The Wreath

July 19, 2007 at 9:57 am 1 comment

Yet another take on the Middle Ages. Noticing a theme yet? Sigrid Undset won the Noble Prize for her portrayals of the Norwegian Middle Ages in novels such as this one. And it is lovely. It is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the other two. I forgot to order them, though, so wait I must.

In some ways this is straightforward historical romance fiction. Young girl grows up on remote farm in medieval Norway, falls in love with a bit of a rogue, and accordingly compromises her chastity, which leads to a number of awkward situations. But the beautiful depictions of the places and seasons, the portrayals of the tensions in the society (between Christianity and Paganism, for example), and most of all, the finely drawn, heartfelt but often pained relationships, make this novel something special.

When I think about novels set in or drawing on the Middle Ages, I start by asking why? Why was the Middle Ages deemed necessary for this story? What does this particular representation of the Middle Ages reveal about the desires and assumptions of the author? I guess a fairly obvious question is how accurately is the Middle Ages represented, but this question is not always the most interesting one. In this case, I think Undset did a lot of careful research, and integrated it into the story sparingly but lovingly, though not being an expert on fourteenth-century Norway, I can’t say for sure. Using a medieval setting can often serve nationalistic purposes (especially for countries which have medieval pasts). Perhaps there is a bit of this here. But my instinct says its main purpose is different.

I think Undset turned to the Middle Ages because it offered a template for a society with rich kinship systems, formal relationships and obligations, especially for women. It is these constraints, together with the threads of nature and religion, that shape the novel. While Kristin’s illicit love affair drives the plot, her relationship with her father and with a wandering monk, and her parents’ relationship, are actually the most interesting elements. Expectation, disappointment, affection, desire and loss are brought into painful relief in brief, intimate moments scattered throughout the narrative. Kristin’s mother, Rangfrid, prays for her family at night: ‘As her body gradually grew stiff with the cold, she set out once more on one of her familiar night journeys, trying to break a path to a peaceful home for her heart.’

Kristin’s childhood vision of purity and brilliance proves difficult to sustain, but her first glimpse of a stained glass window remains one of the most beautiful scenes in the novel:

On the grey stone wall above her, Kristin saw strange, flickering specks of light, red as blood and yellow as ale, blue and brown and green. She wanted to look behind her, but the monk whispered, ‘Don’t turn around.’ When they stood together high up on the planks, he gently turned her around, and Kristin saw a sight so glorious that it almost took her breath away.
Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicoloured specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monk’s face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl the colours of the picture were dimly reflected. She gave him a questioning glance, but he merely nodded and smiled.
It was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven.

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Entry filed under: medieval, Nobel Prize, Scandinavia, Sigrid Undset.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. annie  |  July 19, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    Great insights! I’m glad you’re enjoying Kristin’s story. I shared this story in my shared RSS so you’ll see it in the top left corner of my home page.

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