Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy, comprised of The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross. My copy is all in one volume, in a new translation, that came highly recommended from Erin Blakemore of The Heroine’s Bookshelf (my review of her book here; my interview of Erin here). As that single volume runs nearly 1200 pages, I thought you might permit me three book reviews. 🙂 Here is book one.


This book opens with a little bit of scene-setting; we first meet the parents of our title character Kristin, Lavrans and Ragnfrid (how you pronounce that, I have no idea), and learn about their properties and inheritances. That is telling in itself. It is Norway in the 1300’s, and Kristin’s circumstances and options will be in large part decided by her parents’ situation. She is a charming little girl, very close to her father, distant from her mother, who is serious and melancholy after losing three sons in infancy. Kristin lives in a small world, defined by the valley surrounding her family’s farm, and has a sweet life, despite her mother’s dampening nature, because her relationship with her father is quite fulfilling. They are an extremely pious family, fasting and observing rituals more than their peers, no small thing in a seriously Catholic community. Ragnfrid has a second daughter, who also lives out of infancy, and is even more physically beautiful and admired than Kristin; but an accident nearly kills her when she is around five years old, and leaves her permanently crippled and ill. Ragnfrid’s emotional state descends still further. There will eventually be a third daughter, treated rather as an afterthought and not highly valued, in Ragnfrid’s grief at the fate of her three dead sons and injured daughter (one wonders why she doesn’t take more comfort in Kristin’s health). Ragnfrid feels guilty, as if her sins are punishing her children: the familiar Catholic guilt.

When Kristin is 15, she is betrothed to a young man, Simon, she does not know well but seems a suitable match and to whom she has no real objections, at first. But she is young and pretty, and things are complicated: first, a servant boy she’s grown up with declares his love, which tweaks her heartstrings. It does not seem likely that she feels “true love”, at that age and triggered by his own declaration, but it causes her first doubts about marrying Simon. There is a nasty episode involving a clandestine meeting with the servant, Arne; Kristin narrowly escaping rape at the hands of another man; and Arne’s death, which ends up implicating Kristin as possibly possibly having slept with her attacker, which is made no easier by the fact she’d kept the attempted rape a secret. Her reputation receives its first bruises, and this is a society where a young lady’s reputation cannot afford dark spots.

Kristin goes off to live in a convent for a year before marrying Simon, hoping to work through the trauma of Arne’s death and the almost-rape. And here things get even more sordid, because she meets another man with a bad reputation (in another time and place he would most definitely be called a rake). One thing leads to another (use your imagination) and although it takes years and much heartbreak and dishonor and dishonesty, Kristin is able to break her betrothal to Simon and marry Erlend. When they marry, she is secretly pregnant. And the first book ends.

The religious implications weigh heavier as this book proceeds. The breaking of the betrothal, the premarital sex, and the lying to her parents, Simon, and the world in general that these feats, require are very problematic. Despite all her sinning, Kristin is a religious woman, and she suffers inside for her sins. Her parents are enormously religious, and her father does a bit of freaking out over the entire Erland situation. Lavrans was close to Simon, liked him very much for a son-in-law, and has difficulty being anywhere near Erland, who he does not like and does not trust to keep his daughter secure. Lavrans seems to fear subconsciously that Kristin may have slept with Erlend, but he won’t allow anyone else to put this theory forward. At the end of the book, he doesn’t know about the pregnancy; but the timing is far enough off that it is inevitable that he will know she was pregnant before she was married (barring miscarriage or, I don’t know, Kristin hiding a baby somehow from… everyone?). I don’t know if it’s necessary to point this out, but premarital sex is a serious thing in this society.

This reading flew by. I love the medieval Norway that Undset paints. The early part, when Kristin is a small girl, and we get an intimate picture of her life on the farm and her relationship with her father, might be my favorite; I love the simplicity and the evocation of another time. I am not a great appreciator of religion, and Lavrans’s version is a particularly cumbersome one, but these are good, simple, virtuous people, and that is easy to appreciate. As Kristin becomes a teenager and begins to encounter *boys*, she becomes very recognizable: her interest in her new betrothed, Simon, and then Arne’s sudden appearance in a new light, and then meeting the dashing Erlend, would work just as believably in modern-day junior high or high school. But I found her a little exasperating. This, too, is recognizable; her flightiness and poor decision making are highly realistic. I wasn’t always entirely pleased with her. But I remain invested. As she marries, hiding her pregnancy from her decidedly oblivious new husband, and gets ready to move to a different part of the country, I am wholeheartedly along for the ride.

I knew nothing coming into this book (other than a tagline that went something like, “epic trilogy of woman’s life in ancient Norway”) and have no idea what is to come. The religion comes on a little stronger than I typically want in my reading, but I’m involved with Kristin and I shall continue. Stay tuned for reviews of the next two books.

A note on translation: this translation came recommended to me specifically; I was told earlier ones were poor, and it turns out that my father tried to read one of those and found it unreadable. Tiina Nunnally’s translation won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize and is lovely. (Perhaps I should mention that Sigrid Undset won a Nobel Prize in Literature, before Nunnally’s help! I wonder if the prize committee read her books in Norwegian??) In other words, use this translation and no other, and thank you, Tiina, for bringing this book back to life. We’ll see if Pops wants to try again when I’m done with my copy.

Rating: 5 rosaries.

6 Responses

  1. Interesting, I bought this book in Sweden 15 years ago and whilst I tried to enjoy it i struggled and put it down. It has sat on my bookshelf for all that time – perhaps it was the quality of the translation as the idea of the story really interested me.

  2. Hi Julia,

    I’m so glad that you’ve discovered KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER — and thanks for your kind comments about my translation! Sigrid Undset is one of my all-time favorite authors. She has such deep insight into the human heart. I think you’ll find that volume 2 is more politics than religion. I personally think volume 3 is the best — such a poignant and powerful depiction of the rest of Kristin’s life.

    • Tiina, your translation is a true work of art. I am so grateful you spent the time and energy putting it together—it allowed me to truly enjoy the book, still had enough “medievalness” in it (for lack of a better word), and was done so painstakingly and beautifully. I came across the book at a very volatile time in my life and don’t think I would have found it as accessible or compelling in the older translation.

  3. You read it! I’m curious to know what you think of books 2 and 3. And Kristin is totally exasperating. It’s part of her medieval blonde charm 🙂

  4. Hey friends, sorry I’ve been so slow to respond here (I’ve been out of town).

    Carolyn, you might check it out again in this new translation. What a joy to have a better option available!

    Tiina, how lovely to have you stop by! Thanks for your good work! I am planning to send you an email in the next few days… definitely enjoying the work as a whole, I find your translation great, and I am interested in the process.

    Erin, thanks for the recommendation! I trusted you. 🙂 And I am not let down. She develops into an interesting and very human person. Who amongst us was not exasperating as a teenager??

  5. […] pages, I thought you might permit me three book reviews. Here is book three; book one was reviewed here and book two […]

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