As a Catholic who attended a liberal arts college, I have heard people talk about the powerful experience of reading Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter for years. The trilogy— which celebrates its centenary this year and earned its author the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature—occupies the same space as works like Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, Eugenio Corti’s The Red Horse, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—books that were once widely read and generally revered but have since fallen into a sort of ‘Catholic ghetto.’ Yet, these are not novels that are of interest only to Catholics. Perhaps these novels are less well-known today because they present human life with an eye to Eternity, and this may be difficult for contemporary readers to engage with because we are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of our frenetic culture. This is a shame, because if contemporary readers would dedicate the time and attention needed for Kristen Lavransdatter, they would be richly rewarded with a powerful reminder that our lives are not what we accomplish or the honor we receive—in short, our lives are not ‘what we make of them.’ They are what God makes of us.
Reading Kristin Lavransdatter in winter
A few years ago, I decided that I would attempt to slow down and humble myself enough to work through Sigrid Undset’s mammoth tome (1172 pages in my edition). I knew that, for an inattentive, inconsistent, and ADHD-rattled person like myself, reading such a long work would require more than just willpower: I had to set myself up for success. I asked a friend who loves the trilogy if she had any tips for my endeavor. Her first suggestion was that the novels would be much more gripping if I regularly discussed them with another reader, something that is certainly true for any great work of literature. Her second, however, may strike readers as odd; she said that the optimal time to read Kristin Lavransdatter is winter.
To understand this odd piece of advice, we need to know a little bit about the trilogy. Kristin tells the life story of its eponymous protagonist, who is born into a devout and relatively wealthy farming family in a medieval Norwegian town, gets married, bears children, suffers for decades because of her choices, and struggles with her faith. Yet, this seemingly simple story is greatly enriched by many factors: its grand scale, its patient detailing of each character, and its historical accuracy, to name but a few.
The novel is something of a Bildungsroman. It details Kristin’s social, emotional, and most of all spiritual maturation. However, it does so through a shockingly (and at times painfully) unflinching portrayal of her choices and the ways the course of her life is shaped by them. This allows Undset to show how Kristin, like most of us, does not mature in a straight line, instead growing in one area while becoming more immature and selfish in another, becoming satisfied with life for a moment before losing all appreciation for it the next, accepting God’s will on Monday and cursing Him on Tuesday. Reading Kristin Lavransdatter challenges readers to confront their own moral vacillations and need for constancy.
Returning to my friend’s guidance to read the novel during winter, what does the cold season have to do with this trilogy? For someone who has not read the novels, the logic behind this suggestion seems simple: the story takes place in Norway, a nation widely known for its harsh winters. Certainly, the books include descriptions of sledding, skiing, and snowfalls; however, I think my friend was suggesting a more profound connection between the season and the content of the novel.
In her 2020 book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May argues that winter, both the temporal season and the metaphorical emotional and psychological periods of life, has a value and meaning that is oft-forgotten today. Winter is a time of stillness, quiet, and perhaps even desolation. The contemporary world wishes to avoid serious confrontation with this aspect of life, always attempting to move on from pain as quickly as possible in order to inhabit a version of the world perpetually curated through the lens of social media. However, we lose out when we do this. As she writes,
Here is [a] truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us…. Watching winter and really listening to its messages, we learn that effect is often disproportionate to cause; that tiny mistakes can lead to huge disasters; that life is often bloody unfair, but it carries on happening with or without our consent. We learn to look more kindly on other people’s crises, because they are so often portents of our own future.
When reading Kristin Lavransdatter, it can feel as though the characters’ lives are nothing but a perpetual winter: violence, rape, infidelity, social ostracization, and loss of faith, just to name a few. And yet, as Katherine May indicates, wintering is a time from which lessons can, and should, be drawn, and Undset’s novels provide us some of the keys to doing so. For readers, some of the most crucial lessons we can take from the trilogy’s portrayal of wintering have to do with how divine providence makes use of our pain, trauma, and even our sins for our benefit.
Trauma and divine pedagogy
The first novel begins with Kristin’s rather idyllic childhood. Although her mother is taciturn and depressed—in part from having lost several children—her father Lavrans is a caring, tender, and self-sacrificing man, and Kristin is the apple of his eye. He often includes her in activities around the house and, as she gets bigger, trips away from home. Undset details two such trips with care. The first serves to emphasize the extent to which Kristin’s Norway is still an incompletely evangelized nation, with paganism constantly bubbling beneath. On this trip, she sees what appears to be a dwarf maiden in the middle of the night, holding up a wreath (a crucial symbol in the trilogy that gives its name to the first book).
The second trip involves a visit to a beautiful church and meeting a figure who looms large over Kristin’s life, Brother Edvin. While in the church, Kristin sees a frightening beauty that causes her to recall the pagan dwarf maiden she saw on her previous trip,
But then she raised her eyes and saw above the painting the figure of Christ himself, huge and stern, lifted high up on the cross. She was frightened. He didn’t look gentle and sad, as he did back home in their own warm, browntimbered church, where he hung heavily from his arms, his feet and hands pierced through, and his blood-spattered head bowed beneath the crown of thorns. Here he stood on a step, his arms rigidly outstretched and his head erect; his hair was gleaming gold and adorned with a golden crown; his face was lifted upward, with a harsh expression.
These are the two crowns that Kristin is presented with: the wreath of the merely natural promise of pleasure and self-will and the Crown of Thorns that every Christian is called to accept in imitation of their Master.
If Undset were a less gifted writer, this choice would be presented as very simple and clear-cut: Kristin would be presented with a series of decisions, easily learn to choose the ‘proper Christian’ one, and move on. But Undset’s epic presents us with the unvarnished reality of human action. Kristin is a fallen human person; she does not begin from a place of perfect understanding and wisdom but from brokenness.
Beyond the natural human brokenness that we all share, Kristin is the inheritor of her mother’s sins and suffering, and these impact her own ability to become a wife and mother. Undset uses this to explore how trauma can be multi-generational, as well as to show a striking example of how the sins of the father are visited unto the third and fourth generation. In addition to this, Kristin is personally traumatized as a young woman by the murder of a dear friend and an attempted rape by a priest. Her choices, then, are influenced by her pain and trauma. She chooses to sin in a dramatic way as a young woman (you’ll have to read the book to find out how), and this sin impacts every aspect of the rest of her life.
This, it might seem, is unfair. How can man be judged on his actions when, if left to his own devices, he will fall into sin? This is not an easy question, and the trilogy does not provide an easy answer. Instead, it provides readers with the only answer it can: by showing the whole of Kristin’s life, a life that shows forth God’s love. Kristin is bombarded with both beauty and pain, blessings and curses. And yet, each one of the seeming curses teaches her about God’s love just as each blessing does. Every person must bear the cross he is given, but for the Christian it is ultimately a cross of liberation, not merely one of crucifixion.
Kristin’s world, however, is not entirely ready to accept the reality of the Cross, and thus it does not always prepare her to do so. It is still haunted by paganism, a paganism that promises spells and mythical beings that have power to bend the world to our will. Similarly, Kristin struggles to accept that she is not the ruler of her life, but a beloved daughter of God whose Father knows what she needs far better than she does. The crosses she is given, then, are ones that teach her of God’s love, a love that burns away all that would separate us from Him, but one that burns nonetheless
Indeed, the final volume of the trilogy is entitled The Cross, and it forces readers to grapple with what the Cross means in man’s life. It confronts readers, on the one hand, with the sheer enormity of the pain and trauma with which man must live and, on the other, with the way that God uses each and every sin and torment to teach us about Himself and His self-giving love. This is the divine pedagogy—this is what God’s providence looks like.
Perhaps the greatest gift that Kristin Lavransdatter has given me is a greater awareness that God’s Providence does not work around our sins, pretending as though they are not there. It does not say, ‘Sure, you messed up, but let’s pretend that never happened.” Instead, providence works with our very brokenness and sinfulness and uses that to teach us to love. Just as Christ’s Crucifixion made it possible for God to offer Salvation to those very people who crucified Him, so God uses our own sins to bring us closer to Him. Christ received the Crown of Thorns as a way of taking on, not His own sins (for He was blameless), but our sins. Because of this taking on of our sins, Kristin is enabled to accept her own crown of thorns, one stitched by her own sins.
This crown is one that glorifies God’s mercy and love. We, like Kristin, are not abandoned to our trauma and pain. Instead, God reaches into the midst of that agony, having first suffered it Himself. It is because of this offer of salvation that hope is a virtue. For hope in the truest sense is not a naive trust in human progress—it is the trust that God can save us. Whereas faith believes what God has revealed and charity puts it into action, hope is the middle step: it is the recognition that God’s actions apply to me, not just some abstraction.
God’s love is never an abstraction, and it is because of this that tales like Kristin Lavransdatter hold such power. Indeed, Christ, the great Teacher, was Himself constantly telling stories to help us understand the Father’s love. As St. Luke tells us, Christ has taught that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who do not need to repent.” At the same time, the Psalmist tells us that “not one is righteous, no, not one.” Each one of us is the lost sheep; each one of us is Kristin. And each one of us can learn from the story of her life.