Kristin 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.