Undset, or Three Things to Love About the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. I continue to press forward, this being number 12 of 15, and at this point 15 Classics in 15 Years seems quite doable…

Last week I finally finished Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. This series came highly recommended by two trusted friends; the author, Sigrid Undset, was the daughter of Norwegian atheists, a Catholic convert, and a Nobel Prize winner. The books are tremendous, insightful, and often achingly beautiful.

However, these are not easy reads. Although written in the 20th century, my translation, at least, has a voice and vocabulary hearkening to the Middle Ages, with both Norwegian and Latin scattered throughout. The author’s knowledge and love of her country’s geography and culture shines throughout the books, but could overwhelm or disorient the reader.

It can also be challenging for a man to characterize or recommend these books to others — the covers of the edition I have (pictured above) do not inspire masculine interest, nor do the titles or cover summaries:

  • “Volume I, The Bridal Wreath, describes young Kristin’s stormy romance with the dashing Erlend Nikulasson, a young man perhaps overly fond of women, of whom her father strongly disapproves.”
  • “Volume II, The Mistress of Husaby, tells of Kristin’s troubled and eventful married life on the great estate of Husaby, to which her husband has taken her.”
  • “Volume III, The Cross, shows Kristin still indomitable, reconstructing her world after the devastation of the Black Death and the loss of almost everything that she has loved.”

That said, within the past month, The Catholic Gentleman website posted an article entitled, “Kristin Lavransdatter and Your Nordic Catholic Medieval Heart,” which makes a solid (if hyperbolic) case for why every Catholic man, at least, should read these books.* Men, take this as a challenge!

Now, without further ado, Three Things to Love about the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy:

  • Everyday Catholicism: This series is as Catholic as the day is long, although Catholicism is not what it’s “about.” I’ve never read a book in which Catholic prayers and blessings, sin and penance, were so effortlessly present and pervasive, reflecting the daily lives of the characters. If you want a glimpse into the everyday lives of the faithful during the Middle Ages, this is your ticket — this is what Christendom looked like.
  • Historical Fantasy: Although painstakingly researched and historically accurate, the style and storytelling recall great fairy tales and epic fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings. High mountains and dark forests. Fertile valleys and fortified cities. Stories and visions of elves and trolls. Swordcraft and witchcraft. It’s all there for those brave enough to venture forth.
  • The Challenge of Marriage and Family: This, to me, is the real wealth of these tales. The story is told primarily, but not exclusively, through Kristin’s eyes, providing deep insight into love, marriage, masculinity, and motherhood from a woman’s perspective — but every character is richly drawn and complex, living with each other as best they can given their individual virtues and flaws, assumptions and knowledge. Even among those we love, there is so much we don’t know — which makes true love not as fleeting as feeling, but, ultimately, an act of the will.
I’ve got three more slots in my seemingly interminable quest to read 15 classics, and it has taken so long that my interests have changed. I think my final three books will be Dante’s Divine Comedy, Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Not sure on the order yet — I’m reading something else in the interim!

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The comments below the post also suggest that translations other than the one pictured, by Archer and Scott, may be better or easier reads.

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