The Saga of Sigrid Undset: A Lifetime of Penance for an Hour of Happiness

Sigrid Undset’s youth, which was the matrix of her artistic message, was far from the carefree “happy age” that many people today consider the privilege, if not the right, of adolescents. Like many poor Norwegian girls of her generation, Undset in 1898 took up the responsibilities of maturity at 16 years of age. For ten years she worked in an Oslo office and immersed herself in books until late at night; she was driven by the un-quenchable desire she voiced in 1908 through one of her earliest heroines, Charlotte Hedels, narrator of the short story Undset ironically titled “The Happy Age”:

I wanted to write about the town . . . all these half-lovely districts we respectable drudges live in. The wet dirty streets and the worn paving-stones, small apartments and small shops,—I should really like to write about the windows of such shops,—you know, shops selling chemists’ sundries, and toy-shops with dolls and sewing-boxes and glass necklaces, where children stand outside in clusters and say “Bags I that one.” Oh, when I now know how many tiny pathetic longings outside such shops have sprinkled their dew over every pennyworth of happiness bought in them . . . I could love and make use of all the worn-out little words which we all let fall so carelessly—words we use when we drop in on someone, words that go with some sign of love, words whispered in grief or in the surprise of some small joy. . .. I could write a book about you or myself or about any of us office-worms. We carry on and find a job which allows us to live–we can’t live for it.

In her mid-twenties, Undset thus announced the techniques and themes that would reverberate throughout her life’s work. The “half-lovely” realistic setting of her fiction would be “the town,” no more and no less a scrupulously realized community of all-too-human beings than an exquisitely delineated collection of buildings and pos-sessions, perceived through that female consciousness sometimes dismissed as “intuition.” The old Vikings, like their Germanic Iron Age ancestors, knew better, ascribing intuition to woman’s capacity to marshal myriad tiny details into near-supernatural insights.

Undset’s ability to create unforgettable characters with a saga-simple flash of her pen, like her portrait of poor Oslo children yearning outside dingy toy-shops, is intimately connected to her skill at realistically depicting the sights and sounds and feels and smells of “the town”— the good and bad in any group of dwellings that mattered to her stories—a farm in a remote Norwegian valley, or a cluster of wooden buildings huddled at the feet of Nidaros Cathedral; the bustle and swarm of medieval London, or the cold grey early-twentieth-century Northern villages where lonely women loved and lost. Her vehicle would be the “worn-out little words which we all let fall so carelessly,” the understated conversation of ordinary Scandinavian people which in her hands resonated with profound religious and historical overtones; words, as Lermontov put it, whose sense is obscure or trivial—yet one cannot listen to them without tremor.

Life’s Somber Truth

Beyond setting, characterizations, and style, however, Sigrid Undset’s literary achievement derives from her early realization of the somber truth of human life: if we want something, we must pay for it, and as the Old Norse sagas relentlessly insist, once the thrill of the chase and the joy of the prize are gone, the price often seems too high. After her father’s death when she was 11 plunged her family into poverty, Sigrid Undset herself likely stood outside little Oslo shops without the pennies to buy childish extravagances—all the more bitterly because earlier, when things were better, she probably had taken them for granted. Sigrid Undset as a young woman also stood on the outside of a fulfilling career, looking longingly inward to a future that seemed impossible for her to reach. In her late adolescence, she confessed to her Swedish friend Dea Forsberg that, “At a desperate moment in her lonely and self-centered youth [she] . . . once contemplated suicide while gazing at her image in the water.” Much later, in 1941, Undset also recalled, “I wanted to become a painter—I had been drawing and painting ever since I was a baby. But we had no money for art studies.” The money was one thing, but even before she left Ragna Nielsen’s progressive school at 15, the noted Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelson had warned Undset about the perils of art, which he called “a journey that leads to no goal,” since the work an artist creates never matches the dream that sparked it. The traveler bent on a life dedicated to art, Kittelson told her, “experiences nothing but humiliation, poverty, and intrigue . . . [because] Talent may be a gift, but it is also a curse.” Circumstances forced Undset to give up her dream of becoming a painter, but for a decade as a secretary at the German Electric Company in Oslo, she stubbornly invested her free time in reading and writing, spending the supposed “happy age” of a woman’s life in drudgery and earning the moral right to create fiction that unflinchingly depicts the hardships men and women and even children must face.

Sigrid Undset’s announcement that her work would be “about you or myself or any of us office-worms” confirms her intention to root her work solidly in her own hard-won experience. She was notoriously reticent about her private life; at 58, she stated unequivocally, “I have always hated publicity about myself.” Her major autobiographical statements, all made well after her religious conversion in 1924, were her record of her childhood, The Longest Years, 1935; her account of her flight from Norway, Return to the Future; and her children’s book Happy Times in Norway, these last two written in 1942. In early 1940 she also provided a brief but illuminating sketch of her life for Twentieth Century Authors, and her uncharacteristic revelations there suggest she felt she was making a statement on the deathbed of the European civilization to which she had devoted her life; “as things are looking,” she wrote, “we may all be swallowed up and deported somewhere in Siberia by the Russian aggressors if Finland does not get the necessary support in her fight for independence—I have come to the conclusion that I may just as well tell something about myself whilst I can.”

Though we cannot know with certainty exactly how much of her own life Sigrid Undset shaped into her fiction, her niece Charlotte Blindheim observes that “since we apprehend her books as realistic, written from her own experience or action, it makes us who have known her read her books in our own way . . . we always look for her own part.” From her earliest short stories through her last novels, Undset’s most characteristic “own part” was her insistence that humanity exists for more than the necessity of earning one’s daily bread. At first she defined this desire as love of self, speaking through Charlotte Hedels in “The Happy Age”: “We all want the same thing, to live for one moment with our whole being turned inward . . . into our own burning hearts.” As Narcissus discovered in the old myth, though, those instants of egoistic passion have their cost—death by drowning. After Undset faced and rejected suicide in her adolescence, her stories reveal successive stages of an individual’s progress toward maturity; from “The Happy Age” onward, the crux of each piece of her fiction is a choice freely made in one glorious, vulnerable, and self-absorptive moment, while the successive prices her protagonists pay for a bit of transitory happiness trace Sigrid Undset’s own developing relationships to her human family, to her art, and ultimately, to her God.

Triumphs amid Trials

After her father’s death and her family’s descent into poverty, Sigrid Undset experienced a late and controversial courtship, a problematic marriage, and then separation and divorce; she was left to support six children, three of whom were her husband’s from a previous marriage, and two, her husband’s son and her daughter Maren Charlotte (Tulla), were severely mentally handicapped. In these demanding circumstances Undset wrote 11 novels, four collections of short fiction, a play, a collection of verse, three autobiographical works, 12 collections of essays, several translations and adaptations from Old Norse and other medieval literature, and numerous miscellaneous pieces of prose. The great majority of her readers today know and cherish Kristin Lavransdatter, her re-creation of life in fourteenth-century Norway, above all her other work, but Sigrid Undset herself deplored “such a hubbub of praise for Kristin” and insisted that the story of Olav Audunsson’s crime and punishment, known in English as The Master of Hestviken, was her finest.

Sigrid Undset’s creative life falls into two halves. The first includes her earliest attempts at fiction, beginning with a rejected draft of The Master of Hestviken she wrote between 1902 and 1905, and it extends through Kristin Lavransdatter, whose three novels were published in 1920, 1921, and 1922, respectively, a period coinciding with the breakup of her marriage. The great watershed of her career seems to have been the annulment of her marriage on November 23, 1924, and her reception into the Roman Catholic Church on the following day, the feast of the Carmelite mystic Saint John of the Cross. Soon afterward, in 1925 and 1927, she published the two volumes of the Norwegian version of The Master of Hestviken. She had been expected to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, that is, prior to the appearance of The Master of Hestviken, but at the last moment the Nobel Committee awarded it to George Bernard Shaw, and Sigrid Undset did not receive her Nobel Prize until 1928, a year before Germany’s Thomas Mann. From then until 1941, when the Nazis drove her from Norway, she wrote contemporary novels where, as in her tracts and lectures of that time, she sought to convince European civilization of its need for a neo-Thomist religious reformation.

In her autobiographical works, Sigrid Undset looked back upon her personal and literary development and found that the common denominator of her work had its source in her early life: betrayal and all its heavy consequences. When her beloved father Ingvald Undset was still able to help with her home schooling, he introduced her to resounding ancient tales of Greek and Roman heroism, stories that probably had inspired him to take up his own study of archaeology, and around eight years old, Sigrid learned at her father’s side that not only “the great figures who were to thrill her imagination must al-ways do what was noble and right, unconditionally, even if it meant ruin and death,” but that she was expected to bind herself with the same moral imperative. The inexorability of fate and the necessity of suffering that Aeschylus holds out to humanity’s gaze and the stern lessons of moral rectitude taught by the Roman Republic mesh almost seamlessly with the uncompromising ideal of individual responsibility presented by the old Scandinavian saga literature that Undset also encountered as a child. She first read the greatest of the sagas, the thirteenth-century Njal’s Saga, on a visit to Trondheim, the ancient seat of Norway’s kings, the year her father died, and she later called it the book that changed her life. She had, however, already discovered the painful discrepancy between noble ideals and the pragmatism of the here-and-now, when adults with good intentions betrayed her childish trust; they gave away her puppy, lied to her about the dangers of the world, and sent her to a school where she was ridiculed for their views, deflating her self- image and driving her to take refuge with her books.

Worse, she knew she had also betrayed herself: “my schoolmates found me out from the very beginning—that I imagined myself to be somebody, to be ‘different.’ And they set about to make me see how unpleasant life ought to be made for anybody who is different from other people.” Even as a child Sigrid Undset defied the pains of being “different,” and in Odin’s pale warrior Skarpedhin, an unforgettable figure it the Njálá, she recognized as unyielding a fellow spirit as her own, a spirit that rejected everything and everyone that failed to meet his own high standards: “he was so impatient of everything in the world about him that he wanted to put an end to it all.” Skarphedin’s ringing laughter as he brings his destiny of flaming death down upon himself probably contributed to her adolescent suicidal impulse, which seems more likely a manifestation of her extreme exasperation with the world than a surrender to its pressures. A few months later, Ingvald Undset died, a parent’s ultimate betrayal, it might seem to a child who had had no teaching about the Resurrection. And when he was gone, in a strange way Sigrid felt free, because “there was no one on whom she cared to be dependent.”

A Grim Rationalism

Raised in a rationalistic home with no significant experience of Christian contrition, penance, or absolution, Undset as a child had not learned to be sympathetic with or truly forgive either her own failings or anyone else’s, a position she seems to have shared with her strong-willed mother, who Charlotte Blindheim feels was the major influence in Sigrid’s youth. Undset also clung to the inflexible idealism that classical literature and her Norwegian heritage had instilled in her. Allowing herself to be dependent would be the most valuable gift she could give someone, and because she would not allow herself to be hurt again, as a young woman she refused to give it. In that kind of self-destructive independence, she was one in spirit with her ancient countrymen whom the sagas celebrated; for them the keeping of their sworn word was the measure of a human being, and breaking it was the worst offense imaginable, by which they would forfeit the pleasures of Valhalla. The pagan Norse warriors longed for an heroic death in battle that their skalds could immortalize as much as they dreaded “a straw death” from disease or old age at home, and perhaps the discrepancy Sigrid Undset perceived between the Old Norse ideal of fidelity to an oath and the reality of humanity’s moral weakness alerted her to a flaw in Norway’s national character: “very many Norwegians are melancholy at heart and by nature prone to distrust both their fellow-men and God himself.” Even her earliest fiction shows that she did not exclude herself from that grim assessment.

Fatal Attraction

Nearly all the stories Sigrid Undset wrote while she was a secretary in Oslo hinge upon a moment of deceptive happiness that is achieved by the selfish breaking of a vow and that results in the breaking of a woman’s life. All her early heroines “gaze repeatedly at their own reflection, find the image too exquisite for such common surroundings, and wonder where the perfect `other’ might be whose eyes will return the same idolatrous reflection they see. But the endings of their stories suggest different levels of growth in self-knowledge, leading to different resolutions of the probem.” Sigrid Undset’s first known work was an unpublished draft of The Master of Hestviken, whose plot hinges upon the theme of betrayal: when thirteenth-century Norwegian fathers bind children to an arranged marriage, they betray their offspring’s freedom of choice, ensuring fatal consequences for the protagonist when his orphaned young wife is later attracted to an itinerant outsider. After an Oslo publisher rejected this project, telling Undset that she should give up historical fiction and devote herself to contemporary subjects, she immediately began her next novel, Fru Marta Oulie, with the words, “I have been unfaithful to my husband,'” which, she thought, “ought to be modern enough.” In fact, however, a woman’s marital infidelity was nothing new, as Sigrid Undset knew very well from the medieval sagas. Neither was its aftermath, the physical or emotional anguish that a straying wife inflicts on herself, usually just as painful, if not more anguishing, as society’s judgment of her. What Undset’s readers would have found disquietingly “modern” when Fru Marta Oulie appeared in 1907 was that Marta confessed in her retrospective diary not to directing her love outwardly, toward her lovers, but to selfishly loving love itself—and being fatally proud of doing so:

Love—there was nothing else in life worth living for! I loved so fanatically that it seemed I could never dive deep enough into my passion. And day by day I felt how this love was making me beautiful and fresh and brilliant, how it gave me an unsuspected understanding of life and made me brave and gay and infinitely superior.

To enhance her own self-image, Marta first chose her husband and later took his best friend as her lover; but only after her husband died, never suspecting her infidelity, did she realize that love directed inward consumes its object: “It seems indeed that we have no soul outside the life of our bodies—it lives in us like the flame in something burning.” Marta lost husband, family, and lover, and she had to live on with the realization that her choice, a flaming love of self, had reduced her to a burned-out shell.

Before leaving her secretarial job in 1909, Sigrid Undset looked again to medieval Norway. Even though she claimed that her major preoccupation in Gunnar’s Daughter was the theme of the avenging son, she created another female protagonist who loved selfishly and lost her world.

For ten grueling years in Oslo, Undset, like the heroines she was creating, had sustained herself with dreams of personal freedom: “Above all things I had always desired liberty to do what I wanted. But ever since my seventeenth year I have always had to consider somebody else’s interests, whatever I have been doing.” Undset’s writing finally freed her from economic bondage, and at 27, with her two sisters at last able to support themselves and a modest literary success behind her, she reached out “to do what she wanted.” Fatally vulnerable, she seized exactly the moment of deceptive happiness for which she would do penance for the remainder of her life.

Life as Art

In one of the novellas Undset wrote during the First World War, the most difficult phase of her marriage, her character Uni Hjelde reminds all women of a sobering truth: “in that brief moment when love’s caresses are new and make the blood flutter, you must understand and take control of all your life.” Striking parallels exist between figures and events in Sigrid Undset’s personal life and her fiction from 1909 onwards. She went to Rome that fall on a study grant and lived among expatriate Scandinavian artists and writers; that Christmas she sat for the brilliant and erratic Norwegian artist Anders Castus Svarstad, and suddenly he made her blood flutter. He was 13 years older than she was, already married to Si¬grid Undset’s schoolmate Ragna Moe, and father of three children. So far as can be determined today, a major problem in Sigrid Undset’s marriage seems to have been the issue she described in the summer of 1910, inspired by the feminists’ demand that Saint Paul’s words, “Wives, be submissive to your husbands,” be dropped from Norwegian marriage services. She felt that natural law demanded that women choose men somehow superior to themselves: “For these selfsame words carry nature’s own legal prescription for marriage: that a woman shall marry the man whom she can call her lord—and no one else.”

At that time some quality in Svarstad, perhaps his success at painting which she .had been denied, as much as his experience and personal magnetism, must have convinced Sigrid Undset that he possessed an innate superiority to which she could yield in marriage. She tried to keep her feelings for Svarstad hidden during the two-and¬a-half years it took for him to be divorced, but her family and friends in Oslo knew and disapproved, a factor which may have paradoxically contributed to her determination to marry him. After Sigrid Undset married Svarstad in the Norwegian consul’s office in Antwerp in the spring of 1912, they lived briefly in England, the only “moment of happiness” in her married life, then moved to a dank wintry Rome and finally returned to Norway with Anders, their first child, where despite grinding poverty and the pressures of her three pregnancies and her writing, Sigrid Undset did her best to make a home for Svarstad. She did even more: after Ragna Moe had to put her children into an orphanage because she could not support them, Undset took Svarstad’s children—and a burden of guilt—into her own home.

One of the few known comments Undset made about her married life reveals the degree of her disillusion with the man she had thought she could “call her lord.” On February 16, 1947, she wrote to her American friend Hope Emily Allen:

Well, our marriage did not turn out a success,—he had a gift for making other people, and himself, unhappy, and to turn friends and admirers into enemies, which did much to prevent him from being recognized as the great artist he really was, as long as he was living . . . When he arranged his own exhibitions he always dragged in a lot of his worst things to give it the most prominent places and swear they were his very best. I am really proud of Hans [Undset’s only surviving child] . . . and I like his loyalty to his father, whom he ad-mired always without having any illusions about what life with him would have been like. To my stepdaughters it was sometimes rather like hell.

Eventually Sigrid Undset and Svarstad separated amicably, and her marriage was annulled on November 23, 1924.

The Soul’s Primacy

The fiction that Sigrid Undset wrote during her initial infatuation with Svarstad and the unhappy early years of her marriage displays her preoccupation with the powerful tension between a woman’s physical needs and her spiritual being, a revolutionary concern for a woman novelist in the early 1900s. Jenny, which she wrote in the summer of 1911, was “a profound psychological study, written with painful intensity,” one critic notes; it exploded upon the European literary scene that fall and be-came the most widely read novel in Norway, and in it Si-grid Undset uncannily foresaw the pain her marriage would cost her: “No woman has given birth to the child she dreamed of when she bore it—no artist has created the work he saw before him in the light of his inspiration . . .  And no love is what lovers dreamed when they kissed for the first time.” Before she had lived it, Sigrid Undset was describing the priorities that exist in a woman artist’s life—motherhood, art, and romantic love. Throughout her life, she placed motherhood first, over her artistry; romantic passion, with its inevitable and profound regrets, came last. Out of this ordering of her emotional and artistic priorities came the message of Undset’s great medieval novels: those things that we, with our limited earthly vision, want so badly that we betray what we love best in order to possess them, fade to insignificance compared to the needs of the immortal soul.

Toward God in Christ

Before she could write Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset published Spring in 1914, possibly her weakest novel. Svarstad was in Paris, and Undset left her sickly first son, Anders, with her mother and went to an Oslo boarding house to write. Spring, like Poor Fortunes, the collection of short stories she wrote in 1912, fictionally advances the social and moral position Undset had announced in her speech “The Fourth Commandment,” given to the Oslo Students’ Union in March of 1914. By this time, Undset had acknowledged that a human “other” could not provide the uplifting reflection of human aspirations necessary to spiritual progress. She now identified God as the symbol of all good, and she saw the innocent gaze of children as the earthly demonstration of His love toward their parents. In Spring and Poor Fortunes she envisions the family as civilization’s primary cohesive force, and culture as a product of the individual’s responsibility toward his fellow men in the pursuit of “strength, wisdom, justice, truth, compassion, chastity, moderation, courage.” But this was the brink of World War I, and she had had to leave her baby to write; Undset could not help but tell the truth as she saw it, that at this crucial time in her life and Europe’s, these human ideals were “all bright and ancient words . . . halfway to becoming ridiculous.” While she was facing Norway’s hardships and her own predicament, more difficult than ever, Undset, raised in a rationalistic home and from her childhood a champion of seeing things as they really are, was approaching traditional Christianity.

In the Oslo Aftenposten for February 7 and February 19, 1920, Sigrid Undset published two pieces both titled “Gymnadenia,” which together comprise word for word the first chapter of Gymnadenia (in English The Wild Orchid), one of the two novels in which she chronicled her conversion. Those 1920 articles record her disillusionment with everything earthly in which men and women place so many hopes. Undset, herself a master gardener, made the small woods orchid her symbol for a rationalistic life devoid of the perception of God. At first when Paul Helmer, his sensitive young spirit rebelling against his father’s remarriage and his mother’s liberalism, helps her with her wildflower garden, he is filled with youthful hope; ” `Gymnadenia,’ he whispered, as though it were some-thing that awaited him at some point of his life.” When the plants bloom a little later, however, “There stood a little vase with some small green-looking flowers in it . . .  Frail stalks, with a few insignificant whitish little flowers.” Paul’s rationalistic mother is delighted with them, but “He was frightfully disappointed. Was that what they called gymnadenia?”

Those Sane Saints

Paul’s disillusion with a world of purely human values reflects Undset’s own spiritual condition after 1914. In her most revealing account of her conversion, written on the threshold of the Second World War, she connected her passion for realism with what her reason had taught her of human needs:

The war and the years afterwards confirmed the doubts I al-ways had had about the ideas I was brought up on—[I judged] that liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is. Instead, they presupposed that mankind was to “progress” into something else—towards their own ideas of what people ought to be. Being fostered on pre-history and history I did not much believe in progress. An accumulation of experience and expanding knowledge does not improve man’s intellect or moral qualities even if it ought to improve his ways of using his intellect and solving his moral problems. Yet it will not produce finer brains than Aristotle’s or Saint Thomas Aquinas’, for instance, a greater or more versatile mind than Saint Paul’s, a humanity nobler than Saint Louis of France’s or Sir Thomas More’s. . . . By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those queer men and women which the Catholic Church calls the Saints. Even their offending eccentricity offended mostly the fancies and wishful thinking of contemporary smugness. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness—his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellowmen, his everlasting fall from grace. Of course I knew the historical role of the Church as a civilizatory power, and I had

never looked on the religious revolt of the sixteenth century as anything but a revolt against the humanly unpalatable teachings of Christianity—the liberal Protestantism of my education left me an agnostic . . . But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ” ‘God’s friends,’ as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit. And . . . I was received into the Catholic Church.”

The Core of Kristin

Sigrid Undset had to struggle to submit to the divine “other” that her reason, her general knowledge of history, and her research into Norway’s medieval period had taught her to recognize. Leaving Gymnadenia for the time being, she fought out her spiritual battle in the three volumes of Kristin Lavransdatter, a novel dominated by “her own part,” the record of her loyalties, her betrayals of them, and that choice she seems to have made in a few heartbeats in Svarstad’s arms—the choice for which she already had begun to pay such a heavy price.

The manuscript of the second volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, titled in English The Mistress of Husaby, bears Sigrid Undset’s hand-written dedication, “In memory of my father Ingvald Undset.” The story of Kristin’s life—and at least to some extent Sigrid Undset’s—parallels Norway’s abandonment of paganism and its adoption of Christianity. It balances a woman’s betrayal of her father, who represents the bonds of family, against her spiritual betrayal of her vow to the husband she chose as a demonstration of her individuality, fictionalizing the eternally problematic position of Woman, who must leave her father in order to marry and raise her children, and who emotionally must abandon her dependency on her husband in order to achieve genuine individuality. Undset had already treated these themes realistically, but Kristin Lavransdatter exhibits two important new dimensions of her work: the insights into erotic love, marriage, and family life that emerged from her relationship with Svarstad and the children, and the setting of a moral universe where God and His Church reign supreme.

Kristin’s Erlend Nikulausson is every young woman’s dream of love—handsome, dashing, brave in the tradition of the old pagan Tronder chieftains that Sigrid Undset, despite her hard-won Christianity, still stubbornly celebrated in her Saga of Saints, 1934: “If a man fought on in spite of it [destiny] he won the only things a man can win: honor and fame . . . his life was worth high stakes.” Erlend’s life and death exemplify the fatal discrepancy Undset saw in the Norwegian character, the ideal of fidelity forever beyond the reach of realistic human weakness. An inexperienced maiden like Kristin in The Bridal Wreath forgets that a noble warrior focuses upon the noble act, so that he may ignore the necessary—but to him less consequential—details of day-to-day life. Similarly, a young mother intent upon maintaining a secure home for her children, like Kristin in The Mistress of Husaby, forgets that the warrior pays his taxes in blood, and so she fatally expects him to be what he never can become, an-other Lavrans Bjorgulfsson. Not until she has lost him can many an older woman, like Kristin in The Cross, wholeheartedly forgive the failings and celebrate the virtues of the warrior she chose so long before, the man she had blamed for being what he had to be—and for what she finally recognizes as her own inadequacies.

Kristin expected Erlend to reflect back to her her own self-love. Because she denied him the individuality she demanded for herself, she had to learn through suffering that she alone was responsible for the fate of her immortal soul, passing through religious experiences paralleling the early stages of Sigrid Undset’s own road toward faith.

The Bridal Wreath begins with a powerful evocation of Norway’s pagan past. Thirsty for berries, the child Kristin leads her father’s red stallion, Guldsveinen, down a hillside where she comes upon a black forest pool, “the finest of mirrors,” gazes at her own reflection, and glimpses an elf-queen offering her a golden garland. Undset’s lyric scene cloaks a premonition of Kristin’s future. The horse-symbol is closely connected in Norse myth to the fertility gods Freyr and Freyja; Freyja was said to have introduced seidr to pagan Scandinavia; it was a soothsaying rite connected with the horse cult and involving death-dealing magic. Kristin, not the horse, leads the way, suggesting her strong will which pursues physical gratification; and she chooses to gaze into the water to see if she resembles her father, that is, to see if her father reflects her own self-admiration. She then decks herself in a pink valerian wreath “like a grown maid who goes a- dancing” and proudly gazes again. This wreath symbolizes her honor, tinged with self-chosen sin, which she will bring to her wedding, and the pagan vision confirms her wish with a golden wreath, foreshadowing Erlend’s noble aunt Lady Ashild, reputedly a sorceress, who, resembling the elf queen, “defines for her [Kristin] the beauty and peril of a secular life.”

Although Kristin ran away in terror, the memory of that golden wreath of selfishness lay in her mind and heart like a festering splinter from a troll’s looking glass, the symbol Sigrid Undset had chosen for her two 1917 novellas which treat opposing views of marriage. Not long afterward, saintly Brother Edvin offers Kristin a different garland, a pristine wreath of Christian doctrine: ” ’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 life and death.” Brother Edvin also tells Kristin that Christ came “to taste in the flesh the lures of the devil . . . as well as the menace of the world. . . . In such wise did He show us the way and make manifest His love.” Kristin, like most of humanity, listens but fails to hear. Brother Edvin suggests the nun’s veil to her: “how would you like to offer up this bonny hair and serve Our Lady like these brides I have figured here?” Kristin replies evasively, “We have no child at home but me. . . . So ’tis like I must marry,” as if the pious Lavrans would not have given his daughter to the Church if she had desired it with all her heart.

For most of the novel, Kristin’s heart is unhappily divided between ideal and reality, the love of God she knows she ought to feel and the prideful love of the flesh she cannot resist. In denying Erlend his right to be himself, Kristin’s pride costs him his life, for though she spurned him, he keeps his bridal oath and dies defending her honor. After Erlend is gone, Kristin’s children grow away from her, and she is forced to realize that the only “other” who can reflect a forgiving image of herself is humanity’s selfless Savior. Her last act on earth, relinquishing Erlend’s gold ring with its blood-red stone, is her first act of Christlike love. At last, through Christ’s mercy Kristin rids herself of the last vestige of the pagan golden wreath of pride she, like all humanity, had chosen in her youth. In her final moment, Kristin realizes that the marriage she had chosen was not her lifelong torment but God’s instrument of her salvation.

‘Wild’ Truths

In Ida Elizabeth (1932), one of Sigrid Undset’s characters observes, “If a man can put up with remaining the same as he has always been and yet undergoing a cease-less transformation—continuing to be the same in another way—then I can assure you that it’s exciting to grow old. . . . One gets round things, is able to see them from one new side after another.” This statement justifies Undset’s preference for The Master of Hestviken over Kristin Lavransdatter, for after completing Kristin Lavransdatter her burgeoning religious sensibility opened new artistic vistas that she incorporated into the book she considered her masterpiece. During a visit to Monte Casino in 1925, she believed she received an illumination of the great paradox of the Crucifixion; she saw humanity as “untold souls who have lived through the ages, each of them imprisoned in the raveled net of his own self, from which no doctrine can set us free, only God, and He only by dying on a cross.” By realizing that forgiveness requires and makes sense of suffering, Undset had also “learned why there can never be any valid authority of men over men. The only Authority to which mankind can submit without debauching itself is His whom Saint Paul calls Auctor Vitae—the Creator’s toward Creation.”

In Olav Audunsson, master of the old Viking stronghold of Hestviken, Sigrid Undset depicted mankind trapped by its pagan morality; by committing his son under oath to an arranged marriage, Olav’s father betrays his child’s freedom of choice, and the marriage eventually leads to the risk of Olav’s immortal soul. Viking pride demands that Olav in a moment of self-satisfying vengeance kill the youth who had been the lover of Olav’s weak- willed wife, Ingunn; but by concealing the crime and rejecting God’s merciful forgiveness throughout his life, Olav, “caught in his own snares,” fatally sets himself above his Lord. Olav has to suffer for most of his life to earn an understanding of a purpose beyond his own will: “He saw now that it was not his suffering that destroyed the happiness of his life . . . sufferings that are of some avail, they are like the spearpoints that raise the shield on which the young king’s son sits when his subjects do him homage.” Olav’s recognition fictionally represents the core of the Roman Catholic faith to which Sigrid Undset had come. For her, Catholicism offered the sole explanation of life which men and women cry out so desperately to hear. As she later put it in The Burning Bush, Catholicism gave her “sober information about absolute truths. Even if the truths themselves are not sober but fairly wild, and the absolute is infinite and inexhaustible.”

In her great medieval novels, Sigrid Undset often framed a character’s realization of a profound spiritual truth with the imagery and the symbolism of the pagan Vikings; she used the resonance of Northern myth to reinforce the Christian message that had become her wholehearted preoccupation. Kristin Lavransdatter explores the price of getting what one most desires in “that moment when the blood flutters,” but The Master of Hestviken inverts the relation of happiness and suffering: devastating disillusionment with self precedes genuine sorrow for sin and the desire for atonement so that God’s gift of illumination may follow. Until one grasps all facets of human life as necessary elements of divine purpose, Sigrid Undset now believed, no spiritual growth is possible: “Is there something which we ought to have known and have never been told, and is that why we do such terribly stupid things with our lives?” For Undset, seeing divine intention was not merely enough, it was everything:

Our spirit, looking for causes and effects in the eternal play of transformation, has felt certain that this play is directed by persons or a person whom our thinking and searching ego resemble in some way or other and was related to. So it has been as far back as we know anything of human history on earth, and religion is our relation to these causes or this cause which stands above matter and deals with it as it pleases. Religion is our relation to the supernatural.

Maritain as Guide

After The Master of Hestviken and her Nobel Prize, Sigrid Undset turned her attention to contemporary fiction in which she hammered home the truths of the Church she had claimed as her own, belaboring them so forcefully that, like many of her contemporaries, today’s readers frequently find her last novels unpalatable, if not unreadable. Her spiritual sanctuary was the scholasticism of Aquinas as she found it in the neo-Thomism of Jacques Maritain, a leader of Catholicism’s reaction to the moral vicissitudes of the early twentieth century. Maritain called for safeguarding the dignity and rights of man by activist attacks upon the modern totalitarianism threatening them and advocated the reconciliation of human conflicts through Christian wisdom. According to Maritain, “from the end of the Middle Ages—a moment at which the human creature, while awakening to itself, felt itself oppressed and crushed in its loneliness—modern times have longed for a rehabilitation of the human creature. They sought this rehabilitation in a separation from God. It was to be sought in God.”

Sigrid Undset’s Norwegian nature never admitted much compromise. Charlotte Blindheim remarks that in the Catholic Church her aunt found “a tried and tested intellectual authority over her brooding, earthbound mind and her innate arrogance.” In her own life and in her medieval novels, Undset had already unforgettably depicted the price of selfish separation from God, the oppressive loneliness Maritain described, and from the early 1930s she fought as savagely as any Viking warrior against any element of modern society, from Lutheranism to Nazism, that she believed was selfishly seeking relief by breaking with the God of Christian tradition. The policies of the Church Undset embraced in 1924, however, were not quite those of today’s Church. “Undset lived in the era of the `triumphalise Catholic Church. Its members were taught that it represented ‘Absolute Truth,’ and that there was no salvation outside of it. As a neophyte member of that Church, she was especially zealous about propagating such doctrines.” Usually Undset was morally in the right; frequently she stood alone; and often, too, her Viking refusal to grant mercy to her enemies brought heavy criticism down upon her for subordinating her literary talents to her religious aims. In 1941, one of her contemporaries harshly observed, “it may as well be said frankly that Sigrid Undset’s novels . . . written since her conversion, are her poorest work from a literary standpoint. They are long and tedious, many of them little more than sugar-coated tracts, and . . . ‘her unprincipled and purposeless moderns never come to life at all.’” Some admirers of Undset’s work now share Margaret Mary Dunn’s opinion that Undset’s later novels are impossible to teach today, because of the tone of unbending rectitude with which she tried to spread her faith, but J.C. Whitehouse looks beyond Undset’s occasionally peremptory tone to the salvific function of the faith she promulgates: “Catholicism, she maintains, is a religion for life, not an opiate or a substitute for erotics but a realistic and to some degree a materialistic religion, bringing to the believer a kind of peace.”

Trusting the Tale

Undset’s great contemporary D.H. Lawrence cautioned twentieth-century readers, “Never trust the artist: trust the tale,” cutting to the heart of the relationship between great literature and the men and women who create it by transforming their human frailty and the pains it brings them into eternal art. Lawrence’s statement implies that a literary work possesses a life independent of its maker’s; that the creative gift makes the artist inherently incapable of avoiding deception in accounting for the creative process and its results; and that therefore the worth of the work incontrovertibly outweighs the human failings of its creator. The roots of human creativity lie far beneath the surface of human consciousness, and like the Old Norse world-tree Yggdrasil they are continually menaced by serpents working to devour both the artist and his gift. Sigrid Undset knew that pride gnawed at the roots of her artistry, and it eventually brought her literary art crashing about her own stubborn Norwegian head, tragically demolishing her creativity. The painful record of her life and her spiritual quest remains clear in her fiction: the realistic liberalism of her early stories about Norway’s poor; her Christian vision, filtered first through Christian mysticism and later through the neo-Thomism which suited her stern view of life so well; her brief flowering of Christian humanism, an antidote at the close of her life for the scrupulosity and pride and hatred she at last realized had marred it; and pervading all, the stern rectitude of the old pagan Norsemen from whom she and her art had sprung. Her rewards and their price in Sigrid Undset’s life and literary works, inextricably intertwined with her quest for God, remain best described in the words she gave Kristin on her deathbed, words in which all Christians might hope to share:

A handmaiden of God had she been—a wayward, unruly servant, oftenest an eye-servant in her prayers and faithless in her heart, slothful and neglectful, impatient under correction, but little constant in her deeds—yet had he held her fast in his service . . . owned by the Lord and King who was now coming … to give her freedom and salvation.


  • Mitzi Brunsdale

    Mitzi M. Brunsdale is Professor of English at Mayville State University.

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