Kristin Lavransdatter

Certainly my most significant reading accomplishment of this past spring was Sigrid Undset’s classic Kristin Lavransdatter.  I meant to write about it long before now, but I’m sure I have nothing original to add to the many, well-deserved discussions that have taken place elsewhere.  I can’t let the occasion pass without marking it, though, and the simple solution is to skip writing a formal review and instead make a few observations.

If you’ve already read Kristin, skip to the next paragraph; if you haven’t, here are the facts about this work.  In 1920, Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) published The Wreath, the first in a trilogy to be known as Kristin Lavransdatter, quickly followed by The Wife (1921) and The Cross (1922).  Her epic portrays one woman’s life in fourteenth-century Norway, from her girlhood as the beloved daughter of a respected chieftain/farmer, to her scandalous marriage to a man she loves too fiercely to live with successfully, to her raising of seven sons as headstrong as she, to her death of the plague in a nunnery.  Though Undset was already well-known in Scandinavia as the author of numerous novels and stories, it was the accomplishment of this trilogy that led to her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.  Starting in 1997, Penguin published these volumes separately in a new translation by Tiina Nunnally that went on to win translation awards.  I read the single-volume Penguin Classics Deluxe paperback edition that runs 1144 pages, including the explanatory notes (which shed a great deal of light on the medieval Scandinavian place names, artifacts, and customs).

Where do I start with my observations?  Two reasons why I’m glad I read it:  first, it’s a remarkable story remarkably told, and second, I can’t imagine another book—fiction or non-fiction—that could so capably reveal the intricacies of the medieval Scandinavian world to modern people.  The narrative is built around the well-researched historical details of daily life, and the worldviews of Undset’s characters are complex and plausible.

Religion is an integral aspect of the setting, taking place as it does in the transitional years between the late pagan and pre-/early-Christian eras, and Kristin and her neighbors practice both Christian and pagan rituals, seeing little or no incompatibility between the two.  This makes for rich religious dynamics.  Sin and forgiveness are major themes of the work, as Kristin grapples with her choices and their consequences, and her anger at God, later in life, for having been allowed so often to get her way.  Love is also a related theme:  love for God and others; love familial and erotic; love sacrificial, bitter, misunderstood, and unrequited.

I didn’t struggle with the Scandinavian personal and place names, as some fellow readers warned.  But they were right about political details bogging down the second book a bit.  However, those details also contribute to the plot and round out the historical picture, and so are worth pushing through. 

Perhaps what I most appreciate is how the land itself plays a character role.  I’m particular to novels with a strong sense of place, and Kristin’s story is inseparably rooted in the her native soil as she works her family’s estate to preserve their valley’s way of life.  The internal seasons of Kristin’s soul change with the frozen winters and golden summers of Jorundgaard.  Here Nunnally’s translation abilities stand out—clearly Undset gave her unparalleled material in the original Norwegian—with gorgeous word choices in soaring descriptions of natural beauty, descriptions that are never extraneous but always reflective of Kristin’s heart.

This is without question a masterwork of world literature, one I wish I had discovered sooner.  I find myself wondering, given the stack of new books always pressing to be read, if I will ever take the time to read it through again; I think it would be worth it.


Have you read Kristin?  In light of my comments not taking a more standard review form and to contribute to further conversation, I’d like to link to other bloggers who also have reviewed or discussed this.  Leave your link in the comments and I’ll compile a list here.  And, of course, if you’ve read it but not posted about it, please feel free to jump in here with your thoughts.  Thanks!

UPDATE: More Kristin-talk around the web:

Superfast Reader (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)
WordLily (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)
Sherry at Semicolon
Shelf Love (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)
Carrie K (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross
Carol in Oregon (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross


01. July 2009 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 15 comments

Comments (15)

  1. Hi Mindy:

    I started this book 20 years ago or more, but it eventually fell by the wayside . . . can’t recall if there was a reason. Your review is nudging me to find the new translation and give it another go!


  2. Thanks, Annie and Wordlily, for your links! I’ll update the post and get the list of links started.

    Susan, I definitely recommend the Nunnally translation. The introduction (by another scholar) says there is quite a difference in “readability” from the older translation. Hope you enjoy it!

  3. One of my favorites. Here’s my review:

  4. Thanks for the link, Sherry!

  5. Kristin is my favorite classic of all time. I loved everything about it. I’m glad you read Nunally’s translation – I’ve heard other translations cut out some of the longer portions dealing with Kristin’s faith. Here are the links to my reviews:

  6. Carrie, I’ve heard that, too, and am really glad I took a friend’s advice to go with Nunnally. Thanks for adding your links — I’m off to check out your reviews!

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  8. I love it. Two years ago I wrote “in the top three of the best books I have ever read.” I still hold that opinion.

    I bought the Nunnally translations but haven’t read through them like I had hoped to in *2008*!

    I gave these as birthday gifts, graduation gifts and just because gifts.

    I have five other Sigrid Undset books waiting to be read. I wonder how they will compare.—mistress-of-husaby/

  9. Carol, great idea gifting this novel to others! I plan to read some of Undset’s other writings as well. Thanks for the your links–adding them to my list now.

  10. thanks for the recommendation! I picked up the Nunnally translation at our indie bookstore today, and am heading out on vacation with it. That’s a HUGE paperback!

    Will let you know my thoughts when I’ve made my way through it. Like you said, I can’t imagine that I’ll be able to add much to all that has already been written/analyzed.

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  12. Glad you got that translation, Dawn. It’s definitely a hefty paperback! But I think you’re going to agree that it’s worth hauling around. Hope you get lots of reading done on vacation! Will be looking forward to your comments.

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