Anyone who has read Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset’s trilogy of novels about medieval Norway, is aware of the magnetic appeal of the headstrong title character and her saga of sin and redemption. Dorothy Day recalls her initial encounter with it: “I first saw it, in the hands of my friend Freda, who lived next door. While she was reading it, her house remained unswept, her husband and son unfed. . . .As the years passed, I recommended it to all the women in the Catholic Worker movement, and they were spellbound by it too.” My own first experience of reading Kristin Lavransdatter was similar to Freda’s.
There are powerful reasons for such reactions. 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.
Undset herself had been infected with an early twentieth-century European version of goðlauss. Writing in 1902 as a young agnostic, she expresses a credo of utter self-reliance:
– I will not commit suicide — will not waste my talents. If I have any, I will also find them and use them. I will be whatever I can be.
– If things go wrong, the blame and the punishment will be mine alone. It will not be because of our Lord or the Devil, life or death, my father, mother, grandparents, great-grandparents, or anyone else, either living or dead.
– Because two things are certain: I’m alive, and I’m going to die. And it’s not good to live if you have no joys.
– And you should regularly, morning and night, conjugate the verbs: should, can, will, ought to, and must in all the languages you can master. It’s a most beneficial exercise.
Though there is something admirable in such bold determination – no existential crisis or ennui here – it would be hard to craft a more grandiose modern version of the pagan Norse concept of “godlessness.”
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.
Though it takes her a lifetime to accept (and the reader over 1000 pages to witness), there is a remedy for Kristin’s indomitable will. It is, simply, friendship – but friendship of a necessarily transcendent sort.
Sigrid Undset’s early letters show that she had an aching desire for friendship: “I wonder what will come of the fact that I never meet anyone who interests me in a truly warm and personal way when I come close. . . .I’ve lain in my bed and wept night after night and listed everything I thought was rich and good inside me, examined and grieved over those things, because they couldn’t buy me the love of a single human being.”
If Undset first read and then wrote her way into the Church, it was because she felt acutely this desire for a relationship so intense that it could draw her – like her fictional character Kristin – out of her own self-will. (Among the works Undset translated from English to Norwegian was Robert Hugh Benson’s The Friendship of Christ.)
And here we must mention Sigrid Undset’s transformative reading experience. When she was ten, someone gave her a copy of Njal’s Saga, a sweeping, violent medieval tale of the ill-fated friendship of the manly warrior Gunnar and the wise legal expert Njal. Undset could not put it down. She called the reading experience an “earthquake.”
Halfway through the narrative, Iceland accepts Christianity – and it changes everything. No longer is godlessness the dominant Nordic ethos. Reliance on “self and indomitable will” is supplanted by what the devotional literature of medieval Scandinavia expresses as a relationship with gudsvinr, or “God’s friends.” Elsewhere in her writing Undset beautifully identified this relationship as “the bright doctrine of the communion of the saints.”
After Iceland accepts Christianity in Njal’s Saga, one wise Godi, or local lord, Hall of Sida, still resists the new faith. The clever missionary Thangbrand knows how to attract Hall to conversion through the familiar claims of friendship:
Thangbrand went out early one morning and had a tent set up and sang mass in the tent and made a great show of it, for it was a major feast day.
Hall said to Thangbrand, ‘In whose memory are you celebrating this day?’
‘The angel Michael’s,’ he said.
‘What features does this angel have?’ said Hall.
‘Many,’ said Thangbrand. ‘He weighs everything that you do, both good and evil, and he is so merciful that he gives more weight to what is well done.’
Hall said, ‘I would like to have him for my friend.’
‘That you may,’ said Thangbrand, ‘give yourself to him today, in the name of God.’
‘I’ll do it on this condition,’ said Hall: ‘That you promise, on his behalf, that he shall be my guardian angel.’
‘I promise,’ said Thangbrand.
Hall and his entire household were then baptized.
In this rather humorous, understated exchange, so characteristic of the saga, some of the old pagan conception admittedly lingers. But the incident reveals how a radical understanding of spiritual friendship with a holy being who freely chooses to be your advocate and guard –not because of blood ties or coercion or debts of service, but out of charity – begins to take hold in the pagan north.
In the novel, the saintly Brother Edvin offers the most attractive presentation of what it means to seek friendship with Christ through His heavenly friends. He first introduces Kristin to gudsvinr by showing her the saints depicted at Hamar Cathedral: St. Nicholas, so pious that he refuses to nurse more than once on Fridays; Sts. Sunniva and Kristina, “leaning gracefully from the hips, their faces a lovely pink and white.”
Throughout the novel, Kristin recalls “Brother Edvin’s loving admonitions, his sorrow over her sin, his tender intercessory prayers,” even while she laments that “she had flung herself into passionate sinful desire as soon as she was beyond the light of his gentle old eyes.”
In the course of this struggle, she develops a particular devotion to the patron saint of Norway, Saint Olaf: “He was the one she had heard so much about that it was as though she had known him while he had lived in Norway and had seen him here on earth.”
Throughout the novel, Kristin fluctuates dramatically between passionately pursuing her own desires and redirecting her gaze outward and upward toward heavenly intercessors like St. Olaf who will help her bend her stubborn will toward Christ. Ultimately, Kristin’s slow purification leads to the novel’s redemptive ending of pure friendship with Christ, His Blessed Mother, and His Saints.
Asked why she wrote historical novels of medieval Norway, Sigrid Undset simply responded, “You can only write novels of your own age.” Kristin Lavransdatter, then, invites us to hold up a mirror to our own age, and into our own souls. The southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle well understood this. His final work, completed as an old man of 90, was a meditation on the novel simply entitled Kristin. “I know these people,” he tells us: “I grew up with them.”
Kristin Lavransdatter calls us to a truth that has been all but obliterated not only in Norway but in much of Western Christianity. In Undset’s other writings – most notably her stirring volume Saga of Saints– she reminds modern readers of what has been lost by denying the spiritual role of gudsvinr, particularly by Martin Luther, who called the invocation of saints “a most abominable blindness and heresy.” In leaving Norway and other parts of Europe spiritually “friendless,” Undset suggests, the Reformation created a wedge for man’s godless self-reliance to re-enter without the aid of saintly intercession.
No purely human friendship will lead us to God, as Undset reminds us: “Human solidarity consists in all of us being inheritors in a bankrupt estate. . . .Only a supernatural intervention can save us from ourselves. . . .No human solidarity is as absolute as the solidarity between the living cells in the mystical body of Christ.”
Sigrid Undset entered the Church ninety-four years ago on All Saints Day, 1924, two years after completing Kristin Lavransdatter. When, several years later, she became a Dominican tertiary, she took the name of her dearest saintly friend, who she shared with her fictional character Kristin: “Olave,” the feminine form of Olav.
In medieval iconography, St. Olav is traditionally depicted carrying a battle axe, thought to symbolize his military efforts to unite Norway as a Christian nation. He is also depicted trampling on a dragon, which at first glance may be taken to represent the heathen beliefs he so assiduously worked to stamp out in the northern lands. But if you look more closely, you will see that the dragon has a human face and wears a crown, and that the face of the dragon and the face of the king are one and the same.
The life of Holy Olav, like that of the fictional Kristin Lavransdatter – and, I would suggest, of its author, Sigrid Undset – reminds us of the perpetual struggle to subdue our own sinful human will, to snuff out the destructive fires of self-love, and to cultivate friendship with the saints, and through them, with Christ and His Blessed Mother.
*Image: Sigrid Undset by Harald Slott-Møller, 1923 [offices of H. Aschehoug & Co, Oslo]