The original version of this post appeared on, What Kids Are Reading – And What We Wish They Were, my blog that reviews YA literature. I am in the process of shutting down that blog and transferring some of its content here. Since writing this, I have finished all the novels in the Kristen Lavransdatter series by Sigrid Undset. These books have had a more profound impact on me than any other fiction I have ever read. I feel entirely unworthy to review these novels. Still, I wanted to write something to encourage others to read Undset’s brilliant masterpieces. This post covers the first novel in the trilogy, The Bridal Wreath.
Recently I added the subtitle and what we wish they were to my blog because I can no longer tolerate a full-time diet of YA literature. Yes, there is a great deal to entertain within this genre and even some literary gems. But a steady diet of current YA books is much like a steady diet of junk food – pretty tasty, but not much substance. Lately, I have been starving for some nutritionally dense reading – mentally and spiritually. So when I read the article 10 Books You Must Read to Your Daughter (Or How to Keep Her From Ending Up Like that Horrid Girl in Twilight), I decided to dig out and dust off out my never-before-read copy of Kristen Lavransdatter and give it another try.
This novel and the two subsequent novels in the series are considered master works of historical fiction. That is why I am embarrassed to say that this was my second run at reading Kristen Lavransdatter – The Bridal Wreath – despite its stellar reputation and regardless of the fact that it was recommended by both my sister-in-law and one of my dearest and smartest friends, both of whom have impeccable taste. For some reason, the first time I tried to read this novel, I gave up quickly. Perhaps it was because I initially approached it as a beach read. Set in medieval Norway, this novel definitely lends itself more to a cozy fireside than a lawn chair. Maybe I lost interest (and this is painfully embarrassing for me to admit) because the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy came out about that time. Maybe it was because I was intimidated by the book’s reputation. I don’t really know, but I always intended to get back to it one day. Recently that day came! Within a few pages, I was hooked. I began to feel that every free moment that I wasn’t reading Kristen Lavransdatter was being wasted. I began to understand what all the hubbub is about.
The first book in the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy, The Bridal Wreath, begins when Kristen is a young girl. She is the only child of pious Norwegian nobility. Her parents adore her – especially her father. Her mother who has suffered the loss of several other children is at times distant and sad. Her father, on the other hand delights in her. Both of her parents try to bring her up to be devout and virtuous, and little Kristen is given nearly every spiritual advantage – example, education, and love.
While traveling with her father, Kristen meets Brother Edvin, a wise and kindly monk who is one of the novel’s most notable and lovable characters. He makes a great impression on Kristen (and on the reader) with his insights…
There is no man nor woman, Kristen who does not love and fear God, but tis because our hearts are divided twixt love of God and fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in this life and in death. For if man had no yearning after God and God’s being, then he should thrive in Hell…For there the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, nor would he feel the torment of the serpents bite if he knew not the yearning for peace… T’was God’s loving-kindness toward us that, seeing how our hearts are drawn asunder, He came down and dwelt among us that He might taste in the flesh the lures of the devil when he decoys us with power and splendor, as well as the menace of the world when if offers us blows and scorn and sharp nails in the hands and feet. In such wise did He show us the way and make manifest His love.
Yet, even with passages like this, this novel in not overly religious in tone. It does not preach to the choir. All the characters are painfully real – both in their virtue and their flaws. As a teenager, Kristen is innocent and devout, eager to honor her parents and to live up to the expectations of her culture. Yet when temptation presents itself, as the handsome and charming Ereland Nikulausson, Kristen is easily led astray. Readers will find Kristen’s selfishness and foolishness frustrating, and we yet can’t help but hope she will escape the bitter consequences of her actions
Many of Undset’s characters are complex in this way. We see in them both flaw and hope. We relate to them and root for them. Ereland’s pride and his constant excuses for his behavior are maddening, yet we want to believe that in the end he will prove honorable. We want to believe that Kristen’s faith is not misplaced. Even Kristen’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid are, for all their love and devotion, not perfect. They bear their own secrets, griefs and struggles. We to ache for them.
In addition to providing complex characters, Undset portrays life in medieval Norway with richness, beauty, and accuracy. Life for these characters, and indeed for entire Western world in those days, centers around the Church and her traditions and around the conventions of their society. While some of these conventions might rub the modern reader the wrong way (like a father’s absolute power over his daughter), a life so fully centered on and entrenched in the Christian calendar seems not only orderly and disciplined but also festive and meaningful.
Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature, no doubt by creating an epic saga that combines a stunning portrayal of life in medieval Norway with complex, sympathetic characters. And without being heavy-handed or overly-simple, she manages to communicate beauty and truth.
Again, these characters are not perfect. There are some pretty grown-up situations in this book and some complex issues. But this is exactly the kind of book I want my kids to read – impressive and engrossing from a literary standpoint and beautiful and inspiring in it’s portrayal of eternal truths.
So, to recap. Why should you and your teen read Kristen Lavransdatter?
- It is great historical fiction – a rich and accurate portrayal of life in medieval life.
- It won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- It illustrates how the rhythm and seasons of life used to be lived in accordance with the Christian calendar and how this brought both times of fasting and feasting, all in honor of Christ and the Saints.
- It shows the power of sin and deceit and their devastating effects.
- The novel contains sympathetic characters – not perfectly good nor purely evil who are easy to relate to.
- Kristen Lavransdatter contains nuggets of spiritual truth, beauty, and wisdom without being simplistic or preachy.
- Reading Kristen Lavransdatter allows you to enter into a great conversation with your child and with others who have loved this trilogy.
Yes, but no descriptive or graphic passages. In fact, some younger readers (okay and me) might miss the initial sex scene all together and not realize what has happened until a few pages later.
Not in the creepy way that I’m usually looking out for in YA lit. Kristen Lavransdatter is steeped in Christianity. However, as was common in medieval times, superstitions are also influential in the lives of Undset’s characters.
- Why do you think Kristen falls so quickly and easily from what her faith and from what her parents have taught her? Were you surprised by this?
- Does she truly love Ereland? Does he love her?
- What do you think prevents Kristen from confessing her sins?
- In the end is Lavrans too unyielding? Why do you think he comes to the decision that he does about Kristen’s marriage to Ereland?
- What is Kristen’s greatest virtue? What is her greatest flaw? What about Ereland? Lavrans? Ragnfrid?
- In what way are the themes of love, sin, forgiveness, and despair played out in this novel?
I’ve done many things that I thought I would never dare to do because they were sins. But I didn’t realize then that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people.
No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we fear and love.
It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.
(about memorized prayer) The times when we need prayers of counsel, we are little to be in the mood to learn, nor yet to understand.
Laughing tenderness streamed through her hear, over the hard spot of anger at its core, like a glittering river flowing over stones.
Image source: Good Reads