cannot escape dogmas,” she wrote; “and those who hold most firmly to dogmas today are those whose only dogma is that dogmas should be feared like the plague.” There is a strong echo of G. K. Chesterton in that statement and she loved Chesterton, which makes me wonder if during the year she spent in London in 1913 she may well have attended some of his public lectures.
Undset saw godlessness as the enemy of civilization and with her passion for historical truth and accuracy she was well qualified to write this gem: Pre-Christian paganism is a love poem to a God who remained hidden, or it was an attempt to gain the favour of the divine powers whose presence man felt about him. The new paganism is a declaration of war against a God who has revealed Himself.
In her novel Ida Elizabeth the main character muses: “Is there something which we ought to have known and have never been told and is that why we do such terribly stupid things with our lives?” That reflection sounds very much how Sigrid Undset must have felt when looking back on her life, which in its early (atheistic) phase, was filled with moral signposts wobbling loosely in subjectivism. But, when the deception became obvious and Undset made her turnaround, she quickly became one of the most outspoken and well-known advocates for Catholicism in the whole of Europe. She pointed out the fallacy of respecting Christianity merely because of its civilizing role in history and reminded her readers that the advantages gained by any State from its Christian heritage were, “by-products which came about while the Church was pursuing her real aim that of saving souls.”
Undset’s researches had confirmed for her the ugly fact that in pre-Christian Europe it was the custom in most communities at the onset of winter, to kill “surplus” small children and old people by exposing them to the cold in order to preserve food supplies for the fit and the strong, and often the Church had to live with an overlap of up to a generation or more between the establishment of its mission and the gradual cessation of such pagan practices. To illustrate the regard in which Undset’s historical accuracy is held; it is not unknown for University lecturers in Medieval European Studies classes to advise their students that the best way to gain an insight into the medieval period is to read Undset’s sagas.
When it came to fiction, Undset dealt with life under a harsh realistic light. She wrote about people; about men and women, husbands and wives and children; and sex, especially the wrong use of sex and the lasting effects of guilt, sin and remorse. In her medieval sagas, the characters lived every day knowing that at death either heaven or hell waited for them and that only by people ordering their lives toward the good of others, could they be assured of Redemption. Outside of idiots and little children, no one of her medieval characters could ever be called innocent. But it is the special knack Undset has for portraying mothers and their children that fills the reader with awe; and as for her descriptions of Norway: its rivers, lakes, mountains; its villages, livestock, crops and weather: just close your eyes and you’re there.
Coming to her Nobel Prize winning novel Kristin Lavrensdatter; anyone who has yet to read it can be envied for the treat lying in store. But be aware that at just over one thousand pages, it will require a healthy budget of time. Kristin L is about a headstrong young woman who refuses to marry the husband arranged by her father on the basis of wealth, station etc. The story follows her affair with Erland, the man she really loves, her marriage to him, the children she bears him and the vicissitudes of their life together until he is mortally wounded in a fight; after which the twilight of Kristin’s life is worked out against the shadow of the plague, which marched through Europe in the 14th Century.
The following excerpt appears early in volume one and there is exquisite theology in this conversation between the Cathedral artist Brother Edvin and Kristin as a small child. Kristin has told Edvin that the dragon in his stained glass window is too small and that he could never swallow a maiden and Edvin tells her she is right and that creatures that serve the devil only seem big when they are feared. He added that if man sought God ardently; the devil immediately suffered a great defeat…
“No one and nothing can harm us child, except what we fear and love.””But what if a person doesn’t fear and love God?” asked Kristin in horror, to which Brother Edvin responded.
“There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it’s because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and this flesh, that we are miserable in love and death. For if a man knew no yearning for God and God’s being, then he would thrive in Hell, and we alone would not understand that he had found his heart’s desire. Then the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, and he would not feel the pain of the serpent’s bite if he did not long for peace.”
Needless to say Undset described this little homily as sailing straight over Kristin’s head. source
Kristin Lavransdatter is a marvelous work, and if you have the emotional strength, and a bit of time, do pick it up, but do not blame me if you are late to the office, or the housework goes undone, or you find yourself weeping at that one last scene; not that I have ever done such things! 😉
Have a beautiful day.
•Link to an interesting 1995 interview regarding a film about the book: here.
•Sigrid Undset and an Escape to Reality, blog post by a Dominican brother which explores the work of Sigrid Undset, here.
•Image: Sigrid Undset at work, source.