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Silly Things I Sometimes Wonder About

The Cross: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 3

I had not gotten very far in this re-reading of Kristin before I was willing to pronounce it to be one of the world's great novels. Nothing that came after weakened that view, but rather strengthened it. This final volume of the trilogy brings Kristin's story to an end in a way that, for the sake of those who haven't read it, I'll leave undescribed, but which I found to be very powerful.

I had almost entirely forgotten the ending since my first reading thirty-plus years ago, so it was as if I was reading it for the first time. I mean, I wasn't just vague about the details, I had forgotten almost everything and retained only a vague impression. It will not be much of a spoiler if I say that the hard blows which have fallen throughout the novel, sometimes from fate and sometimes as a consequence of Kristin or Erlend's own behavior, continue here. I was surprised, almost shocked, by the intensity of it.  Nor will it surprise any reader that the end brings forth in Kristin the heroism that has always been an element even in her bad behavior.

A great novel should be a good story, and usually is, but it must be more than that to earn the "great." It must also have something profound to say, or to show, something that makes us feel that we are receiving an important truth about what it means to be human. It doesn't have to be explicit, much less abstract, as when Dostoevsky's characters philosophize--in fact as a rule it shouldn't be--but it has to be there,  

The important truth here has to do with our relationship to God, and so I was a little surprised to learn that Undset had not yet been received into the Catholic Church when she wrote Kristin. Obviously she had a very deep understanding of Christian faith--no, that's not the right way to put it: a deep understanding of the Christian way of viewing the world. And perhaps her biography would shed light on the timing of her conversion. I don't know much about her life other than what's given in various introductions to her work, but she had a presumably intense and undoubtedly difficult love affair and marriage which may have been an obstacle to her formally entering the Church--I mean a psychological and emotional as well as, perhaps, a canonical obstacle. Naturally one assumes that this relationship bears some similarities to that of Kristin and Erlend, and that therefore there is some significant amount of Undset in Kristin.

Is Kristin Lavransdatter a tragedy? It certainly follows the classical pattern in some fundamental ways: a noble character with some grave faults, especially those of pride and general self-will, leading to self-induced disaster. But it's too diffuse to have the single penetrating impact of true tragedy. And, more importantly, it contains too much hope. (Well, you could also say that it contains too much disaster; I guess a proper tragedy does not have a series of them.) It ends with too much hope, though a dull reader, a typical modern reader, may not see that. (From what I see a lot of typical modern readers don't see much beyond the very earthly love-and-marriage story.) And it's not the mere resolution that typical ends a tragedy, in which a sort of peace or at least equilibrium obtains when the principal characters are dead, because it points toward a greater restoration. 

We read--or at least I read--this novel thinking that we have some sense of what medieval life was like. Do we really? It's impossible to know, but the testimony of historians and archaeologists is that Undset was as accurate as it is possible to be in her facts.  But the book is modern in its technique, in its intimacy with the inner lives of the people involved, and of necessity Undset had to invent much if not all of that. Did people like these really think as Undset imagines them to have done? I'm sure she had ample grounds for thinking so, but I wonder.

I also wonder about the relationship between medieval and modern Scandinavia. For some reason "Norwegian" in the American context summons a stereotype of nice, quiet, rather bland and dull people. Political progressives point to Scandinavia as a place where reason and a nice secular liberal order prevail. How does one reconcile this image with the Vikings? Their age is a couple of centuries in the past at the time of Kristin, but violence is still part of the normal fabric of life. That was the case throughout Europe, of course, but the Norsemen had always been particularly ferocious. I wonder if the emergence of death metal music, originally in Norway, nakedly anti-Christian, anti-modern, and violent, is a sign of what might emerge in those lands once Christianity has been extinct for a few generations. 


But back to the book: I can't let go of the translation question. I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation, either. According to the introduction to this volume, by Sherrill Harbison, a scholar of Scandinavian literature who surely knows what she's talking about, Undset

...struggled to find ways to give her text a tone of the past while still keeping the sound of natural speech. After much experimenting, she found the effect she wanted by limiting her vocabulary to words based on Old Norse roots, and by retaining Old Norse syntax--the order of subject and verb, arrangement of adjectives, and use of coordinating conjunctions.....[S]he creates a readable, natural-sounding prose with subtle reminiscences of Old Norse, more like a musical undertone than an imitation. 

The vigorousness of this style does not translate easily to English.... Translators must strike a balance between the falsely archaic and the falsely modern, while still trying to respect Undset's careful usage. Whereas it is easy to make the English sound too quaintly antique, it is also easy to "correct" Undset's evocative syntax, to flatten her rhythms and make language too modern and ungraceful.

I'm afraid that's exactly what happened. Not, I mean, that Nunnally intended to "correct" Undset, and of course I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us.

I have an English translation of an earlier Undset novel, Gunnar's Daughter, in which the translator is not named. But unless the book has been translated more than once, it must be by Arthur Chater, whose name is on the currently available translation. The one I have has, as I recall, something like the qualities that Sherrill Harbison attributes to Undset's prose. It was Chater's translation of The Master of Hestviken that I read, and it has weight without the obtrusive archaisms of Archer. But, like Archer's, Chater's translation was made in the 1920s and '30s. 

Here's a comparison of a passage chosen at random. This is from the second volume, The Wife; Kristin is telling a story to a boy. Archer:

Kristin leaned back in her chair, grasping in her thin hands the carven beasts' heads at the arm-ends.

"That monk I named but now, he had been in England, too. And he used to tell that there is a place there where grow thornbushes that bloom with white blossoms each Christmas night. St. Joseph of Arimathea came to land in that country-side, when he fled before the heathen, and there he thrust his staff into the earth, and it took root and blossomed--he was the first that brought the Christian faith to Bretland. Glastonborg that place is called--I mind me now. Brother Edvin had seen those bushes himself.... 'Twas there in Glastonborg that he was buried, along with his Queen, that King Arthur that you will have heard tell of--he that was one of the Seven Champions of Christendom."


Kristin leaned back in her chair and wrapped her thin hands around the animal heads on the armrests.

"That monk I mentioned—he had also been to England. And he said there is a region where wild rosebushes grow that bloom with white blossoms on Christmas night. Saint Joseph of Arimathea put ashore in that area when he was fleeing from the heathens, and there he stuck his staff into the ground and it took root and flowered. He was the first to bring the Christian faith to Bretland. The name of the region is Glastonbury—now I remember. Brother Edvin had seen the bushes himself. King Arthur, whom you’ve no doubt heard stories of, was buried there in Glastonbury with his queen. He was one of the seven most noble defenders of Christendom."

And in the comments on my post on that volume Marianne also gave us a comparison, which you can read here. In both cases I prefer Archer. Still, I might recommend the Nunnally translation, depending partly on who was asking. It is easier to read, and more importantly it has those missing pages from Kristin's penitential visit to the shrine of St. Olav.

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.

Also by the way: in a post on one of the earlier volumes (or was it in the comments?) I mentioned that I wondered about the significance of Fru Aashild, Erlend's worldly-wise aunt. I can't remember now where I read this, but one critic or reviewer suggests that she is the real-life or earthly counterpart, perhaps in a sense the embodiment, of the elf-maiden who appears to Kristin as a child, offering her the matrimonial crown. That makes a lot of sense. 


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That woman is driving me insane.


That is very interesting about Fru Aashild. Her character really stood apart for me as being so different from just about everyone else. You may remember that I read the Nunnally version last summer. Very enjoyable.

I would recommend that you consider Les Miserables at some point, if you have not read it. You get into these same translation questions with Hugo too. It is also an amazing read, and a very Christian/Catholic storyline.

No, I haven't read LM, and maybe I will. I think I have some kind of prejudice against 19th c French novels. No reason for it that I know of.

How far have you read, Janet?

Well, when I wrote that, I think I had about 200 pages left, but I can't find the page. Now I have about 140, and I am struggling not to throw the book across the room. ;-)


I blame Erlend equally for that standoff.

Oh, so do I, but I was also thinking of her refusal while praying at the church. And the last portion the last pages of The Debtors ! I had forgotten everything.

I really need to finish this book.


I think the solution to the translation problem is to read each chapter in each translation. It will take twice as long, but you get the benefit of each.

I like archaic. Also, I don't think the Nunnaly translation adds anything to that "missing" section that isn't already implicitly there in the Archer. Or at least I don't remember being "surprised" by it, or "shocked."

As for Fru Aashild, yes, that makes sense. Which is also why I think she is the "villain," even if she isn't precisely malevolent.

"I think the solution to the translation problem is to read each chapter in each translation. It will take twice as long, but you get the benefit of each."

I am a fast reader, but that would take me the rest of my life.


Your comment about what might emerge in Norse lands “once Christianity has been extinct for a few generations” made me think of Nordic noir novels, and in particular those of the Norwegian Jo Nesbo. I read a few of his books several years ago and finally stopped because the killings grew more and more diabolic and blood-curdling.

I certainly wouldn't have the patience.

Further comment later when I get my grandsons off my computer.

Just read an interesting piece, "The 'Bright Doctrine' of the Intercession of the Saints", which has this on Fru Aashild:

"A talk J.R.R. Tolkien once gave on the body of Norse mythology known as The Elder Edda identified goðlauss, which he defined as "a reliance upon self and indomitable will," as the chief characteristic of the northern pagan. The main conflict in Kristin Lavransdatter is between Kristin's similarly ferocious self-will and her desire to love and serve God. ...

In Kristin Lavransdatter, the major advocate of this godless self-reliance is Fru Aashild, who exercises such a powerful influence on young Kristin. Many readers fail to fully grasp her pernicious influence on Kristin. She's a healer of sorts. But unlike the Abbess Groa in the novel, who possesses a knowledge of herbs more akin to that of St. Hildegard of Bingen, Fru Aashild is closer to the witches in Macbeth. In a singularly gross perversion of Our Lord's admonition, Fru Aashild advises, 'whoever wishes to give his life must take the risk and see what he can win.'

When Fru Aashild inevitably experiences loss because of her sinful choices, she rejects any assistance from man, saint, or God. Kristin asks her if she fears God's judgment on her actions, and she responds: 'I have never asked for his mercy when I went against his commandments.' This stubborn attachment to self-will ultimately has dire consequences for Fru Aashild."

That quote from Aashild may be part of a conversation with Kristin where she (Aashild) gives very seize-the-day advice. E.g. "see what he can win." What wasn't entirely clear to me is the degree to which Kristin takes the advice to heart. I'll have to read that whole piece.

I haven't read any of those "nordic noir" novels, and haven't especially wanted to because I've heard that they're pretty horrible in the way you're talking about.

My 5:58 comment was about reading both translations at once--cross-posted with Marianne.

Robert: "I don't think the Nunnaly translation adds anything to that "missing" section that isn't already implicitly there in the Archer."

Well, yes, it certainly is there, but I think the extra emphasis--two pages or so of Kristin's penitence--is effective. The other significant piece apparently tells us more about the relationship of Gunnulf and Erlend. Not essential, but gives more depth.

Janet: "refusal while praying at the church". I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to. Just my memory no doubt. Where is it? You can give me a page number or approximate page number in the Archer edition.

For me "Nordic Noir" works better on TV than it does in print. I've read several books from a few different series and the only ones that I've really enjoyed are those from the "William Wisting" series by Jorn Lier Horst. They're more procedurals than thrillers, and Wisting is both a likable and believable cop. I agree with Marianne about Nesbo and some of the others: they go too far into the darkness for my tastes.

It is on page 872 in the big green book. She is praying the Our Father, and it says, "The cry of your heart is no prayer until you have said your Paternoster without guile."


All the Scandinavian detective fiction I have seen has been dark.


Oh yeah, that's a terrible moment. "She could not, because she would not." But I feel like I understand that state of mind. It's so murky--does she at least at the bottom of her heart want to want to?

And then on the next page: "Hopeless and soul-sick, she wept, for will it she could not."

It's a heartbreaking moment.

Nunnally: "Without hope, her soul aching, she would weep, for she could not make herself do it."

To my ear, Archer's wording is more affecting.

Archer's language is more philosophical/theological--and more objective. "Soul-sick" is an objective state of the soul. "aching" is a subjective experience. To "will" is more philosophical; to "make herself" is more psychological.

Good points.

It is just so painful. Undset really understands the tragic consequences of unforgiveness.


I just returned from a dental check-up. While I was there I ran into a retired faculty member who is from Norway and recalled talking about Kristin Lavransdatter with her while I was reading it. She owns editions in Norwegian.

Apropos to nothing other than this conversational thread was still on my mind...

I find myself having ridiculous fantasies of learning Norwegian. Or almost having them. They expire before they really get started.

Janet: yes, she does. Also the power of words. It's one of those moments when Kristin really cuts loose that directly results in...she curses Erlend, someone attempts to admonish her and takes hold of her, Erlend is enraged that the guy has laid hands on her...

I finally finished.

It was like having a baby. The end makes up for all the suffering.


I can't speak to the accuracy of the comparison, but it certainly seems plausible.

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