Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath

kristinKristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset’s epic and yet intensely personal story of one woman’s  medieval Norway, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928. It has been on my TBR list for a long time, and in 2005 it came out in a beautiful new Penguin Classic translation by Tiina Nunnally, eliminating all the thees and thous and methinkses and restoring some crucial scenes that had previously been bowdlerized, and so I thought this was the perfect time to begin it.

The story, which is over 1100 pages long, is actually a trilogy. The first book is called The Wreath, an object whose symbolism winds through the book. A wreath, worn on loose hair, is the symbol of an unmarried woman in 14th-century Norwegian society, and indeed Kristin is only a girl when we first meet her. There are other wreaths, too, though:  funeral wreaths, tempting wreaths of flowers held by dangerous troll-women in the mountains, and finally the undeserved golden bridal wreath on Kristin’s hair on her wedding day.

This book is wonderfully readable. I absolutely fell into it, caught up in the plot and wanting to know more about every character. Kristin is the daughter of Lavrans and Ragnfrid, who lost three sons in infancy and therefore cherish their daughter tenderly. She is a bit whimsical and willful, defying her family in small ways, and when she falls in love with Erlend Nikulausson even though she is betrothed to Simon Darre (an arrangement almost as binding as a marriage), she doesn’t hesitate to give herself to him, heart, soul, and everything else, knowing that she will eventually be able to wear her parents down. It doesn’t matter to her that Erlend has a bad reputation in society and has been excommunicated by the church; it doesn’t matter that it will break her parents’ heart. She will never know another moment’s joy if she marries Simon, so she persists in her path. And in the end, with all the actions she must take to achieve her goal, the traditional golden wreath of the virgin bride lies heavy on her conscience.

I loved that this book was no modern cheer for the independent spirit — it always bothers me horribly when books about the Middle Ages make their characters into rugged individualists with no thought for family, church, lineage, or social opinion. Laws about women’s behavior were, of course, there to keep women in their place, but they were also there to protect women from a society where rape was common, arranged marriages could mean lifelong misery, and death in childbirth was an everyday occurrence. Kristin’s mistakes are the mistakes any fifteen-year-old girl might make, but their repercussions are distinctly medieval: banishment, excommunication, exile from the family or from inheritance. Undset (and Nunnally’s wonderful translation) make Kristin’s world clear, with bright lights and dark shadows. Kristin is deeply connected on all sides, whether she likes it or not. The people we meet are very human, full of life and love and anger and tenderness and bad timing. And even though death comes every day, it’s never something they become used to.

The Wreath was a wonderful window into Northern life during the 14th century. I felt as if I were reading a saga, or reading about people who had, themselves, read all the sagas and made them part of their mental furniture. I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy and find out what happens to Kristin Lavransdatter and her world.

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17 Responses to Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath

  1. What a beautiful review! I especially loved this:

    “The people we meet are very human, full of life and love and anger and tenderness and bad timing. And even though death comes every day, it’s never something they become used to.”

    I can’t say that I have read any Norwegian literature, and I had never heard of this book, but it’s going on my TBR list. It sounds wonderful.

  2. 3m says:

    I just finished Volume 2 in December. You’re right. It’s so surprisingly readable! Looking forward to Volume 3.

  3. Heather J. says:

    I’ve been hearing about this book for some time now – it sounds like a MUST READ for me.

  4. JaneGS says:

    I haven’t heard of this book nor read any Norwegian literature, but it sounds wonderful. I liked your point about when contemporary historical authors graft modern ideals onto their characters and how this author doesn’t do that. That in itself makes it worth exploring.

  5. Teresa says:

    I watched the movie version of this a few years ago, and I remember thinking that the book would probably be a good read. The movie was enjoyable, but it seemed like there must be more to the story than was included. I’ll be on the lookout for these.

  6. Jenny says:

    Meg89 — thanks! I’ve never read any Norwegian lit before, either, but this is a great introduction.

    Michelle — Always nice to be reading along with someone else!

    Heather — It’s terrific. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am.

    JaneGS — I agree that trying to take the historical point of view is rare enough that it makes this book worth looking into. We’re all human, but one age is not a carbon copy of another…

  7. Jenny says:

    Ooops — and Teresa! Yes, there usually is more to the book than the movie, with a few glaring exceptions. I think you’d like this.

  8. Danielle says:

    I read this exact edition a couple of years ago and loved it for the same reasons you did. This is excellent historical fiction and she was certainly deserving of the Nobel for it. She paints a very real portrait of the period and the characters–nothing idealized here, but it was all completely engrossing. I thin I need to reread it eventually, though I do have a few of her other novels as well.

  9. adevotedreader says:

    I bought the lovely new edition of this but still haven’t got around to it yet. When I’ve dipped into it it does seem like a page turner, and it sounds like I should read it sooner rather than later.

  10. Jenny says:

    Danielle — I haven’t heard much about her other novels. Let me know what you think of them when you get around to them!

    Devotedreader — It really is a page-turner, much more so than I had anticipated. Any time I open it, I can count on being unable to put it down for at least 40 pages. Really enjoyable, and highly recommended!

  11. Darryl says:

    I enjoyed reading your reviews of The Wreath and The Wife, and I’ll look forward to your review of The Cross (3rd volume). It gets even better.

    As I write this, I’m halfway through my third reading of the trilogy. Although you can never beat the initial discovery of a masterpiece, I’m seeing and appreciating even more the details and richness of the story and the characters in my third reading.

    Kristin Lavransdatter is my all time favorite book. The characters are so human, so terribly, achingly and exasperatingly human. I can’t think of another literary character as real as and as sympathetic as Kristin. I don’t think there’s another character that I just think about from time to time, like you do with an actual friend or relative, and wonder, what if she had done this, what if she had done that, how could she have done this, she should have done that?

    A few tips for would-be readers:
    * Do not think, “I don’t care for historical fiction, so I’ll pass on this one.” I don’t care for historical fiction either, but this is still my favorite book. This is a story for all time, for all humanity, it’s not just a story for history buffs. I almost wish the marketing material on this book would play down the 14th-century-Norway angle because this just cubbyholes the book into an obscure category.
    * It seems most of the online chatter on this book is from women and Christians, and especially Catholics, but don’t think of this book as a niche female-Catholic-history-lover book. I’m none of those and yet, as I’ve said, it’s still my favorite book.
    * Don’t be intimidated by the 1,168 pages. It’s worth it.
    * I bought the 1-volume set but it’s so heavy that I later bought the three single volumes even though they cost more.
    * Read the modern Tiina Nunnally translations; stay away from the older Archer translations, even if you find them cheap in a thrift store. The Archer translations sound like a Monthy Python parody of Ivanhoe.
    * If you’re a bargain hunter and want to find the Nunnally translations in a used book store, good luck. I search for them in every used bookstore, in NYC, Chicago and DC, thinking I’ll give them to friends, and yet I’ve only found one of each volume. Apparently people don’t give these up. Yet I find dozens of the Archer translations (see above).
    * I recommend you NOT read the introductions from the guest academics (especially the one in V3) as they give away too many spoilers. Go ahead and read them after you finish the book, but not before.
    * Parts of V2 and the beginning of V3 get into a complicated political subplot. Even after re-reading the story, I’m still a little confused on some of the finer details, but you really don’t need to know all the details. Don’t worry if you don’t get it all; this subplot serves the main plot and you don’t need to obsess over the political machinations in the subplot. (I hope this makes sense.)
    * Don’t fret too much if you can’t keep all the characters straight. It’s not that important. If you need help, then take a look at the family tree diagrams on this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kristin_Lavransdatter
    * “Simon Darre” and “Simon Andresson” are the same person.

  12. Jenny says:

    Darryl — thanks so much for this great comment! Very helpful to readers! I agree with all that you’ve said, and would just add that if you want to find used copies of the Tiina Nunnally version of the trilogy (well worth finding, as you point out), you probably just have to wait: it only came out in 2005. And you can find my review of The Cross by searching for it on this site — I read it in January, and thoroughly enjoyed it!

  13. Christopher Lord says:

    I just want to echo what Darryl posted–this is fiction of the highest order, and a page-turner to boot. I’m a fussy, middle-aged gay man who likes 19th century fiction, and usually doesn’t like books where I have to consult a family tree just to keep things straight. But Kristin Lavransdatter, after about twenty pages or so, is a page-turner, and contains moments of aching brilliance. The scenes between Kristin’s parents after she leaves for the convent and the one that closes volume I (The Wreath) will break your heart. I haven’t loved a book this much in a long time. The Nunnally translation is very readable. Bless you, Jenny, for giving this book its day in the sun (because it gets so cold on the fjords, don’t you know).

  14. Pingback: Mindy Withrow » Kristin Lavransdatter

  15. Just found your blog, Jenny, while searching for other bloggers writing about KRISTIN. Your reviews on these 3 volumes are excellent! — I’m adding them to a list of “other reviews” links at the close of my own brief review at http://mindywithrow.com/?p=1011. What a truly remarkable work, worthy of all this great discussion — thanks for your contribution!

  16. Jenny says:

    Christopher — thank you so much for your lovely comment. I find it hard to believe this wonderful book could ever have been cold, even on the fjords — wrapped in furs, maybe, waiting for more readers? So glad you enjoyed it.

    Mindy — how nice to see the list of bloggers who have reviewed it! Thanks for your nod to Shelf Love, and thanks so much for your kind comment.

  17. Pingback: Northern European Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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