I Want This On My Tombstone
Anne Tyler: Redhead By the Side of the Road

The Wife: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 2

Years ago when I worked for a software company, I overheard my boss and another manager discussing a programmer who was not making much progress on a large and important project.  "He just can't handle large amounts of information," one of them said.

I flinched a little at that, because I knew it was true of me, too. And reading Kristin has given me occasion to remember it. What a complex book it is! Sigrid Undset apparently didn't have the problem that my old co-worker and I do. Or maybe she just made copious notes and consulted them regularly. Relatively minor characters may be introduced briefly and left behind, then reappear two hundred pages later in a context in which one needs to know, at minimum, who they are--whose kin they are, who they're married to, and so forth . Places may be referred to in more than one way: the estate, or manor, of a character, usually but not always an important one, may be known by its name or by the name of a region where it's located. I believe Undset exceeds the Russians in this sort of complexity, and I don't know how she ever kept it straight in her head. But I have a feeling that if you had asked her about Helga Saksesdatter, a fairly minor character, she would have been able to tell you in detail about her and her connection to various other families without consulting her notes.

One of these relatively minor characters who seem to me significant is Fru Aashild, an aunt of Erlend's. I emphasize relatively because although she does not appear very often, and is absent after some point in this volume, her influence is important. It is she who first suggests to Kristin that Erlend might be just the man for her. And she is a dodgy character, at least. She's suspected of witchcraft, which may or may not be a result of her being skilled with herbs and other forms of healing. And she is very strongly suspected of having had a hand in the death of her first husband. Yet she is appealing in many ways, seems to have genuine ability in medicine, is generous to Kristin and her family. But whether or not the more serious accusations about her are true (and I think she more or less admits that the one about the death of her husband is true), she is at minimum a very worldly person. If I'm not mistaken, it's through her that Erlend is connected to the royal family. And it seems to me that she embodies something of what Kristin is tempted to: an embrace of the sensual, self-seeking, wealth-and-pleasure-seeking life, not too much inconvenienced by scruples. She comes to a bad end, which is mentioned only briefly and of which I would like to know more.

As I've mentioned, I didn't remember many details at all from my first reading, and retained only a very broad idea of the course of the story, but one thing that did remain quite firmly was that what I think of as Kristin's grudge-holding toward Erlend plays a significant role in the story. Well, that certainly proved to be true. Much of this volume is concerned with Erlend's downfall--the loss of his lands and near-loss of his life--due to the discovery of his participation in a plot against the king. This is, obviously, a major event in Kristin's life as well. And it is set in motion by Kristin lashing out at Erlend over things done and said early in their relationship.

"Jesus! Have you been brooding about this for fifteen years?" says Erlend. And then follows a bitter quarrel, and Erlend's leaving her for a while, during which time he commits acts of massive irresponsibility. Kristin can't be entirely blamed for that, of course. But she can't be entirely absolved of blame, either.

Twenty or so years ago I read or heard an observation about marriage that went something like this: "A woman marries a man thinking that he'll change, and he doesn't. A man marries a woman thinking that she won't change, and she does." There's a great deal of truth in that, and the success or failure of the marriage may depend on the adjustments that each makes. It's very applicable to Kristin and Erlend.

The changing or not changing often has to do with the birth of children: Erlend remarks at one point that he expected life with Kristin, once he had managed to marry her in the face of great obstacles, to be one long feast (or words to that effect), but that it seemed instead a perpetual Lent, in part because she keeps getting pregnant. Swift wrote, in a letter to a young woman about to be married, "I hope you do not still dream of Charms and Raptures; which Marriage ever did, and ever will put a sudden End to." The advice is applicable to men as well.

Of course the reason the novel can speak to us as it does is that these human situations are timeless. But there are also many things in it that have become foreign to us. One that struck me first time around, and still does, is a remark by Lavrans about the sacrifices of becoming a priest: the first one he names is the bearing of arms. I doubt that more than a very few even of our second-amendment zealots, who are themselves a minority of men, would consider not carrying a pistol more of a sacrifice than celibacy.

The interplay between Christianity and the old Norse paganism comes up now and then in the narrative, often with great significance, as those who have read the novel know. One notable feature of this is that the Christian view is not "We used to believe in those things that weren't true, and now we don't," but rather "We have been freed by Christ, who loves us, from those old powerful but treacherous gods who often did us harm." Kristin's people believe the powers of the old religion are real, and still powerful and dangerous. This strongly evident in the pathetic story of Audhild the Fair, a young Christian maiden who "soon after Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...was lured into the mountain," and who, though she had to spend her days in whatever strange life that was, nevertheless clung to as much of her faith as she could. (Interestingly, the Icelandic TV series The Cliff includes references to fear of supernatural beings who dwell "in the mountain.")

In poking around on the web for information about the Kirstin translations, I've found that it tends to be taken for granted that the new one (Nunnally) is not just superior to the old one (Archer) but has definitively replaced it, liberating a great novel from a terrible translation. Not so fast, I say. There are many reasons to be grateful for Nunnally's, most especially the restoration of some significant passages mysteriously (as far as I know) omitted from Archer's. But I have reason to think that Nunnally's is also some distance from ideal. I will have more to say about this when I've finished the last volume, but consider the bit I just quoted: "Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...." That sounded off to me. I of course have no idea what Undset actually wrote, but I'm pretty sure that medieval Christians in Norway and everywhere else did not use a term like "Christianity." So I looked at Archer, and found that he says that Saint Olav "christened" the valley. Much truer, I'm sure, to the medieval mind.

I'm a little less than halfway through the third book now. The whole novel is even greater than I thought on my first reading thirty-five or so years ago. One reason for that is that I've now lived through stages of life that are described in the book, that were part of Kristin's life, but not yet then in mine. 


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I found a cheap Kindle edition of the Archer translation of the 3rd book, so I decided to go ahead and read it now. Aaschild's influence at least plays a part early on.


Yes, I’ve read that far. Certainly an intriguing thing.

In my last reading of KL, I considered Fru Aashild the villain.

She's definitely a bad influence. But "the villain"? Maybe, but I'm not sure. Come to think of it, there probably isn't a "the villain," in the Iago sort of sense.

Good point. She wasn't trying to bring Kristen down ala Iago. Still, her influence was pretty decisive, from what I remember.

I wasn't sure exactly how much influence she did have. I just bought a Kindle edition of the book for the sole purpose of being able to search for mention of specific people and places, so maybe I can get some idea. The only thing I remember for certain is that she suggested to Kristin that Erlend would be just the guy for her. But I don't remember what if any effect that had.

As I recall, when Erlend visits Aashild to ask her help in getting Kristin's father to agree to their betrothal, Aashild is not at all pleased with him and what he's been up to with Kristin. And Aashild agreed to help him only because of that.

Didn't Kristen hang out with Fru Aashild during her tender years? I may be remembering incorrectly. I don't remember stories very well.

What was it that someone was trying to destroy in The Lord of the somethingorother?


I'm not sure about the extent of the hanging out, but that was roughly when FA made the recommendation of Erlend. I'll make use of my new searchable edition to find out more specifically, though I suspect it really isn't all that clear exactly how far her influence went. She was not by any means malicious, as far as I can recall, and as Marianne's point suggests.

Re the two translations. I was struck by one particular passage early on in the first volume (old translation), so I typed it out to keep. Just found how the new translation does it, and I think the old translation's lyrical in comparison -- e.g. (old) "the sheen of the candle seemed little by little to enfold her" versus (new) "gradually the glow of the taper seemed to envelop her".

Old translation:

"Kristin put her candle upon St. Lawrence’s altar and knelt on the praying-stool. She fixed her gaze on the flame while she said over the Paternoster and the Ave Maria softly. The sheen of the candle seemed little by little to enfold her and to shut out all that was outside her and the light. She felt her heart open and overflow with thankfulness and praise and love of God and His gentle Mother -- they came so near to her. She had always known they saw her, but to-night she felt that it was so. She saw the world as in a vision; a great dark room whereinto fell a sunbeam; the motes were dancing in and out between the darkness and the light, and she felt that now she had as last slipped into the sunbeam."

New translation:

"Kristin placed her candle on the altar of Saint Laurentius and knelt down on the prayer bench. She stared steadily into the flame as she said her Pater noster and Ave Maria. Gradually the glow of the taper seemed to envelop her, shutting out everything else surrounding her and the candle. She felt her heart open up, brimming over with gratitude and promises and love for God and His gentle Mother—she felt them so near. She had always known that they saw her, but on this night she felt that it was so. She saw the world as if in a vision: a dark room into which a beam of sunlight fell, with dust motes tumbling in and out, from darkness to light, and she felt that now she had finally moved into the sunbeam."

Yes, the old is definitely more lyrical. Many, many such examples could be pointed out. Nunnally's prose is rarely affecting in itself.

I think some people think "prose" means "non-lyrical."

That would have been an understandable view at one time, but not for more than a century now.

One word: ICEL.

A deplorable word.

A scan through the text for mentions of Aashild reveals that her contact with Kristin before Kristin meets Elrend is mainly one occasion: when Ulvhild suffers her injury, Aashild is called in to help her, and stays with the family for some length of time--weeks, I guess, definitely more than a couple of days. Kristin is only 11 at the time, but she's fascinated by Aashild. It's as I recalled--Aashild is not clearly an evil person, but very worldly. Then she shows up a few years later, when Kristin is betrothed to Simon, and gives her bad advice, suggesting that Simon will not be much fun and

"If things were the same in Norway today as they were in the past and as they are in other countries, where people are no sterner toward sinners than God is Himself, then I would suggest you find yourself a friend who is thin and melancholy—someone you could sit and talk to."

Later, Kristin remembers this:

"But what about the world beyond the mountains? The king’s castle, and the counts and the knights that Fru Aashild had talked about, a handsome man with melancholy eyes who would follow her in and out and never grow tired."

But as Marianne says, Aashild does try to tell Erlend, after the affair with Kristin has begun, to give it up. But it's already too late.

“I see,” replied Fru Aashild. “Then you have taken a grave sin upon yourself, Erlend. Kristin was happy at home with her father and mother. A marriage with a handsome and honorable man of good family was arranged for her.”

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