Saturday, October 21, 2006

Gunnar's Daughter

Earlier this week, Semicolon reviewed one of the world's greatest pieces of literature--Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. Her excellent review is here. I can't help but add a few comments and also recommend another fine, but much shorter, book by this little-known Christian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

I'd add that my husband and several of his friends read this and loved it--it's not just a woman's book. Though the protagonist is a woman, her struggles with her will are universal. Her husband and sons, strong characters in the book, also allow their passions to rule them, with resulting consequences. The characters do change and find redemption over the course of this epic, and their medieval, Scandinavian Christianity is a powerful influence. I especially loved the scenes of interaction with the Church, its priests and its saints.

However, the length and the language of Kristin Lavransdatter may be obstacles for some--I admit it was hard for me to get into at first. So I would recommend one of the author's earliest works, Gunnar's Daughter, as a more accessible introduction and masterful tale in its own right. It is short--150 pages--and the terse prose and tightly woven plot make it hard to put down. There is also a fine introduction to the traditions and themes of the literature of the era, which is most helpful for appreciating Undset's genius.

This tale of revenge is an epic tragedy set in the earliest days of Christianity in Norway, when pagan practices like the blood-feud and the exposing of unwanted babies were still widespread. In fact, the story elements are shocking, at times, in their violence--there is rape, murder, and infanticide.

It is these very elements that give the story, so strongly rooted in the Sagas of medieval Scandinavia, a sense of the timeless. As Undset's biographer points out, in her very worthwhile introduction: "The subject of this novel is the effect of human passions on the social order... The issues that provoke the most vehement debates [today] include civil and domestic violence...illegitimacy, child custody, abortion, euthanasia, and the relation between church and state--the same issues the Icelanders struggled with a millenium ago." Against the larger moral questions she raises, Undset is a master at probing "with unflinching honesty...the motives, delusions and determinations of what she calls 'the human heart.' "

The contrast of Christian virtues with pagan ones is one of the most compelling elements of this novel. Had a culture of forgiveness been in place instead of the tradition of the blood-feud, this story would not have ended in tragedy. If the main character, Vigdis, could have forgiven the man who raped her--for she did love him--he would have married her and their son would not have been born a bastard or grow up to be faced with the awful task of fulfilling his mother's desire for revenge against his father. And the man who refuses to have his crippled newborn exposed because it does not seem a Christian thing to do contrasts sharply with the stories of the several healthy babies left to die.

One of the most haunting and beautiful sections is a story told by a Christian priest named Eirik. A woman, Tora, was seduced and became pregnant, and "to hide her misfortune she cast the child into the sea." Later she married, had children and became so ill that she fell into a swoon, in which she saw a vision. A character in a black cloak led her to a valley that looked full of little white lambs.

"But when she came nearer she saw they were little children; there many thousands of them; they were quite naked and newly born, but their faces were old, and some were bloody and horribly mangled, and some were wet. They tried to climb out of the valley on both sies, but they rolled back again at once, for they were so small and weak. This seemed to Tora such a sorry sight that she began to weep; she asked him in the cloak what it was and how the poor little things had come there. 'Their parents have left them here,' said the man. 'They willed it so.' 'I can never believe it,' said Tora.

'It is your eldest son, Tora, who is now lying next against your breast--all these are children who have been robbed of life before they could live in the world of learn the way to my house.'

Tora fell on her knees and asked in terror:

'Who are you, chieftain, and what is your name?"

'Christ is my name,' said the King. And now a radiance went out from him...warming all the children. But Tora had to shut her eyes before the glory of it. And when she opened them she was at home, lying in her bed."

Though written nearly a hundred years ago and placed in a setting that is centuries old, this story could be a modern-day parable about abortion, just as the issues of rape, abortion in the case of rape, and the dignity of women are also raised throughout the larger novel. For example, because of the new Christian idea of marriage, Vigdis cannot be forced into a marriage without her consent, and the Christian expectation of fidelity of both partners in a marriage outlaws the old sexual double standard. Gunnar's Daughter, though firmly rooted in the Saga Era of Scandinavia, is a story with a freshness and an immediacy that transcends time and place.

Visit Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books for more fine reviews!


Sherry said...

Thank you, thank you. THis one is definitely going on the list and not only on the list. but at the top of the list.

At A Hen's Pace said...

Sherry--Knowing how long the list is :) that's quite a compliment!

Islandsparrow said...

Kristin Lavransdatter is one of my all time favourites! Have you ever read With Fire and Sword? Another excellent classic. My husband and boys loved it too.I haven't read Gunnar's Daughter but I am going to look for it at my library. Thanks for the recommendation.

maria said...

I guess I'm a bit late on the ball here, but I looked at our public to no avail - then I remembered that UAF has a HUGE library. And there it was!! I'm going to check it out tomorow!!