grand sweeping epic novels that deserve more attention: Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy

Love, passion, betrayal, family, honor. Religion and broken vows. A determined girl who wants only one thing, risks everything to get it…and pays the price. Modern potboiler romance? Nope. It’s a Nobel Prize winning trilogy about medieval Norway, written in the early 1920s.

At the risk of sounding like one of those cookie cutter blurbs on the book jacket, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross) is a sweeping epic of fourteenth century life, centering on one passionate determined individual. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1928 for this and in part her other work(s) about medieval Norway, The Master of Hestviken. She deserved it; not everyone will be able to wade through such long works, but there is nothing else quite like it, and I can’t imagine that anyone else ever will write anything similar. If there is, I’d like to know! I spent twenty years being frustrated with the trilogy because I felt that Kristin wasn’t good enough, and kept returning in the hopes that somehow I’d misinterpreted the books before…only to realize, as with other readers, that Kristin wasn’t necessarily an ideal of the time, but rather doing the best she could given her own personality and the powerlessness of women in Norway at the time. She was no more what women were supposed to be like in 14th century Norway than Scarlett O’Hara fit the ideal of antebellum Georgia.

Kristin Lavransdatter seems to be a trilogy which really wants to be a single monolithic book; unlike Lord of the Rings, the three books can be read separately–indeed they were written and published that way–but they make much more sense when read together. The Wreath covers Kristin’s childhood and adolescence, living with her parents the dour Ragnfrid and honorable Lavrans; she is betrothed in early adolescence to a neighbor boy, Simon Darre, whom she likes well enough but cannot find love in her heart for him. Instead, she determines to marry the disreputable but dashing and polished Erlend, who’s in a relationship unsanctioned by the Church and who has children by the other woman…and she does, despite the misgivings of her family and the community in which she has been raised. In The Wife, she is as the title indicates, struggling to maintain Erlend’s household, which has never had a proper mistress (in the sense of ‘lady of the household’), and her relationship with the straying Erlend, who determines to make a political name for himself, but becomes embroiled with supporting the wrong people. In The Cross, Kristin and Erlend are home again after his release from prison for treason; unfortunately, Kristin is reaping what she sowed: the crown has commandeered Erlend’s land that was to be their children’s inheritance and she and Erlend must now grow old together.

There are currently two translations into English of this work; not being able to read it in the original I can’t say which is the more accurate, but the more recent one is (not surprisingly) probably the easier for modern readers to get through. The trilogy was originally translated in 1928 by Charles Archer, in a very archaic formal style interlarded with plenty of “I trow”s and “meseems” and “belike”. Fortunately for those of us who find such throwbacks stilted and difficult to read, recently Tiina1 Nunnally retranslated the book into something closer to modern English. Literary geeks2 will probably want to read both anyway–the translations are just different enough (aside from word choice and sentence structure) that the two seem on the verge of being different books–but if you pick one to read or to buy for your library, get Nunnally’s version. Your patrons will thank you.

I’d say this is for people who love grand sweeping complicated archaic novels about bygone times and alien places; it’s about as far from “beach and airplane reading” for most people as I can think of. I daresay it would even make the ‘can’t be bothered to read this even if I were stuck alone on a desert island’ list for people who like easy3 books but prefer complicated ones.

Reference: a review, ostensibly of the third book but also of the trilogy as a whole: The Superfast Reader

1no, that’s not a typo
2whistles innocently
3Lauren Weisberger’s books, say


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