Acts of violence and devotion, rape and worship, funerals and betrothals, love-scenes and convent-life, adultery and illness: this medieval saga has so many facets to it that I was not expecting.
Not the least of which being that it gripped my attention more tightly than any of the contemporary novels that I was reading at the time. (This might seem unbelievable, but others have found it so too.)
Don’t you love it when a world that you visit on the page suddenly seems more real than the nuts-and-bolts of your own?
Don’t let the details of lineage and the familial interconnections and agreements in the first pages of this novel put you off.
(It took me longer to start-stop through those first paragraphs than it ultimately took to read Part One.)
Is this the kind of thing that stops you up, too?
All one needs to know to proceed is this:
(a) Lavrans is “a kind and helpful master to his tenants” with a “lively spirit in his own way”, a man “who might join in a dance or start up singing when the young people frolicked on the church green on sleepless vigil nights”; and
(b) Ragnfrid is a mistress of “mournful spirit” and looks “ten years older than her husband instead of three”, perhaps because “she took the deaths of her children unreasonably hard”, but she had once been “gracious and happy”; and
(c) these are Kristin’s parents, Kristin Lavransdatter, whom we meet on the novel’s third page at the age of seven.
Now you can move on. Because, as one would guess, from the trilogy’s title, Lavrans and Ragnfrid are not at the heart of the story. It is Kristin’s story.
Her parents’ stories are not confined to those early begat-like passages, however; throughout the pages of The Wreath, the reader comes to understand more about their lives and loves and losses, too.
But this understanding comes to the reader much later in the novel, and Kristin is not aware of these complexities; they are shared with the reader just when the reader is most absorbed in themes and plots in Kristin’s experience that parallel these revelations.
But in the beginning, in those first few pages, things are much simpler.
The narrative seems rooted in a child’s perspective, despite its all-knowing air, so all that the reader knows is that there is a mother and a father and that they, too, had mothers and fathers.
Kristin is too small to understand more than that; she is just making her way into the world, accompanying her father on a journey, one which literally widens the boundaries of her experience.
“Kristin had thought that if she came up over the crest of her home mountains, she would be able to look down on another village like their own, with farms and houses, and she had such a strange feeling when she saw what a great distance there was between places where people lived.”
The world grows increasingly complicated for her.
“It felt like a terrible burden upon her when she realized for the first time that people could have such different opinions about so many things.”
She eventually makes connections in the world that are related to, but distinct from, her love for her father, and the relationship that she has observed between her father and her mother.
“She hadn’t been aware of it herself, but whenever Fru Aashild talked about the world she had frequented in the past, Kiristin always pictured the knights and counts in [Boy]‘s image. Before, when she was a child, she had always envisioned them in her father’s image.”
And these connections intensify. She falls in love.
“She wasn’t conscious of giving any more thought to him that night, but the whole time the memory of his thin, dark face and his quiet voice had hovered somewhere in the shadows, just beyond the radiance of her soul.”
But it’s a love that requires some secrecy.
“For now she had no thoughts for anything but [Man]. She longed for him in the daytime and she dreamed of him at night. She felt no repentance, but she consoled herself with the thought that the day would come when she would have to pay dearly for everything they had taken in secret. ”
A marriage is announced.
“But the most extreme and oppressive fears seized her whenever she thought of [Man]– the way he had picked her up and carried her off and spoken for her at home and acted as if she were his property.”
And there are reasons to be concerned.
“But it weighed heavily on his [Lavrans'] mind that there was little he could do to prevent the child’s good reputation from being sullied behind his back. And the worst thing was that he thought she might have brought this upon herself by her own thoughtlessness.”
Kristin has to rethink decisions that she has made and promises she has given.
“She felt as if she were a hawk that sat chained to a roost with a hood pulled over its eyes.”
Take out the alternating quotations there and you’ll see that this is a timeless tale.
Kristin’s coming-of-age unfolds in medieval Norway, but it’s a story that modern readers recognize.
The difficulties that she faces (wanting to please parties with conflicting interests), the overwhelming emotions and desires (guilt and fear mingling with pleasure and satisfaction), the conflict between the cultural limitations that govern her and her yearning for independence: all these bridge the gap between fiction and the reader’s reality effortlessly.
This tale, written nearly 100 years ago, about a character who lives several centuries ago, reads like a page-turner.
And like any good page-turner, the first volume of the trilogy leaves the reader satisfied in one sense.
The Wreath ends with a release of information that makes earlier events and situations more comprehensible, offers a certain kind of resolution between one couple, and creates an air of acceptance (if not contentedness).
But I cannot imagine having had to wait a year to read The Wife, with Kristin “deathly pale and miserable” at the end of the first volume.
In The Wreath, she “had felt her passion temper her will until it was sharp and hard like a knife, ready to cut through all bonds — those of kinship, Christianity, and honor.”
But now she’s refocussing, adjusting to life with step-children (one of whom she loves, the other whom she does not), trying to come to terms with the “evil she saw in her own heart”, throughout The Wife.
In The Cross, Kristin continues to question her decisions and promises, to push at the confines she feels surrounding her, to retreat when the cost is too great.
Her daily life has changed considerably even as a married adult, and by the end of the three volumes, it seems impossible that the reader once met her as a seven-year-old girl.
And, yet, simultaneously, the reader wants to begin again, to be re-introduced.
Have you read Kristin Lavransdatter? Do you plan to?
(BTW, the same translation is available in three volumes, which I know because Iris said she would like it better that way and it turns out she’s not alone! But as an all-in-one, this one counts for my Chunkster Challenge.)