In these high fourteenth-century mountains, priests still visit the sick shouting, “God help those in this house!” as they raise a cross to all four corners of the room and splash holy water everywhere. Wolves and bears still reign in the forest, and goblins and elves still hide under every rock. Swords slash at you from every page and the ecclesiastical Latin will keep you reaching for your dictionary. On second thought, maybe it’s best if you don’t take this epic trilogy to bed. What will you say to your wife when the crumbs of lefse and dried reindeer fall out of the opening chapters? What will you do when the homebrewed ale spills out of the paragraphs and stains your pajamas?
“Is it safe?” a friend asks.
“Safe?” I say. “Who said anything about safe? Of course it isn’t safe. But it’s good.”
Kristin Lavransdatter will make you weep and shout and stay up way too late with eyes as big as saucers. But you will sleep like a baby, and in the morning you will wake up with a bonfire in your heart. “That’s right,” you’ll say, your voice husky from drinking mead with kinsmen after a long Alpine hunt. “Real men read novels.” You’ll make your morning offering and kiss your brown scapular, and then you’ll drive to the jobsite…with your tear-stained copy of Kristin Lavransdatter tucked somewhere between your toolbox and your Stanley thermos.
It Takes a Woman…
God made Adam, and then he made Sigrid Undset. If this Catholic convert and Norwegian Nobel Prize winning author isn’t a “suitable helper,” then I don’t know who is. Perhaps the old saying is true: “Only a woman can really know the heart of a man.”
There is no such saying—but there should be. Only Eve could so accurately capture Adam’s cowardice, his courage, his Catholic heart. Only Sigrid Undset could write this book. Only she could remind men that in the beginning Adam was a medieval Norseman and Eden was the first Christendom.
Adam was standing next to Eve when she ate the forbidden fruit. He was right there. And he was silent. Kristin Lavransdatter is in fact the story of Eve as she deals with the consequences of Adam’s silence. It’s as if someone handed Eve a typewriter, and she told the story of a sinful world in Adam’s shadow—the New Adam’s shadow as he hangs from the bloody cross. Christ has spoken once and for all from the cross, and Kristin throws this challenge to every man: will you join Him? Your life rises or falls on this one question: will you speak from your cross?
Is Undset a modern prophet? I don’t know. But history would be a lot more manly if the sons of Adam would start listening to this Scandinavian daughter of Eve. Undset tells it straight. Her epic trilogy is a call to arms. Do not be content to watch from the sidelines as the Immaculate Conception crushes the serpent’s head. It’s time to put off the old man and to take up your cross.
Lavrans or Erlend?
By following the proud and beautiful character of Kristin through most of her life in fourteenth-century Norway, we cannot help but follow the men in her life. Undset catapults readers into all the glory and shame and responsibility of manhood. We are reminded that men are often weak and downright bad, but that they can also be strong, even good.
Reading the tale of Kristin and her Norsemen, you are faced with a decision: Are you Lavrans, or are you Erlend? There are only two options. You are either wielding a sword for the Kingdom like Lavrans, or you are waving your ego like Erlend. You are either on your knees in penance, or you are on another silly quest for self-actualization. You are either honoring your wife as you stand guard over your household, or you are testing your wife as you squander your inheritance. In the end, you are either lying prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, or you are lying dead before the priest has heard your confession, anointed you with oil, and given you the viaticum. Who will you be—Lavrans, or Erlend?
Of course, Undset’s characters are not so black and white. She’s too deft for such caricatures. But I’m not. And I do not want to be like Erlend. I want to be like Lavrans:
A strong and courageous man, but a peaceful soul, honest and calm, humble in conduct but courtly in bearing, a remarkably capable farmer, and a great hunter. He hunted wolves and bears with particular ferocity, and all types of vermin… Lavrans did not take up with other women, he always asked for [his wife’s] advice in all matters, and he never said an unkind word to her, whether he was sober or drunk… The master also had a lively spirit in his own way, and he might join in a dance or start up singing when the young people frolicked on the church green on sleepless vigil nights.
The cross is the center and circumference of his life. The man is known for his penances, his strict fasts, his willingness to work hard, and his generous tithes. Lavrans loves until he is spent. When he is not “staggering under the heavy crucifix,” Lavrans is resting on it: “His arms lay across the arms of the cross, and he was leaning his head on the shoulder of Christ.”
Your Nordic Medieval Catholic Heart
Are you wishing that you had just a little more hair on your chest? Then look no further than Kristin Lavransdatter. A sweeping tale of fatherhood and farming, priests and sacraments and towering cathedrals, sacrifice and holy pilgrimages, those men who have read this epic trilogy might as well have sprinkled fertilizer on their chests. They are hairier, and they stand just a little bit taller because they let a novel whittle them down to size.
Because here’s the thing: masculinity is a mission. As men, we are called to live lives of self-oblation, prayer, and cruciform ministry. Sigrid Undset’s tale is a rebuke and a summons. Erlend’s life is paved with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough. Do not fail to battle sin and Satan and sabotage. Do not fail to bring glory to God in the ordinary.
Nordic, Catholic, gothic—the men in Kristin Lavransdatter are characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, gargoyles, and flying buttresses. It’s the kind of world that reminds a man of his own beating Catholic heart. It’s as terrible as it is beautiful. Like the setting sun, Undset’s tale throws the snow-covered peaks of a man’s heart into relief. You won’t be able to rest—you won’t even be able to sit down—until you’ve read every last page.