Thursday, July 15, 2010

Kristin Lavransdatter

The first time I came to the end of Kristin Lavransdatter I resolved to read it again very soon. The friend of a friend reads the trilogy once a year, and certainly it could stand up to that degree of intimacy; Kristin's world of Norway in the 14th Century is vast with well-developed characters, complicated politics, and a daily life where the pervasiveness of the church and Christian faith often shows cracks revealing the old pagan traditions as an under layer.

My own initial discovery, in the translation from Norwegian into English by Charles Archer, seemed to provide a mere introduction, partly because I was reading too fast, eager to see how the heroine's life turned out. There were so many people involved, as I noticed midway, I started taking notes on how they were related to the protagonists, knowing that it would help me understand their significance. My plan was to take even more extensive notes from the outset on my next reading.

That was more than ten years ago, and by the time I got to my second reading this year I was willing to try the new translation by Tiina Nunnally, touted by pretty much everyone as a better one, in that it does not involve the unnecessary--and, to some people, stilted and cumbersome--older English words and syntax. I had rather appreciated the language, as a reminder that Kristin's world was not much like my own, no matter how similar some of her womanly and just plain human concerns resembled those of people everywhere down through the ages.

This time, I was reading in bed, lying down before sleep, or at the gym on the treadmill, so my smart plan to take notes wasn't feasible. I had to make my second tour through the novel as I've been admonished to travel through a foreign country, fully expecting and planning that it won't be the last time I visit. They say that is the only way to make yourself relax enough to enjoy and retain what you do manage to see and encounter.

And I did see new and different things this time through. There are many books I truly want to read more than once, but not many novels have I actually gone back to again, so this kind of rereading was not a familiar exercise. As I came to remembered parts of the Kristin tale I was surprised to see that they didn't take up as many pages as I thought they would need. Many sub-plots and attributes of Kristin's family and friends were as good as new to me; evidently I missed them completely before.

As infused with a sacramental faith as the medieval world of these books is, I'm sure they influenced me on my path to Orthodoxy. Now that my own perceptions and beliefs are being forged into something more like the tradition that was Kristin's foundation, I think I am better able to appreciate some parts of the story. The deathbed scenes were striking, for the way the Christian reverence for the body, and the repentant heart of the Christians, were displayed. I'd like to write more on how they compare with descriptions of similar scenes in the Islamic culture of The Cairo Trilogy.

For a few pages near the end this recent reading I found myself thinking that I was getting bored with medieval Norway, or at least, that I didn't want to spend time on a third reading when there are so many other books still to be known. That feeling didn't last long, because by the time I came to the last pages I knew that I still have a lot to gain from acquaintance with the themes in this amazing epic by Sigrid Undset. It's a glory to God that one human mind can create a complex and rich world like that of Kristin, peopled with characters whose drama reflects our own struggles to love God and repent of our besetting sins. Image Journal included the novel in its list of 100 best books of the 20th century that "manifest a genuine engagement with the Judeo-Christian heritage of faith."

The Nunnally translation has extensive notes on the history and politics of that era in Norway, and some real historical characters come into play in the fictionalized account. Wikipedia's entry on the novel lists many of the characters; I think I'll print it out and use it for an outline on which to build my notes, those notes that I am still hoping to make on one of my revisits. I'm eager to return again and again to a place where my faith and thankfulness are encouraged as I make friends with fellow pilgrims.

6 comments:

Pom Pom said...

I am going to check my library immediately. Fascinating. My great grandparents were born in Norway. My dad is %100 Norwegian. Must read this. I was just thinking about Giants of the Earth this morning. My dad read it while he visited quite some time ago. Thank you, GJ.

Pom Pom said...

Oooops! I mean Giants in the Earth!

wayside wanderer said...

This is a great review! I love this trilogy and have read it several times (not the Nunnally version yet) and I really appreciate your observations. I hadn't thought about how my own Christian journey was reflected in the story but it does (nondenom to reformed). I hope you will share more of your thoughts because I really enjoy reading and gleaning from your perspective.

Anita said...

This sounds like a fascinating and intriguing series. I am going to add it to my reading list.

Emily J. said...

I LOVE this book,too, and had read the Archer version from the library some years ago, and later read the first book in the newer translation a couple years ago. Then last summer I ordered all three books in the Nunnally version for Reading for Believers. Sadly, the order never showed up. I accidentally sent it to my old address, and it was never forwarded. But I had ordered it from Adoremus books, so figured the cost was kind of a donation. So I never got around to reading again. Still on my list of books worth owning.

Laura A said...

Hi, GretchenJoanna. I read Kristin for only the first time last summer (the Nunnally version), and I would love to read it again, perhaps in a couple of years. I love the way the book plays out the consequences of Kristin's youthful choices over the course of a lifetime, and also, her descriptions of nature are very evocative.

I think Undset is somewhat similar to Tolkien in her ability to recreate a world, especially one with a Nordic feel. Also, I think Tolkien is sacramental, though I haven't thought deeply about how.

I read the first of the Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk, this spring and think you have a very interesting idea there in comparing them. Two very different worlds indeed!