Maybe a hundred years ago feels too far removed to be relevant. How much more disconnected does it feel seven hundred years ago? When reporters asked Sigrid Undset why she wrote medieval sagas, the Nobel Prize-winning writer replied, “You can only write novels your age.” Kristin Lavransdatter, published in three volumes between 1920 and 1922, grants readers a vision of the human self that is always true even though it burns. No one reading the novel would dare to call it a relic of the 20th century (or worse, a story from a distant, irrelevant time). On the occasion of his 100th birthday, we should cling to this novel because it honestly, beautifully and hauntedly portrays a soul in sanctification.
Rarely do we get the epic journey of a lifetime from womb to grave, and even more rarely do we experience such heroic deeds in the form of a female protagonist. In our time of the plague, what could be better than reading about the Black Death? What should inspire us more in our time of isolation than a story about friendship and family? With every turn of the page, every moment of misguided passion, every grief over lost loved ones and past memories that are never relived, the novel Undset proves correct – its age is our own.
Despite her Nobel Prize, Sigrid Undset is an underrated writer who we celebrated way too late for her genius and talent. She lived in the same period as other notable intellectuals like Dorothy Sayers, Anna Julia Cooper, Edith Stein and Simone Weil and, like her, did not receive the same opportunities that were offered to her as men of her time. When her father died when she was only eleven years old, her mother and siblings were thrown into poverty. Undset started working as a secretary as soon as possible to help with finances, and she wrote fiction in her spare time. In one of the most humorous oversights in publishing, an editor turned down her first attempt at a medieval novel and advised her to try a more realistic story. She published a handful of these realistic stories before going back to the Middle Ages and composing Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. Both of them sold well enough to lift her out of poverty and provide for her family. It also earned her recognition by the Nobel Prize Committee in 1928. She passed the entire prize money on to children’s charities.
In 1940 Undset had to flee their homeland because of the Nazi occupation of Norway. She had been an active opponent of the Nazis even before they invaded. Your son died fighting for Norway. While the Gestapo set up their headquarters in their house in Lillehammer, Undset settled in exile in New York and wrote anti-German articles for the Scandinavian Catholic League St. Ansgar. She recorded her journey in a treatise entitled Returning to the Future: An Escape to Freedom. When Undset returned to Norway after the war, she felt haunted by those who had lived in her house while she was away. Her daughter had died before the war broke out. All she had was her youngest son, and the loss of her children weighed heavily on her. She wrote a biography of Catherine of Siena, which Doubleday rejected and published only posthumously. She died alone in her home on June 10, 1949.
Kristin Lavransdatter follows the course of a young girl’s life from her earliest years to her death of the plague as a fifty-year-old woman. Her story isn’t extraordinary for its plot points – though it reads as excitingly as any HBO series – but because of the struggle of her will, the internal struggle that readers experience throughout their lives with Kristin. The tension of the divided self is as old as Augustine, but only our culture seems to want to dismiss this struggle as illusory. Kristin starts to buck at the congress at an early age. She is just as drawn to the vision of an elven maiden in the mountains as to the Virgin Mary painted in stained glass in the cathedral windows. She wants to please her father, whom she loves, but refuses his proposed suitor and puts her family to shame by indulging in a disreputable man before marriage. Towards the end of the story, she confesses to a priest, “All of my days I have longed equally to go the right way and to go my own flawed way.” Kristin finds good and bad equally convincing, and she connects the latter with her own Because of.
We often think of saints as dispassionate beings, but as Peter Kreeft once pointed out, saints start out as the most passionate sinners. They have so much passion and zeal, but they misdirect the energy on what they see as their own good before turning it to God. Kristin represents such a passionate but misguided saint. When a monk, Brother Edvin, asks if she would like to dedicate her beauty to God and join the monastery, she refuses the suggestion. Instead of being the bride of Christ, Kristin Erlend joins Nikulausson, who is an excellent lover but a poor husband. Kristin complains: “I didn’t know then that the result of sin is that you have to trample other people.” She suffers most of her life as a result of her choices: complicity in murder, raising headstrong and spirited sons, confiscating her royal estate, and even losing her husband, who dies for her vicious honor.
When Kristin ends up becoming a nun in a monastery, she feels little will in making this choice. “The world was a master from whom it was difficult to flee when a person had submitted to its power,” Kristin muses. “Certainly she would not have fled either, but she was driven out the way a tough master chases a worn-out vassal out the door.” In another moment she compares the world to a beer house: “The person who has nothing more to spend is thrown outside the door.” The beauty that led Kristin to sin has faded. As Husaby’s lover, trust had been required to run her estate. However, such a virtue will not be required to maintain monastery gardens. Kristin discovers what George Bernanos calls the “miracle of empty hands” that we can only give to ourselves, and God works through such empty vessels for His good.
When Sigrid Undset wrote Kristin Lavransdatter, she was not a Christian. She had read Catholic writers like GK Chesterton (maybe even heard him lectures the year she was in London) and translated Friendship with Christ by Robert Hugh Benson. It was only when Kristin Lavransdatter was writing that Undset felt condemned to join the Roman Catholic Church in 1924. When people asked what led her to believe, she confessed that she had spent all her time in the company of saints and wrote her stories in the Church. How can you spend years with God’s friends and not want to be one? As a Dominican tertiary, Undset adopted the name “Olave”, a feminized form of Olav, Norway’s first holy king. The icons of Saint Olav show him with an ax in one hand and a cross in the other, a fitting image of the characters of Kristin and Undset, both the fighter and the sufferer.
When we finish Undset’s story, we should feel hungry rather than satisfied – that we want more, be more, and do more for this time and place we are in. Like Kristin, we should be restless when we receive the goals of our own will, and only be happy when our will has sought and found something much higher.
As the story takes us to Kristin’s deathbed, we feel a real loss because we’ve known her for decades. We do not mourn, however, because she goes to her death and knows that “a love that was poured over her – and despite her willpower, despite her melancholy, earthbound heart, part of this love remained in her, had worked like this Sun on earth had produced a harvest which neither the fiercest fire of passion nor the most stormy anger could completely destroy. “Her death is a victory that we also witness a hundred years after it was written. Though it’s fiction, her death feels truer than the truth.
In Kristin Lavransdatter we see a life that resembles our own, full of desires for the good she should do and all the things she knows she shouldn’t want. Through Kristin’s childhood, youthful romance, stormy marriage, the intimate realities of motherhood and struggles, as well as her wrestling with age and its possible uselessness, we are pulled out of the center of our lived stories to envision all of life. If I live another ten, twenty, or thirty years, how will the choices I make now affect my entire story? What goods should I pursue instead of those evils that compete for my desires? How would you like those who come after you to tell your story? If we look closely, we see a reflection of our time, a mixture of pagan and Christian ideas, a nation haunted by the heroes and villains of the past. What will they say about our age in a hundred years?
If we want to overcome the fallacy of presentism and look beyond the heightened emotion of our present cultural moment, we should read old books, especially books that take us back in time and in even older times. Kristin Lavransdatter invites us to rethink the world we live in. The novel acts as a mirror that does not reflect what we want to see, but perhaps what we have neglected, the consequences of our autonomous paths. When we finish Undset’s story, we should feel hungry rather than satisfied – that we want more, be more, and do more for this time and place we are in. Like Kristin, we should be restless when we receive the goals of our own will, and only be happy when our will has sought and found something much higher.