From Sigrid Undset’s first work to her last, the central issue of her fiction is loyalty. At first, she depicted the loss of a wife’s loyalty in Fru Marta Oulie, then Jenny’s loss of faith in herself that led to suicide. In her epic medieval novels, Undset analyzed the development of the sense of loyalty to others, to self, and finally to God, which motivates all lesser relationships in Christian morality. Once she had accepted her religion, Undset could write, “The history of the Church is like a paradigm which illustrates the fate of the divine when it comes into human hands.” Her later novels reflect contemporary concerns in her basic religious context, for, as Winsnes has observed, she invariably judges the human torments of conscience that stem from disloyalty by the standard of her Catholic faith.
At the beginning of her career, Undset felt that William Shakespeare’s Brutus was “the noblest figure in all literature,” because when he saw he had lost everything on the field at Philippi, he “found no man but he was true to me.” Undset commented in 1914, “Brutus feels such triumphant joybecause he can now say for certain that disloyalty, which is for him the ugliest sin, has never come near him.” Such perfect idealism, she knew, could not be found in the life she saw around her, but she developed the typical situation of her fiction from oaths, pacts, vows, and covenants upheld or abused. From the outset, she linked the abstract concept of fidelity to one of humankind’s most powerful and bedeviling drives, the urge for sexual fulfillment. In “Fru Hjelde” (“Mrs. Hjelde”), one of her earliest short stories, Undset framed her message lyrically: “in the brief moment when love’s caresses are new and make the blood flutter, you must understand and take control of all your life.” A companion story, “Fru Waage,” more realistically stresses the human need to make reparation: “better to pay for a precious hour of happiness with a whole lifetime of penance and prayer than to go on fretting oneself into grey hairs and bitterness.”
The pagan Scandinavia to which her father’s work drew Undset had worshiped gods who knew they themselves would die in flaming Götterdämmerung. Because the eventual defeat of good by evil was inevitable, only the manner in which the northern hero died could matter, and the old Nordic tales resound with the song of two-handed battle swords carving bitter destiny into the personal immortality of the saga. As she immersed herself in Scandinavian folklore and history in preparation for Kristin Lavransdatter, her reading of the thirteenth century Njáls saga became a turning point in Undset’s life, she said, because she recognized there the intense psychological pressure exerted on the individual by the old pagan familial society. She came to believe, as she wrote in Saga of Saints, that the thirst for loyalty engendered by the ancient Germanic code, however noble its individual exemplifications, was fatally limited by the lack of “a door which leads to freedom for the soul of every human being, even though his deedshave their inevitable consequences and defeat here on earth.”
Undset’s ideal gradually changed from the pagan moralist Brutus to the Christian humanist Sir Thomas More, who served his God before his king even unto death. In De søkte de gamle stier, a collection of sketches of “almost forgotten soldiers of Christ,” Undset declared that the eventual victory of the good depends on “whether the wills of individual men and women are directed into an effort to do God’s will—even if in life they have not been able towithout wavering, deviation and interruption.”
Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter traces the life of a well-born woman of medieval Norway through youth in The Bridal Wreath, maturity in The Mistress of Husaby, and old age with The Cross. As in all of Undset’s fiction, the characters are developed in an immensely detailed social and cultural milieu. By the time she wrote Kristin Lavransdatter, Norwegian scholars such as Magnus Olsen and Sigurøur Nordal had applied modern research methods to Scandinavian history, and Undset praised their respect for medieval documents as “examples of literary art,” the basis for her re-creation of medieval Nordic life.
In The Bridal Wreath, Undset simultaneously depicted youthful love and mature marriage, both impeded by the tragic consequences of broken vows. Kristin’s father, Lavrans Björgulfsson, all of his life had been devoted to doing the will of God, but the wife he took at his family’s wish came to him secretly flawed by a previous affair. That hidden sin had to be faced and overcome before Lavrans and Ragnfrid could die at peace with God and each other. Kristin herself is betrothed to the good though dull Simon Darre, but she forces her father to break the vow and weds...
(The entire section is 2052 words.)