Critical Evaluation

(Essentials of European Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 453 words.)