Book Review: Kristin Lavransdatter

I just finished reading all 1124 pages of the Norwegian epic novel Kristin Lavransdatter. And yet, despite its length, to call it an epic seems almost a misnomer. Set in the Middle Ages, it simply tells the tale of one woman’s life, from birth to death–a woman who is not particularly high-born, whose life is never touched by war, and who sees the king only once. Of course, it’s the Middle Ages, so the book is crowded with misfortunes: men are constantly swinging war-hammers at each other over petty disputes; children’s lives are carried off by illness and accident, while adults futilely apply poultices of herbs and folk wisdom; and, just when you think the characters have achieved a modicum of peace and contentment, the Black Plague strikes. But these are, for the most part, ordinary and random misfortunes–and, in fact, the most ordinary ones, like a difficult childbirth, or an ill-fated sexual sin, are the most gripping.

I feel much as Dorothy Parker did after attending a play by Leo Tolstoy: “I went into the Plymouth Theater a comparatively young woman, and I staggered out of it, three hours later, twenty years older, haggard and broken with suffering” (Portable Dorothy Parker 1976, 419). I don’t know if I would say I “liked” Kristin Lavransdatter. But it is an undeniably great and powerful book, and it will probably stay with me much longer than books I enjoyed.

Frost writes in First Things that Kristin Lavransdatter is one of the only classic novels to deal with motherhood. I agree, and I also can’t think of another novel that analyzes marriage so profoundly–not youthful love affairs, or hopeless, decades-long unrequited love, but the everyday reality of “till death do us part.” (The last chapters of War and Peace come close, but are much briefer). For instance, here Kristin meditates on her twenty-odd years of marriage with Erlend:

And just as she had once given herself to Erlend, she later surrendered herself to the world that had sprung up around their life together. She threw herself into fulfilling every demand that had to be met; she lent a hand with every task that had needed to be done in order to ensure the well-being of Erlend and his children. ¬†She began to understand that Erlend was always with her when she sat at Husaby and studied the documents in her husband’s chest . . . or worked alongside her maids in the living quarters and cookhouse . . . She threw herself into this effort with the same fiery passion this man had once ignited in her blood. (2005, 988)

Young lovers are horrified to think of their passion dying out. And yet, love, like energy, is always conserved–it is never destroyed, but only changes form. In marriage, the love that once focused myopically on a single person diffuses, spreading outward–to the children, fruit of that love; to the household, visible symbol of the couple’s common good; to the in-laws, the people responsible for shaping the loved one; to one’s own parents, who are easier to appreciate and understand after experiencing the vicissitudes of marriage. In dating, the world is emotionally saturated with the loved one; in marriage, the world is physically saturated with him. Is love diminished when it spreads to encompass these new physical signs such as children and household? I don’t think so, because they are all aspects of the loved one and of the marriage bond, just as the persons of the Trinity are all aspects of the same God.

But one of the greatest tragedies of the novel is that Erlend doesn’t want this changed, diffused kind of love: “it was not the way he wanted to be loved. But she couldn’t help it; it was her nature to love with great toil and care” (2005, 989).

Near the end of their marriage, they reach an impasse. He withdraws to a cabin in the mountains and waits for her to come to him, so they can be free of the quotidian dullness of farming and parenting and respectability. She waits for him to come to her on their estate, so that he can take responsibility for their new child. Each is waiting for the other, too proud to bridge the gap between their vastly differing views of a happy marriage.

This impasse is the result of sin, both original and personal. Original sin has warped our natures such that we cannot rest easily in contentment, for, as Kristin realizes,

life on this earth was irredeemably tainted by strife; in this world, wherever people mingled, producing new descendants, allowing themselves to be drawn together by physical love and loving their own flesh, sorrows of the heart and broken expectations were bound to occur as surely as the frost in the autumn. (2005, 1056)

Meanwhile, the personal sin between Erlend and Kristin–their sexual sin and blood guilt, in addition to the thousands of petty sins like anger and pride that accumulate over time–has tarnished their relationship. But the greatest sin is Kristin’s inability to forgive Erlend: “she herself had raged, storing away and brooding over every grief, whenever she offered her gifts and Erlend paid them no mind” (2005, 915).

It is only near the end of her life that Kristin truly forgives Erlend for all the grief he caused her (and for the grief she has caused him–for, as the book points out, it is sometimes harder to forgive our creditors than our debtors). It is a hard-won lesson, worked out with fear and trembling. I hope most married people–myself included–can learn it sooner.