Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian writer who lived during the first part of the 20th century, was fascinated by medieval Norway, where she set many of her novels. The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, perhaps her most famous work, takes place in the first part of the 1300s and follows a Norwegian woman from young childhood to death. Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath is about Kristin’s life until her marriage at the age of about 20.
From reading the back of the book, readers get the impression that The Wreath is a love story, but while the romance between Kristin and Erlend is a big part of the novel, the novel is more of a coming-of-age story, following Kristin’s developing consciousness of concepts such as Christianity vs. pagan beliefs, love vs. sin, and duty vs. passion.
There are two English translations of this book: one by Charles Archer from the 1920s, and another by Tiina Nunnally, published in 1997, which is the one I read. Apparently the Nunnally translation is more faithful to the original.
Kristin is raised Catholic, and the church remains important to her throughout the book. As a child she adores her father. At the age of 15 she accepts her father’s arrangements for a betrothal to a neighboring young man. However, after a traumatic experience she decides she is not yet ready for marriage, and asks to be sent to a convent for a year. There, her life changes when she meets Erlend Nikulausson, a handsome man whose passions are often stronger than his judgment. She insists on marrying Erlend despite her father’s disapproval.
The historical setting is richly detailed. The clothing, tools, food, customs, and political situation are smoothly integrated into the story, but never overwhelm the focus on Kristin’s life. The descriptions of the natural world are just one of the pleasures of this book. As a seven-year-old child, Kristin is excited to travel with her father to the mountain pastures. After eating lunch in a pasture, everyone takes a nap. Kristin wakes up before anyone else.
It must have been late in the day, for the sunshine was a gleaming yellow and the shadows had lengthened and now fell toward the southeast. There was no longer even a breath of wind, and mosquitoes and flies were buzzing and humming around the sleeping group of people. Kristin sat quite still, scratching the mosquito bites on her hands, and looked around. The mountain dome above them shone white with moss and gold from the lichen in the sunshine. (p. 15)
As much as I love this novel, I am still puzzled about why Kristin is so enamored of Erlend. Is it just his good looks? Is it that she encounters his attention just as she is healing from trauma? Whatever the reason, she is desperate to marry him, yet is also tormented by the idea that she has sinned against the teachings of her church.
A Norwegian movie based on this book, made in 1995 and directed by Liv Ullman, helped me learn how to pronounce the Norwegian names in the book, and to picture what the houses looked like. Kristin’s story continues in two more books: The Wife and The Cross.
Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She donated the prize money, including the gold medal, to help needy children.