Kristin Lavransdatter and Your Nordic Medieval Catholic Heart

February 11, 2015

I will not sleep, I will not even sit down, until every man goes to bed with a paperback copy of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter.

In these high fourteenth-century mountains, priests still visit the sick shouting, “God help those in this house!” as they raise a cross to all four corners of the room and splash holy water everywhere. Wolves and bears still reign in the forest, and goblins and elves still hide under every rock. Swords slash at you from every page and the ecclesiastical Latin will keep you reaching for your dictionary. On second thought, maybe it’s best if you don’t take this epic trilogy to bed. What will you say to your wife when the crumbs of lefse and dried reindeer fall out of the opening chapters? What will you do when the homebrewed ale spills out of the paragraphs and stains your pajamas?

“Is it safe?” a friend asks.

“Safe?” I say. “Who said anything about safe? Of course it isn’t safe. But it’s good.”

Kristin Lavransdatter will make you weep and shout and stay up way too late with eyes as big as saucers. But you will sleep like a baby, and in the morning you will wake up with a bonfire in your heart. “That’s right,” you’ll say, your voice husky from drinking mead with kinsmen after a long Alpine hunt. “Real men read novels.” You’ll make your morning offering and kiss your brown scapular, and then you’ll drive to the jobsite…with your tear-stained copy of Kristin Lavransdatter tucked somewhere between your toolbox and your Stanley thermos.

It Takes a Woman…

God made Adam, and then he made Sigrid Undset. If this Catholic convert and Norwegian Nobel Prize winning author isn’t a “suitable helper,” then I don’t know who is. Perhaps the old saying is true: “Only a woman can really know the heart of a man.”

article-0-150B3626000005DC-299_964x639There is no such saying—but there should be. Only Eve could so accurately capture Adam’s cowardice, his courage, his Catholic heart. Only Sigrid Undset could write this book. Only she could remind men that in the beginning Adam was a medieval Norseman and Eden was the first Christendom.

Adam was standing next to Eve when she ate the forbidden fruit. He was right there. And he was silent. Kristin Lavransdatter is in fact the story of Eve as she deals with the consequences of Adam’s silence. It’s as if someone handed Eve a typewriter, and she told the story of a sinful world in Adam’s shadow—the New Adam’s shadow as he hangs from the bloody cross. Christ has spoken once and for all from the cross, and Kristin throws this challenge to every man: will you join Him? Your life rises or falls on this one question: will you speak from your cross?

Is Undset a modern prophet? I don’t know. But history would be a lot more manly if the sons of Adam would start listening to this Scandinavian daughter of Eve. Undset tells it straight. Her epic trilogy is a call to arms. Do not be content to watch from the sidelines as the Immaculate Conception crushes the serpent’s head. It’s time to put off the old man and to take up your cross.

Lavrans or Erlend?

By following the proud and beautiful character of Kristin through most of her life in fourteenth-century Norway, we cannot help but follow the men in her life. Undset catapults readers into all the glory and shame and responsibility of manhood. We are reminded that men are often weak and downright bad, but that they can also be strong, even good.

possible cover imageReading the tale of Kristin and her Norsemen, you are faced with a decision: Are you Lavrans, or are you Erlend? There are only two options. You are either wielding a sword for the Kingdom like Lavrans, or you are waving your ego like Erlend. You are either on your knees in penance, or you are on another silly quest for self-actualization. You are either honoring your wife as you stand guard over your household, or you are testing your wife as you squander your inheritance. In the end, you are either lying prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, or you are lying dead before the priest has heard your confession, anointed you with oil, and given you the viaticum. Who will you be—Lavrans, or Erlend?

Of course, Undset’s characters are not so black and white. She’s too deft for such caricatures. But I’m not. And I do not want to be like Erlend. I want to be like Lavrans:

A strong and courageous man, but a peaceful soul, honest and calm, humble in conduct but courtly in bearing, a remarkably capable farmer, and a great hunter. He hunted wolves and bears with particular ferocity, and all types of vermin… Lavrans did not take up with other women, he always asked for [his wife’s] advice in all matters, and he never said an unkind word to her, whether he was sober or drunk… The master also had a lively spirit in his own way, and he might join in a dance or start up singing when the young people frolicked on the church green on sleepless vigil nights.

The cross is the center and circumference of his life. The man is known for his penances, his strict fasts, his willingness to work hard, and his generous tithes. Lavrans loves until he is spent. When he is not “staggering under the heavy crucifix,” Lavrans is resting on it: “His arms lay across the arms of the cross, and he was leaning his head on the shoulder of Christ.”

Your Nordic Medieval Catholic Heart

Are you wishing that you had just a little more hair on your chest? Then look no further than Kristin Lavransdatter. A sweeping tale of fatherhood and farming, priests and sacraments and towering cathedrals, sacrifice and holy pilgrimages, those men who have read this epic trilogy might as well have sprinkled fertilizer on their chests. They are hairier, and they stand just a little bit taller because they let a novel whittle them down to size.

Because here’s the thing: masculinity is a mission. As men, we are called to live lives of self-oblation, prayer, and cruciform ministry. Sigrid Undset’s tale is a rebuke and a summons. Erlend’s life is paved with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough. Do not fail to battle sin and Satan and sabotage. Do not fail to bring glory to God in the ordinary.

Nordic, Catholic, gothic—the men in Kristin Lavransdatter are characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, gargoyles, and flying buttresses. It’s the kind of world that reminds a man of his own beating Catholic heart. It’s as terrible as it is beautiful. Like the setting sun, Undset’s tale throws the snow-covered peaks of a man’s heart into relief. You won’t be able to rest—you won’t even be able to sit down—until you’ve read every last page.

Tyler Blanski is a writer who once possessed a beard of medieval proportions. Tyler is the author of When Donkeys Talk and Mud and Poetry.

Tyler Blanski


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Reader Interactions


  1. April Hromada says

    This is a GREAT novel, or rather, trilogy. I read it about a decade ago in the first translation to English. I know there has been another translation and I wondered which one Tyler recommends. I have been wondering if this would be a good choice for my book group and this rousing review has convinced me that it is!

  2. Tyler Blanski says

    Hey April! I would suggest that Tina Nunnally’s translation is much better than Charles Archer’s. Nunnally deftly transposes Undset’s “unusually extended linguistic tour de force” into English.

    Sigrid Undset is a master artist. Scholar Sherrill Harbison has observed that it is difficult to translate Undset’s work because of “her scrupulous historical accuracy of language…she struggled to find ways to give her text a tone of the past while still keeping the sound of natural speech. After much experimenting, she found the effect she wanted by limiting her vocabulary to words based on Old Norse roots, and by retaining Old Norse syntax—the order of subject and verb, arrangement of adjectives, and use of coordinating conjunctions…She carefully excludes modern abstracts, which in Norwegian are mostly of Germanic origin. By rejecting obtrusive dialect and keeping spelling and grammar ordinary, she creates a readable, natural-sounding prose with subtle reminiscences of Old Norse, more like a musical undertone than an imitation.”

    The silly and superfluous faux-medieval prose-style of Archer’s translation only clouds Undset’s art. Here’s a link to Tina Nunnally’s far superior translation:

  3. Shannon Marie Federoff says

    Agreed. Nunnally’s translation is best, and I’ve read both.

    Thanks for writing about my FAVORITE book of all time. I always saw it as “The Story of a Soul,” only for a woman who got married, lived longer, and struggled more in the world than than St. Therese. But you have given me a new perspective.

    It SHOULD be more well known!

  4. Leslie in VA says

    LOVE, LOVE this book! In fact, this is one of the reasons I knew that my guy was “the one”. When he told me he loved to read I replied, “oh yeah. What is your favorite book”. When he replied “Kristin Lavransdatter” I was floored as it was mine as well. It is always an ongoing joke between us as to who sympathizes with whom from the book. I adored Lavrans and felt Erlend was the silent good guy but he chivalrously felt for Kristin. I just wanted her to get over herself and her sin and stop being so proud! It drove me crazy, why was she so arrogant in thinking that her sin was unforgivable? Also, the Nunnely translation is far superior to the others. I have read and enjoyed both but Nunnely is excellent. BTW, I wanted to name our second son Peter Lavrans but after our first, we had six girls. . .

  5. Jordanus says

    You may be interested to learn that Sigrid Undset was a lay Dominican tertiary, received into the Order and the Third Order chapter in Oslo on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas 7 March 1927 and professed a year later, 7 March 1928. Her “name in the Order” was sr. Olave (after St. Olaf). She fled the Germans when they invaded Norway in 1940 – went to Sweden (where she got the news that her son had been killed in battle), travelled on via Russia and Japan to San Francisco and finally to Brooklyn, New York, where she set up her base as an exile and volunteer “information soldier” for Norway. One of her favourite places in the world is said to have been Brooklyn Bridge.

  6. April Hromada says

    Thank you for the information on the translations. Our book group has found through experience how much the translator of a work matters. At the very least, we all have to read the same one. I’m looking forward to re-reading Kristin KLavransdatter – this time in the Nunnally translation – and am hoping that the gentlemen in our group will be as inspired by it as Mr. Blanski is.

  7. princessofpszczyna says

    I am so happy to see this novel extolled. I imagine you already know of Undset’s other long medieval work, The Master of Hestviken. She considered this work, not KL, her masterpiece. If you haven’t read it already, dive in! I found it a harder read, but every bit as good.

  8. Teri says

    Great post!
    Kristin is on my list of top 5 favorite novels ever – and I just had to jump in to put a plug in for the Archer translation.
    This translation simply makes this book for me. I could not get through the Nunnally translation – it felt poorer and seemed to empty the story of all meaning for me. Archer’s language seemed full of reverence and gravitas and instantly transported me to that time and place. It makes me sad to think future readers may only ever be exposed to the newer translation/version.

  9. Doug P. Baker says

    Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for recognizing that Kristin Lavransdatter is necessary reading for guys! And not just for Catholic guys but for guys who want to be men.

    Great essay. A joy to read!

  10. Simon Donoghue says

    A favorite writer, and a favorite novel — although I kind of like THE MASTER OF HESTVIKEN more. That being said, the review is preposterous. Badly written, and filled with a sophomoric masculinity.


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