Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath

by Sigrid Undset

{ 1920 | Aschehoug | 288 pgs }

If you’re much, much more well-read than I am, you probably know that Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928 for her Kristin Lavransdatter series. If you’re like me, or less well-read, I doubt you’ve ever heard of Undset before. Aren’t you curious how I came across this book? I desperately needed an author for U, so I searched the Provo library catalog for “Underhill” (thank you, Frodo) and found a nearby author whose books were currently available and perhaps mildly interesting.

The Wreath did fit the bill. I read it all today – special thanks to the Bwun for finally taking a nap. A long nap. I had a little trouble because the series is set in 14th century Norway. I’m just going to let that sink in.

Now, usually I don’t like to tell you too much of the plot – sometimes I don’t even mention more than “it’s a mystery.” (Haha.) You know what I mean, right? The reason is that I’m so easily influenced by what I hear about a book, and when I tell you about a book I enjoyed, I assume that at least one of you is going to decide to read it. I don’t want to spoil it.

Is it safe to assume here that no one is going to go out and get the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy? Yes? Alright, then I’ll tell you the plot.

Our heroine, Kristin Lavransdatter, is, you guessed it, the daughter of Lavrans. He has a very long last name. Anyway, Kristin’s mother is depressed (they describe her as “gloomy”) because she’s had her 3 sons die in infancy. And Kristin is a daddy’s girl. As she grows up, she’s obviously her father’s pride and joy. Eventually her mother bears another daughter, but there’s a terrible accident and the sister is crippled. So Kristin isn’t quite so much the center of attention anymore.

Her best friend is a boy named Arne, who is a few years older and has a thing for her. (She’s old enough to have crushes and whatnot now.) But he’s not from a super-wealthy family, and Kristin’s father forms a betrothal pact for her with a wealthy family from out of town. (I hope you understand that I’m talking about villages here.) Kristin likes her intended (Simon) well enough, but just before Arne is leaving town to go fight or join a guild or whatever, he asks Kristin to meet him on the road late at night so they can have a private word. He professes his love, Kristin realizes she loves him, they smooch, they part.

Too bad that on the way back to her house, she runs into Arne’s cousin, who is quite drunk and who saw her with Arne. The cousin attempts to force himself on poor Kristin; she runs away, throws a big rock at his head, and escapes to his mother’s house. The mother cleans Kristin up and asks her not to tell. In a few days the cousin is sent out of town (“on assignment”). Kristin doesn’t tell anyone what happened, which ended up being a dumb thing to do.

Wherever it is the Arne is, his cousin ends up too; they’re both drunk, and come to words about Kristin; a scuffle ensues, and Arne gets killed. When his body is brought back to the village, Kristin accompanies her father and others to help comfort Arne’s parents. Unfortunately, his mother is wild with grief and hurls accusations at Kristin – that she did lie with the cousin, and Arne’s death was her fault. It creates quite a scandal, especially since Simon is there. So Kristin and her parents decide maybe it’s best if she goes into the convent for a year, to let the rumors subside and to give her some time to learn obedience before she gets married.

Up until this point, Kristin has maybe been a little foolish – why would you meet a man in the road at night when you’re already promised to someone else? – but things really get bad once she goes into the convent. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Because she isn’t planning to take vows, she and the other girls like her are allowed to go out into the village. One day she and another girl happen into a strange set of circumstances puts them on a mountaintop where they’re rescued by a handsome knight named Erlend. At the next festival, he and Kristin dance; then they go off into the garden or somewhere late at night and smooch; and before the night is over they’re promising to love each other and neither wed nor love anyone else. Really? On their second “date”?

It turns out that Erlend has a not-so-noble past. Although he has a good family name, he seduced (or was seduced by) a married woman whose house he was living in. They ran away together and she bore him two children; Erlend was excommunicated for his sins. By the time he meets Kristin he’s left the woman and is back in fellowship with the church, but his name is still besmirched. (Awesome! I have never used that word before.) He tells Kristin this, and of course, since it’s true love, she feels pity for him, for the hard life he’s had.

He asks her to speak to her father and break off the engagement with Simon, but Kristin says she can’t bear to make her father suffer as he would. Possibly the most illogical thing that happens in the book. Kristin and Erlend start meeting in secret, he takes her maidenhood in a barn during a storm, they even begin to meet in the house of a woman of ill-repute. And yet she still won’t do anything about her engagement, even when she thinks she’s pregnant (which she isn’t).

Finally, though, Simon confronts her – a lot of stuff happened in between – and she admits that she does not want to go through with their marriage. He’s understandably furious, especially since it’s now been over two years since they officially became engaged and she never said anything. He agrees to talk to her father and explain that he doesn’t want to marry someone who is unwilling to marry him, but makes Kristin promise to tell her father the truth – that she has fallen in love with someone else.

Blah blah blah, she returns home from the convent, her betrothal is broken but her father won’t let her marry Erlend (also understandable), Kristin is distant, her crippled sister dies. At this point her father is so emotionally weak that he gives in and accepts Erlend’s offer to marry Kristin. They make elaborate arrangements, mainly because Kristin’s father has no idea that she’s no longer a maiden.

Guess what happens? A few months before the wedding is to take place, Kristin gets pregnant. The last few chapters are her worrying, fainting, and worrying, but nobody ever says anything to her and she stays thin enough to not cause another scandal.

The end.

(Thank you for reading this far with me. I left out a lot, trust me. And although the book is obviously considered a masterpiece, I found the characters frustrating and the translation much too…dated. It felt like it had been written in the 14th century, not about it. I was not compelled to go read the other books in the trilogy, but if you want a much shorter summary, here’s the Wikipedia page.)

P.S. My favorite review on Amazon was short but to the point: “The book was pretty good, but WHY IS KRISTIN SUCH AN IDIOT? That really annoyed me.”