Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2019

The Cross (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #3), by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Following on from my previous posts about The Wreath (Kransen, Book 1 of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy), and Book 2, The Wife (Husfrue), I now find myself in the same boat as before.  I’d read Books 1 & 2, and couldn’t remember who the characters were and what they did when I’d started Book 3, so I went back to the beginning of the trilogy, making lots of notes as I re-read the two books, and then FWIW I wrote my reviews of the two books.  Well, here I am in New Zealand, having brought the book with me to finish off Book 3 at last, and once again I was floundering with the characters and the plot.  And of course my notes are all at home in Australia.

So the #TakeHomeMessage is: (if my review doesn’t put you off altogether, that is) read the whole thing all at once.

Anyway…

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Book 3, The Cross,, is about the maturing of Kristin as she comes to terms with her fall from grace. Erlend, her reckless husband, was lucky to escape with his life after his treasonous activities against the king, and he owes his salvation to the intercession of Simon, Kristin’s betrothed who she had dumped when she fell for the handsome Erlend.  To appease the king, Erland and Kristin have lost their estate at Husaby and the prestige that went with it, and have had to return to inferior land at Jørundgård with their seven sons, who now have a dubious future.  Simon and his wife Ramborg, Kristin’s younger sister, OTOH, are wealthy, and their children can look forward to continuing a lineage held in esteem throughout the area.

Simon has never stopped loving Kristin, and #EpicFail he has not succeeded in concealing this from Ramborg Because A Woman Always Knows When A Man’s Heart Lies Elsewhere. To make matters worse, things go badly wrong when Simon’s legendary self-restraint towards Erlend finally fails and he tells Erlend that he can’t stand the sight of him.  This (unsurprisingly) causes an estrangement which is a matter of gossip everywhere, and while Kristin is acutely conscious that Erlend is responsible for all their woes, he is as insouciant as ever. Eventually Kristin loses her temper with him too, and #FatalMistake compares him unfavourably to her beloved father, Lavrans: whereas Erlend has not only frittered away his lands and opportunities, but also failed to engage the loyalty of his co-conspirators who could have pleaded for mercy on his behalf, Lavrans enlarged and preserved his estate, and left not only an impressive inheritance for his daughters but was also loved and admired by all who knew him.

Erland’s response to this is to leave the manor at Jørundgård in a huff.  He goes to sulk at Haugen, his aunt’s former home. This causes great distress to his sons, and is a great embarrassment to Kristin.  And whereas a modern woman might well say good riddance because Kristin is the one doing all the farm management while he goes out boozing with other men (who don’t really like him anyway) this separation is also a Grave Sin in medieval times, and on top of everything else, Kristin gets a dressing-down from the local priest. (Erlend, of course, does not).

Kristin, who as I said before in my review of The Wife, has a wearying excess of piety, and as well as tormenting herself for using sorcery to save Simon’s critically ill child, she soon finds herself with an opportunity for more guilt.  Tending to Simon on his death bed, she fails to keep him alive long enough to receive the sacraments so he goes to his Maker unconfessed and without the Last Rites.  But before this most temperate of men dies from wounds in a fight over Kristin’s honour, he beseeches her to take his apologies to Erlend for the hasty words he’s been brooding over ever since he said them.

So Kristin takes her guilt up the mountain and briefly reconciles with Erlend, which was A Bad Idea because even though Undset keeps telling us how old Kristin is (she’s about forty) she gets pregnant.  She Knows This In Her Heart But Does Not Tell Him.  (When will she ever learn, eh?) She hopes that Erlend will come to his senses and return to Jørundgård and take responsibility for his family, not to mention solving the Grave Sin Problem, but no, he wants her to stay up there with him in the dingy, filthy (and possibly haunted) house while he does Manly Things Like Hunting and Fishing.  She would rather be somewhere more congenial, and oh yes, back with her sons who’ve been doing without them both while all this reconciling has been going on.

You’d think things couldn’t get much worse for Kristin when Erlend ignores her appeal to be back home for the birth, so the gossips decide that the baby is not Erlend’s, and the baby dies because, they say, she neglected it out of guilt over her adultery.  But no, Undset has to wrap up this saga without a trace of this family left to linger, so Erlend dies from a spear wound, and with most of her children dead from this and that, Kristin takes herself off to be a nun at Tronheim where she does Good Works and nurses the sick.  And there The Black Death carries off the two boys who had become monks, and the one who was a sailor, and inevitably, Kristin herself as well.

As you can probably tell, I had lost patience both with Kristin and with Undset by the time I got to the end of all of this.  The introduction by Brad Leithauser has this to say about how it might be interpreted:

The growing call of religion renders richly ambiguous the culminating events of Kristin’s life.  One might view the trilogy as an accelerating accretion of tragedies [LH: you can say that again!], as Kristin’s poor abandoned suitor, Simon, whose love for her is hopeless and perpetual, goes to his deathbed with his faithfulness largely unnoticed or misunderstood by Kristin; as her marriage founders and she loses Erlend to a spear; as illness and blindness and plague pluck her children one by one.  The story might also be viewed as the record of a long, hard-won noble victory, as the passionate teenager who brooks no curbs on her desires, recklessly sowing pain and destruction in the process, decades later renounces the decaying kingdom of the flesh for the indestructible domain of the spirit. (p.xv)

Or you could just say that Undset was sick of the lot of them by the time she got to Book 3 and just bumped them all off.

Author: Sigrid Undset
Title: The Cross (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #3)
Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, UK, 2005, 400+ pages, (running on to 1124 pages in this Penguin complete trilogy edition)
ISBN: 9780143039167
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $44.07 AUD.

Available from Fishpond: Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics)

 


Responses

  1. I have a copy of the trilogy, and when I do read it, I’ll read the whole thing at once. I have friends who’ve loved it, and others who were indifferent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading your (appropriately) cranky take on this seemingly endless novel. My chief memory is listening to it as I took great pains to trim a bush properly; makes me wonder what else I did while listening. There was one quote I loved: Kristin wondered whether she had “conceived in her womb a flock of restless fledgling hawks that simply lay in her nest, waiting impatiently for the hour when their wings were strong enough to carry them beyond the most distant blue peaks.”

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    • Gosh, Charlotte, I can’t imagine listening to the entire thing, it would take months!

      Like

  3. […] translated book published before 1945: Kristin Lavransdatter#3 The Cross by Nobel prize winner Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally.  I can’t use La Mare au […]

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