The Axe

by Sigrid Undset

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First published: Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken (2 volumes, 1925; in English as The Axe, 1928, and The Snake Pit, 1929; included in the complete tetrology The Master of Hestviken, 1934)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical chronicle

Time of work: Late thirteenth century

Locale: Norway

Principal Characters:

Olav Audunsson, the master of Hestviken

Arnvid Steinfinn Toresson, his foster father

Kolbein Ingebjorg Jonsdatter, Steinfinn’s wife

Ingunn, Steinfinn’s daughter, betrothed to Olav

Tora, another daughter

Finnsson, Steinfinn’s kinsman

Toresson, Steinfinn’s half brother

Teit, an Icelander and a clerk

The Story:

The troubles of the Steinfinnssons began when Tore Toresson sent his youngest son to the royal bodyguard at Bergen. There Steinfinn Toresson saw Ingebjorg Jonsdatter, who had come from Denmark with young Queen Ingebjorg, and he fell in love with her. King Magnus, however, had already promised the girl to his friend, Mattias Haraldsson. Steinfinn was in the Orkneys that winter. The next summer, he went to Bergen and stole Ingebjorg out of the king’s court.

Although Tore was displeased with his son, he gave the couple the manor at Frettastein, where they lived as if in lawful wedlock. After a time, the queen reconciled all concerned, and Steinfinn and Ingebjorg held their wedding at the royal court in Oslo. Ingunn, their first child, was three years old when her parents were wed.

Meanwhile, Mattias Haraldsson had gone into foreign lands, so that Steinfinn had little thought of his ill will. When Steinfinn and Ingebjorg had been married about seven years, however, Mattias came one night with his men, bound Steinfinn, and shamed him before his household. After Mattias rode home to his own manor, young Olav Audunsson cut his foster father’s bonds. Steinfinn swore that he would not sleep with his wife until he could show the world that she was his without Mattias’ leave.

Steinfinn, however, had no revenge at that time, for Mattias sailed again to foreign lands. Meanwhile, life grew slack and somber at Frettastein. Steinfinn often kept company with Kolbein, his grim half brother, and Ingebjorg lived in a house apart with her women and her two small sons, Hallvard and Jon. Ingunn and Tora, the older daughters, would have been left to themselves if it had not been for Olav Audunsson, Steinfinn’s foster son.

Olav’s father had been Audun Ingolfsson of Hestviken; his mother had died at his birth. One summer, when Steinfinn met Auden at the Thing, the man from Vik said that he was soon to die. There was much drinking that night, and it seemed good sport to betroth little Ingunn to Olav. Next morning, Steinfinn would have called off the agreement, but Audun held him to his word, so Olav grew up at Frettastein. An aged kinsman managed his estate at Hestviken.

All of his life, Olav remembered a day just past his sixteenth year. The edge of his ancient Viking ax, Kin-fetch, being blunted, he took it to an armorer in Hamar. Ingunn stole away from the house to go with him, and the two rowed up the fjord under sunny skies. Later, he never knew whether his deep feeling of pleasure came from a sudden, disturbing sense of Ingunn’s loveliness, the summer light over the town, or the vesper service he and Ingunn attended before they started home through the dark; but he always thought that day the happiest of his life.

Arnvid Finnsson, Ingunn’s cousin, brought word that Mattias was at Birid, and two days later, Steinfinn and his kinsmen, Olav among them, rode away. There...

(This entire section contains 1764 words.)

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was great merriment at Frettastein when they returned. Mattias and his housecarls had been taken by surprise, and Steinfinn had killed his enemy in a fair fight. Although badly wounded, Steinfinn laughed at his own hurts. After he and Ingebjorg went to their loft room, the dancing and drinking continued, and some people became wanton. Half-tipsy, Olav went with Ingunn to her loft.

That night, Ingebjorg died suddenly in her sleep, and Steinfinn’s wounds reopened. From that time on, he grew steadily weaker. While he lay dying, Arnvid asked him to declare the marriage of Ingunn and Olav but he refused, saying the settlement had never been clearly drawn. After Steinfinn’s death, Olav found among his own gear the betrothal ring he had given Ingunn many years before. He suspected Kolbein of that sly attempt to repudiate the betrothal.

Arnvid stayed on at Frettastein for a time. That fall, Olav spent many nights with Ingunn in her loft. When Arnvid finally learned how matters stood, he advised Olav to lay the case before Bishop Thorfinn in Hamar and to claim that he had only fulfilled a marriage contract which Ingunn’s kinsmen had broken. Bishop Thorfinn was a stern but just man, and he saw that Olav had some right in the wrong he had done. All might have gone well for the lovers if the Kolbeinssons had not quarreled with Arnvid and Olav in the convent guest house at Hamar. At last, unable to endure their taunts, Olav raised Kin-fetch and struck down Einar Kolbeinsson.

Proclaimed an outlaw, Olav fled to Sweden, and Ingunn went to stay with Arnvid at Micklebo. There Ingunn developed such a strange illness that Arnvid’s mother accused the Kolbeinssons of witchcraft. After her recovery, the girl went to live with her aunt, the Lady Magnhild of Berg. Olav, meanwhile, had gone to his mother’s kinsmen in Denmark. Tora married Haakon Gautsson and came to visit at Berg, where her first child was born. Ingunn wished for a husband and child of her own, but she grew stubborn when her relatives talked of marrying her to any of the young men who came wooing.

Four years later, Olav returned in the train of Earl Alf Erlingsson, Queen Ingebjorg’s liegeman. On promise of penance and payment of blood-atonement to Kolbein for Einar’s slaying, the Steinfinnssons acknowledged him as Ingunn’s betrothed. Then the queen died, and her son proclaimed Alf and all of his men outlaws. Word came that Olav had followed Alf to Sweden. Once more, Ingunn was left to wait at Berg.

One summer Teit, an Icelander, came on business to the manor. Mistaking Ingunn for a servant, he was not disconcerted when he learned that she was a daughter of the house. Ingunn liked the clerk’s pert speech and merry ways. At last, out of weakness and pity, she permitted him to stay with her in the house she shared with her aged grandmother. When Olav, no longer an outlaw, came home in the spring, she was carrying Teit’s child.

Olav was dismayed when he learned of Ingunn’s circumstances, but he felt bound to her by every tie between them in the past. Bitter because he could not part from her, he offered to claim that he had gone secretly to Berg during his outlawry and that the child was his. Shamed, Ingunn refused so unseemly an offer.

Olav was staying with the Preaching Friars in Hamar. Teit, believing that Olav no longer wanted Ingunn, proposed to Olav that he accompany the Icelander when he went to Arnvid to plead for Ingunn’s hand. As Olav prepared for the journey, Kin-fetch, hanging on the wall, rang—old superstition said that when the ax sang, death would follow. That night, at the saeter where they stopped to rest, Olav killed Teit and burned the hut. Although he knew he could never confess his deed without shaming Ingunn, he felt that her secret was safe.

When Ingunn’s baby boy was born, Lady Magnhild gave it to a foster mother, a forester’s wife. A short time later, Olav went to claim his bride. After years of waiting, it was a sorry bridal ale they drank at their wedding feast.

Critical Evaluation:

THE AXE is the first volume of a tetralogy—the others are THE SNAKE PIT, IN THE WILDERNESS, and THE SON AVENGER—published under one title, THE MASTER OF HESTVIKEN. These four books together make up a great historical chronicle, a great religious novel, and a novel of character. In this story of thirteenth century Norway, Sigrid Undset presents a massive picture of universal and timeless human conflicts. As a study of man’s faith, the novel shows a world poised between the old pagan spirit and Christian belief and practice. Olav Audunsson, her chief character, is the medieval man, virile yet innocent and meek in his simple goodness.

This first novel sets the stage for the conflict of those antagonistic principles which characterize Undset’s larger works: the struggle of the individual against the mass will of society, of man’s will with God’s will, and of Christian ethic against pagan imperative. It also shows the origin of the bond between Olav and Ingunn and how it prefigures their future struggles. Readers see how the psychological truth of their situation binds Olav and Ingunn together, while the physical circumstances—demands of honor and social rectitude—with which that truth must be made to agree, work to force them apart. Their first sexual encounter, for example, takes them unaware and bears them away on a tide of unreason; afterward, the social and religious ramifications exert a pressure that both skews the original act and changes Olav’s feelings both for Ingunn and for Arnvid, his only friend. Indeed, the need to square his thoughtless act with his own conscience leads Olav into the habit of rationalization and self-delusion, which is to plague him in later life.

In striking down Einar Kolbeinsson and later Teit, the Icelander, he succumbs to the urgings of the pagan past. In each case, his blood rejoices even as his soul quails. Indeed, these two actions are paradigmatic, for to the end of his life he is to be restrained from doing what God requires by his duty to his dependents and from doing what is lawful with regard to Eirik by his attachment to Ingunn. Without hope at last, he will take pride in that stoic endurance, which is the other face of the pagan virtue, defiance. It is no coincidence that the dancing of the Kraaka-maal, the ancient lay of Ragnar in the snake pit, immediately precedes Ingunn’s first night of love with Olav, and later her infidelity with Teit; for she, being “of little wit,” obeys the urgings of the blood, which are pre-Christian and even prepagan. Thus, the consequences of her acts are indeed to make a snake pit of her married life.