Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

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.

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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.

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