Posted by: Sally Ingraham | November 2, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath

Kristin Lavransdatterby Sigrid Undset

I read the first section of this book in a hurry. Overwhelmed by an overly eventful month and my hefty reading choices (all three of them…!) I chose to devote the larger part of three evenings to The Wreath and just get it over with. I didn’t take notes, my yellow highlighter didn’t mark a single page, and the story didn’t settle very far into my consciousness.

That doesn’t mean that the book didn’t make an impression on me. I just didn’t bother to think too hard about it. This is slightly unfortunate, I’m finding, now that I am sitting down to try to pull together some thoughts. In fact I’ve been trying to pull together some thoughts (well actually, I’ve been continuing to avoid doing so) for three days.

Fortunately I’m not alone – the other participants in this read-along have started posting their reviews, and reading what they have to say and joining in the discussion through comments has kicked my brain back into action.

Let’s see. I’ll use these excerpts from the Penguin Reading Guide that I found online to explain the plot more simply than I’m capable of:

In Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922), Sigrid Undset interweaves political, social, and religious history with the daily aspects of family life to create a colorful, richly detailed tapestry of Norway during the fourteenth-century.

In The Wreath Undset tells the story of a headstrong young woman who defies the expectations of her much-beloved father, the lessons of her priest, and conventions of society when she is captivated by a charming and dangerously impetuous man.

Please pardon the disjointed babble that follows… 🙂

I essentially liked this first chunk of the book. It started off slowly, introducing Kristin as a seven year old, building the atmosphere of the family farm, and setting the stage for medieval Norway. The first really interesting scene involved Kristin being tempted by what appears to be an elf maiden, offering her a wreath from across a stream.

Then Kristin gets older, is betrothed to a suitably nice boy, has a few mild misadventures, goes to a convent, meets a much more intriguing and handsome young man, falls madly in love, defies everyone, mopes her way through every obstacle that arises, until she finally marries this “true love” and isn’t as happy as she might have hoped. End act one.

I said I “essentially” liked the book thus far, because there were a lot of things that I didn’t like. These were fortunately balanced by things that I did. For instance, I don’t care a great deal for Kristin as a character, and her storyline annoys me. The relationship between and history of her parents is much more intriguing, and I hope that it is explored more in the second part. The most interesting, and somewhat minor, character so far is a rather open-minded wandering priest.

My reaction to Kristin at this point is one of frustration. She seems to have no backbone, no thoughts of her own right up until she meets Erland. She latches onto him, and finally gets an independent thought in her head, but unfortunately it’s just the one – “I want to be with this man and no other, at any cost”. She spent her childhood believing everything her beloved father Lavrans said, and then simply replaced him with Erland, only displaying her so called “will” by digging her heels in and refusing to listen to the council of anyone around her.

Granted, love makes you do crazy things. I can relate to that at least. But Erland is just SO not worth the drama…!!! Blah – I despise him – he’s just so…sleazy!

Anyway. The drama – sometimes extremely contrived drama – that trails Kristin is a chore. I can only hope that in the next two sections she will develop a little more personality. I also hope that she will kick her habit of constantly crying over spilt milk (in the religious sense of feeling extremely guilty about her shortcomings and outright sins) but than blatantly continuing to pour the whole gallon all over the floor…

Kristin's NorwayAs a piece of historical fiction, Kristin Lavransdatter is excellent. Undset really brings her setting and time period to life, and in a subtle way that never disrupts the flow of the story. There are plenty of details about the daily activities of life on the farm, in the convent, etc., and a reasonable amount of allusions to the actual political situation in Norway at that time.

The balance of religion and magic that is a daily part of life is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story. Kristin’s early encounter with the elf maiden raises no more questions than the religious mysteries her family learns about at mass on Sundays. It is so interesting to me to witness this need to use every available resource to help explain a life that is constantly difficult. In an effort to find some kind of reason, or point to the mish-mash of reality, both religion and magic will do.

Somehow, though, I don’t think the elf maiden with her wreath would have been as harsh, in Kristin’s understanding, as the all-seeing God who knows that she doesn’t deserve to wear the virgin wreath on her wedding day.

I also really enjoyed Undset’s descriptions of the landscapes of Norway, and in general the descriptive passages – between Undset and Tiina Nunnally’s lovely translation, there were some beautiful pieces of writing.

I feel a strange reluctance to pick up the book again and begin the next section, since I’m fairly certain that it is not ultimately going to go in a direction that I like. However, I will continue reading because, while I’m not thrilled with Kristin, there is enough going on around her that interests me.

I am grateful that I’m reading this book with a group, and have been really impressed by the insightful and thought-provoking blogs I’ve read so far. The shared reading experience is kind of better than the actual book, and I’m looking forward to continuing to get the variety of “takes” on the story.

Emily, our co-host along with Richard, is keeping and updating a list of everybody’s posts here. Good luck with part two, everyone!


  1. So you enjoyed this much less than I thought at first, Sarah! Interesting. Your comment about Kristin crying over spilt milk while continuing to pour the whole gallon over the floor is a classic about that character’s lack of character, and I too am enjoying the work as a group much more (much, much more!) than I would have on my own. So glad you’re reading along with us this time–fine post!

  2. Richard – I definitely liked the first half of “The Wreath” better, and that was reflected in my earlier post. It wasn’t until Kristin grew older that I started finding her more and more of a drag…! 🙂

  3. Good post, Sarah! I thought Jason & EL Fay made such good points about Kristin’s lack of sympathy (which, you’re definitely not alone in finding her a pill). It seems like Undset may have been caught between three hard options – either she makes Kristin seem more like a “modern” woman than accuracy would allow (so that she’s not as racked by guilt), or she makes her fit in better with medieval society (so that very little of note would happen to her – like in Halldor Laxness novels about Iceland), or she goes the way she did, and gives us a square peg in a round hole who is tormented by guilt. It’s an interesting quandary. I think I’m enjoying it more than another example of the “anachronistic feminist” that EL Fay mentioned, but I agree that Kristin can be hard going. I’m really glad you’re reading along, anyway!

  4. It’s interesting to me that none of the characters seem to question any of the ideas about this God they have. That is, the characters are busy deciding if they are “bad” (sinful) or good, but not whether this God even exists (since they do, after all, have to supplement prayers with pagan rituals) or if He does, why life can be unfair, and difficult, with religious strictures contrary to human nature. St. Thomas of Aquinas (who is mentioned in part 3) was certainly alive at this time, and he of course was influenced by Maimonedes, who wrote in the 1100s. So doubt and even agnosticism were certainly an option at this time. These guys are all about anticipation of modern arguments of logic and reason (albeit, at least in the case of Maimonedes, tempered by a realization that the masses need the opiate of religion). I wonder why it never touches any of the characters in this book. The focus is always just on “sin”or “not sin.” My conclusion is that this reflects Undset’s own obsession.

  5. I didn’t think your post was disjointed at all.

    Your interpretation of Kristin as having no backbone until she meets Ereland and replaces her father with him was interesting. I think to us, that appears rather sexist and weak-willed, but, considering the time period, there really aren’t many areas in which Kristin can choose to act independently or rebelliously. As a medieval woman, her world is pretty restricted. The fact that she does choose to defy custom and her family to marry for love is a pretty radical act for her era.

  6. Kristin is poised to become the backbone of her marriage by the end of The Wreath, and I am not sure if this is a good thing or not. Her father is more in her than she realizes, and I think the practical matters of adulthood will be hers to manage with the husband she has chosen. I feel a train wreck of a marriage coming on. Hopefully more interesting than this first part for me. Great post.

  7. […] Sarah at What We Have Here Is  A Failure to Communicate […]

  8. Emily – Jason and EL Fay’s posts were great, and they really helped me to re-evaluate my initial take on Kristin – kick those brain cells back into gear, and get beyond just dislike for a character. I think that Kristin is fascinating – just not likable. 🙂

    Jill – Really interesting point – I think you’ve hit upon the answer in saying that Undset’s own beliefs played a big part in how her characters approach religion. I’m curious to see just how far the spiral of guilt sends Kristin, and am bummed that the only religious-minded character who seemed to actually have some independent thoughts – the wandering priest – is no longer in the picture… He at least asked questions.

    EL Fay – I completely agree with you, and recognize myself as a 21st century reader (and especially a 21st century woman) looking at an extremely restricted woman who’s life I can honestly barely comprehend. I appreciate the fact that Undset made her true to her time, but I still have trouble liking her!

    Frances – Yikes, poor Kristin. I can’t imagine her life is going to be easy – but I am looking forward to seeing her take a little more control. Cross your fingers! 🙂

  9. I think Frances’ comment above is really profound about where things are probably heading. And since I’ve already heard how Kristin’s story ends, I can only hope that we all get Frances’ wish for a more interesting read in between now and then. “Yikes,” indeed, Sarah!

  10. I also completely agree with Frances’s comment above. It is in fact, what makes me want to continue on with the second book. The ending was my favourite part of The Wreath, as it is, as you say, going in a direction you don’t like. For my part, I actually like that it isn’t going in the direction that I would’ve liked. Doesn’t make sense, but you know what I mean? I just am eager for this whole book to come out of its conventionality!

    But Richard, you say you know how the story ends?? Oh no.

  11. I think we’re all feeling similarly about Kristin and her overly emotional and dramatic storyline, but I have a feeling it can only get better. And Undset does have a knack for storytelling. So I’m looking forward to parts 2 and 3, but was a little underwhelmed by part 1.

  12. […] but it’s not possible to make something enjoyable out of The Wreath. While this was my favorite of the three books (which I read last Oct., Nov., and Dec. respectively, and basically hated), I […]

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