Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy of historical novels written by Sigrid Undset. The individual novels are Kransen (The Wreath), first published in 1920, Husfrue (The Wife), published in 1921, and Korset (The Cross), published in 1922. Kransen and Husfrue were translated from the original Norwegian as The Bridal Wreath [The Garland in this edition] and The Mistress of Husaby, respectively, in the first English translation by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott.

This work formed the basis of Undset receiving the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded to her “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”.[1] Her work is much admired for its historical and ethnological accuracy.” (Wikipedia)

Here we follow our leading lady from her childhood; her youthful marriage; the tribulations of her marital and family relations; her later years.

Undset has the gift of excellent prose in which to describe the essence of medieval Norway’s lands, terrain, weather, peoples and places. We learn how the characters of the family saga feel, think, dress, and struggle with conscience in an essentially Catholic country. The author follows the protagonists’ conflict between the laws of religion and the urges of the body and its emotions. She has deep insight into the minds of both men and women. This work was written at the time of her own conversion to the faith that forms such an important factor in it.

The action sequences are prolific and detailed, flowing along at a very fast pace.

“Light, fluted clouds were floating over the high, pale-blue heavens, and the sun was glittering on the dancing ripples of the water. It was quite spring-like along the shores; the fields lay almost bare of snow, and over the leaf-tree thickets the light had a yellow shimmer and the shadows were blue. But in the pine-forests up on the high ridges, which framed in the settled lands of Akersbygd, there were glimpses of snow, and in the far blue fells to the westward, beyond the fjord, there still showed many flashes of white,” is just one of the many engaging paragraphs that keep us turning pages rich in metaphor and in simile like “at the words of the prayer, it was as if her longing widened out and faded little by little like rings on a pool”. She incorporates all the senses comprising sounds, smells, sights, touch, and taste. Her poetic imagery must have been very challenging for the translators, who are to be congratulated.

“The ground sounded hollow under the horses’ hoofs, for the earth was as hard as iron with the black frost. The air was full of steam from the men and the horses; the bodies of the beasts and the men’s hair and furs were white with rime. Erland seemed as white-haired as the Abbot; his face glowed from his morning draught and the biting wind” evokes the harsh weather which is itself a significant protagonist in the saga. All the seasons are similarly expressed.

This longest, central, section of “The Mistress of Husaby” explores the position of the medieval Catholic Church, to which Sigrid Undset had recently converted in her own time; and its interface with still extant ancient mythology. The Church dominated the calendar operating from one saint’s day mass to another, and feast days like Christmas.

Priests were seen as the arbiters of conflict and upholders of morals, especially relating to sex, love, and marriage; these last demonstrated significant struggles with punitive conscience and lax desire over strict mores. Loyalty through periods of trying times is seen as paramount. our characters all struggle with the temptations of the flesh.

Even after prolonged estrangement kindred are expected to support each other in times of need. As we see inter-familial and nuclear family relationships ebb and flow as the years go by. Undset depicts loyalty, betrayal, and the difference between forgiving and forgetting transgressions.

In this work there is much focus on domestic and farming life. “She went to the byre herself to help in the milking. It was ever pleasant to her, this hour when she sat in the dark close in to the swelling cow-flank, and felt the milk’s sweet breath in her nostrils. Swish, swish, came the answer from the inner darkness, where the byre woman and the herd were milking. ‘Twas all so restful, the strong, warm smell in the byre, the sound of a withy-band creaking, of a horn knocking against wood, of a cow moving her feet in the miry earth floor of the stall, or whisking her tail at the flies. — The wagtails that nested here in the summer were gone now—-“ presents a marvellous bucolic scene

Children born out of wedlock or subject to step-parents were of lesser standing than the offspring of legitimate marriage, leading to significant family issues for the major characters. Marriages are expected to be lifelong. They are arranged between fathers but only performed with the woman’s consent. A child born out of wedlock is frowned upon and denied inheritance. As we see, women are often in love with another man whose child they bear. Provided they are married before the birth the issue is acceptable. Unrequited or forbidden love lasting a lifetime is the lot of some of the protagonists.

Childbirth was a difficult process taking its toll on mothers constantly pregnant. Details of the pains of childbirth are well described, and we are shown the physical and emotional stresses and strains of parenting over time. Medical care of all kinds was in very early stages, resulting in deaths which could be saved today.

There is much on politics, warfare, and international relations; we have a failed revolution and its consequences, including torture. Punishments differed according to the social and economic status of miscreants.

We learn how people at all levels lived; their hardships, their dwellings, their clothing, their jewellery, and their weaponry.

Undset’s deep understanding of human nature; her ability to convey conversation and to detail unspoken thoughts, is put to good use in her characterisation, with which she conveys the constant fluctuations of relationships between the main personnel.

The fluent, often poetic, prose carries us along with it. “From the gateway a pack of farm-dogs rushed out barking at the newcomer. Inside the courtyard a flock of shaggy goats were picking their way about, dark in the clear dusk – they were tugging at a heap of pine-branches in the midst of the yard. Three little children in thick winter clothes ran about amongst them” conveys everyday action in addition to the more significant exploits.

“Now the sun was below the mountaintop, the golden radiance grew paler and the red more rosy and soft. After the bells had fallen silent, the soughing of the woods seemed to grow again and spread abroad; the noise of the little beck that ran through the leafwoods down in the valley sounded louder on the ear. From the close nearby came the well-known clinking of the bells of the home cattle; a flying beetle hummed half-way round about her, and was gone” incorporates both sight and sound.

There are many editions of this work, in individual parts or in the whole. It will be apparent that I would recommend it to my readers, but not in the edition I have – the Picador first English translation of 1977- simply because almost 1,000 pages has,

necessarily, been so tightly bound as to need a very strong grip to prise apart the centres of the pages determined to conceal their edges. The leaves pictured here describe the burning of the church, the significance of the timing of which should become apparent without my suggesting it to readers wishing to follow the saga.

For once, I agree entirely with the praise on the back cover.


  1. What a wonderful review of a wonderful Nobel Prize winning book! Thank you for sharing the book and your thoughts about it! Always good to see you getting time to read! 🙂
    (((HUGS))) ❤️❤️

  2. Derrick, thanks to your enthusiasm I have at last purchased the first in this trilogy. I’ve been meaning to read it for many years and I’m confident I will love it 🙂 (I am taking the easy way though, and have purchased the electronic version 😉 )

    1. I hope you do, Robbie – and that you enjoy your trip. Purely by coincidence, I received my DNA test results while reading it and confirmed that I have significant Scandinavian ancestry.

        1. You may have seen that I also have dupuytrens contracture, known as the viking disease

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