1,119 pages. This is the page count of my copy of Kristin Lavransdatter. It is well over 200 pages from the longest book in the Harry Potter series. This Nobel Prize winning trilogy which was published in the 1920s is a historical fiction piece set in fourteenth-century Norway. (Author Sigrid Undset donated all of her prize money to charity.) It combines her novels, The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross, complete with maps of medieval Norway, explanatory notes, and a list of important Norwegian holy days.
I’d be lying if I told you that picking up this book would be an easy undertaking. But neither is confronting our sin or receiving undeserved mercy. Both of which this book will ask of you.
The Humanity and the Holy in Kristin Lavransdatter
What is unique about this novel is how it invites you into a deep experience of the human heart. It is a medieval story complete with elf maidens, chieftains, hearth, and home. It is about kinship and family lineage, exhilarating passion, betrayal, scandal, breathtaking Norwegian landscape, motherhood in its rawest form, holding grudges, learning how to get over our ego and ask for forgiveness, free will, and opening one’s heart to receive mercy. Ultimately, this is a book about grace.
What will have you turning page after page is the way that Undset dives into the morality of each character, how their conscience informs their choices, and how they transform over time. But these transformations involve pain. As Gunnulf, one of the priests in the book says, we should “all have the courage to suffer. Who would be so foolish not to accept pain and torment if this was the way to a faithful and steadfast bridegroom who waits with open arms, his breast bloody and burning with love” (page 449).
This book is about God’s open arms.
Meeting The Characters
One of my favorite college professors warned against letting anybody spoil this story. Rather, it is meant to be slowly unraveled with the turning of each page.
I respect him too much to defy his words of wisdom. So rather than give you spoilers, I will give you a glimpse of some of the story’s important characters.
Kristin Lavransdatter: This is a coming of age story with Kristin as the protagonist. You will get to know her from her childhood on to her womanhood. As a child, she holds a deep respect for her father Lavrans and loves him above all. She is his little companion whom he cherishes deeply. In Norwegian culture it was customary to have your last name come from your father. Because Kristin was Lavrans’ daughter, her last name becomes “Lavransdatter”.
Lavrans Björgulfsson: Lavrans is Kristin’s father and a hard working, well-respected, and gentle man who is the landholder of Jörundgaard manor. He lives out his Christianity generously and courageously making him a character to pay attention to, learn from, and look up to.
Ragnfrid Ivarsdatter: This is Lavrans’ wife who inherited their estate (Jörundgaard) from her father. She strives to live out her vocation as a wife and mother well, but suffers from depression after the death of her young sons and a guilty conscience from sins of her past.
Arne Gyrdssön: This is one of my favorite characters in the book. He is a fun loving, childhood friend of Kristin who grows to love her as he becomes a young man.
Simon Andressön of Dyfrin: This is the son of a neighboring landowner and the man whom Kristin is betrothed to. He is an honorable man and becomes a good friend of Lavrans.
Erlend Nikulaussön: This is the knight who meets Kristin while she is still betrothed to Simon. He falls quickly in love with her after their first encounter. He is good-looking, endearing, passionate, but also hot-tempered and wild. Erlend has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for being in an adulterous relationship.
Gunnulf Nikulausson: Erlend’s brother, a priest, and another favorite character of mine. He is a man who possesses great knowledge and virtue. He isn’t afraid to say things as he sees them and will point out the flaws he sees in others, but he always does so out of charity.
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A Few Excerpts
This book is like a long examination of conscience. As you walk alongside Kristin you will have a front row seat not only to her weaknesses and vulnerability, but also those around her. I couldn’t help but pause to reflect on how I struggle with some of the same vices that Kristin expressed.
The Wreath, Part II, Chapter Five
“She began looking for evidence that other people, like herself, were not without sin. She paid more attention to gossip, and she took note of all the little things around her which indicated that not even the sisters in the convent were completely holy and unworldly.”
Kristin also had a tendency to cling too tightly to the world. While she had a fiery passion for her husband and fierce love of her children, she needed to learn to loosen her grip on them.
The Wife, Part II, Chapter Two
When Kristin spoke of her love for her children Gunnulf says to her, “all other love is merely a reflection of the heavens in the puddles of a muddy road. You will become sullied too if you allow yourself to sink into it. But if you always remember that it’s a reflection of the light from that other home, then you will rejoice at its beauty and take good care that you do not destroy it by churning up mire at the bottom”.
In his honest efforts to help Kristin see the light of God’s love he reminds her of the gift He gives us of our free will.
“If God wanted to, He could take our souls by force; then we would be completely powerless in His grasp. But since He loves us the way the bridegroom loves the bride, He will not force her; if she won’t embrace Him willingly, then He must allow her to flee and to shun Him.” // Gunnulf to Kristin
Yet even in our sin, Christ reaches out to us, inviting us back into His embrace.
The Wife, Part II, Chapter Four
“And so he would have to put his trust in God who judges a man not according to his worth but through His mercy”. // Thoughts from Simon Andressön
I’d include an excerpt from Part III, but I’m afraid it might hint at spoilers, so instead I’ll just say that the third book is a culmination of how Kristin uses her free will and what her pleading with the Lord and her answered prayers brought to her.
Will she end up with Arne, Simon, or Erlend? How will the strength of the relationship she has with her Father shape her womanhood? Will her mother ever find true happiness? What does Gunnulf have to say to you that might have you running to prayer or reconciliation?
It’s all yours to find out, one page at a time.
Have you read this novel before? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
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