The Son Avenger

by Sigrid Undset

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First published:Olav Audunssøn og hans born (2 volumes, 1927; in English as In the Wilderness, 1929, and The Son Avenger, 1930; included in the complete tetrology The Master of Hestviken, 1934)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical chronicle

Time of work: Fourteenth century

Locale: Norway

Principal Characters:

Olav Audunsson, the master of Hestviken

Eirik, his heir

Cecilia, Olav’s daughter

Jorund Rypa, her first husband

Aslak Gunnarsson, her second husband

Bothild Asgersdatter, Olav’s foster daughter

Gunhild Bersesdatter, loved by Eirik

Eldrid Bersesdatter, whom he married

The Story:

When young Aslak Gunnarsson came to Hestviken with the tale that he had slain a man, Olav Audunsson was not minded to shelter an outlaw. Nevertheless, he and Aslak had fought side by side in Duke Eirik’s war, and he remembered his own outlawry in his younger days. So Aslak stayed at Hestviken that winter.

Cecilia Olavsdatter and Bothild, her foster sister, found Aslak such pleasant company that at last Olav began to believe that the dalesman and his daughter were friendlier than was needful. He was not sorry when he heard that Aslak’s family had paid atonement for the killing and the time came for his guest to return home. When Aslak begged to return with his kinsmen and ask for Cecilia’s hand, Olav spoke kindly but gave him no hope for his suit.

Late in the summer Eirik came home, bringing with him Jorund Rypa, his friend. Olav had no great liking for Jorund because of an act of boyish disloyalty to Eirik years before, but Jorund’s pleasant manners and courteous speech made Olav feel that perhaps he had been mistaken in his judgment. When Jorund rode back to his family’s manor at Gunnarsby, it was understood that his brothers would soon return to declare his suit for Cecilia.

Meanwhile, Eirik had become lustfully attracted to Bothild and, to her distress, he wooed her with boorish rudeness. One night they went on an errand to Rundmyr farm. On the way back she tried to evade him, fell, and began to vomit blood. Then Eirik learned for the first time that she was ill with the wasting sickness. Remorseful, he left Hestviken. Bothild died shortly before Yule. Early in the new year Eirik returned, determined to make amends by asking Bothild’s hand in marriage. Filled with feelings of guilt for her death, he suddenly decided to become a monk.

Olav was well pleased with Eirik’s decision. For years he had brooded because a false heir, Ingunn’s son by Teit, would inherit after him. Perhaps, he thought, God was protecting Cecilia’s rights. Also, his unconfessed guilt in the secret murder of Teit had weighed upon him for years; now there might be a time when he could make contrition by confessing the father’s slaying to the son. Then, if Eirik accepted him, all might be well.

The news of Eirik’s intention speeded Jorund’s wooing, for Cecilia would be a rich heiress; before long she journeyed to Gunnarsby for her wedding feast. Olav, seeing the great manor Jorund shared with his brothers, was well satisfied with her marriage.

Eirik, however, made a poor novice after all, so that the convent brothers sent him home. Meanwhile Cecilia had not been happy among the brawling Rypas at Gunnarsby. Shortly before the birth of her second child, she and Jorund begged to be allowed to live at Hestviken. Jorund proved a poor son-in-law and husband-man. When Olav sent Eirik to collect some debts in Oslo, Jorund went with him and fell into old habits...

(This entire section contains 1809 words.)

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of dicing and drinking. Before they returned, he borrowed Eirik’s purse containing Olav’s silver and later claimed that he had used the money to pay a pressing debt. Olav seldom spoke to his son-in-law after that. Later, Eirik heard that Jorund was often at the house of thieves and gamblers which was kept by Liv and Arnketil at Rundmyr.

Eirik spent most of his time at Saltviken, an old farm he was reclaiming for himself. Pleased at last by his steady ways, Olav felt that the time had come for Eirik to marry. Gunhild, daughter of Berse of Eiken, was the girl decided upon, and Olav’s distant kinsmen were asked to forward the suit. About that time, Gunhild’s uncle, rich Guttorm of Draumtop, was robbed of much silver when thieves attacked him and his wife while they were returning from a wedding feast. From the story Gunhild had told him, Eirik recognized some of the silver when he and Cecilia came upon it by chance in Jorund’s chest. Jorund said that he had bought it from some travelers near Rundmyr. Doubting the story, Eirik buried the silver in a field. Later he would pretend to find it and return it to Guttorm.

All worked out as he had planned. Then the authorities captured some robbers who knew of Jorund’s part in the affair, and Berse refused to marry his daughter into a family whose kinsman had received stolen goods.

Gunhild had an older sister, Eldrid, who had caused great scandal and who lived by herself at Ness. When Berse planned to wed Gunhild to an older man, the girl sent Eirik a message asking him to meet her at her sister’s house. Eirik went there, but Gunhild’s plan had been discovered and she never arrived. Eirik felt that he was a man whose efforts always came to nothing. Eldrid was kind. He married her and went to live at Ness.

Olav, weary of everything and feeling that it was his own sin which had brought sorrow and disgrace to his house, moved to Saltviken. Word reached him that Bjorn, his son by Torhild Bjornsdatter, had married the daughter of an old friend, and he went to see the boy and his bride in Oslo. They were young, he thought, happy, and lucky. Bjorn was the son he could never claim, and so family troubles would never touch him.

When Cecilia could stand Jorund’s drunken brutalities no longer, she rode to Ness and begged Eirik to go back with her to Hestviken. He found that Jorund was like a madman. Leaving a house-carl to guard him, Eirik went to Saltviken for his father. The next morning, on their return, they found Jorund stabbed in his bed.

Old Olav, convinced that Cecilia had killed her husband, saw his own secret murder repeated in his daughter’s deed. Horrified and sorrowful, he went to Oslo and in the convent there told his story to a monk he knew, the son of his old friend, Arnvid Finnsson. The monk gave him a day to prepare for his confession. Early the next morning Eirik arrived from Hestviken with news that Arnketil had killed Jorund to avenge the ruin of a daughter. Overcome, Olav suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed and speechless. Arnketil’s body was found a long time later in a swamp; there were whispers that Eirik had shielded the slayer, but nothing came of that gossip.

After Cecilia had been a widow for more than a year, she married Aslak Gunnarsson, who had been her first choice. Old Olav, his mind filled with memories of Ingunn and their younger days, dragged his crippled body about the manor. At last he died, his sin still unconfessed.

Eirik and Eldrid went into holy orders, she to the convent in Gimsoy, he to the Minorite convent in Oslo. Cecilia and Aslak inherited Hestviken and prospered, so that Olav’s grandchildren were all well provided for. When they visited him in the convent, Eirik never tired of telling them about their grandfather’s manly and upright life. Eirik himself died when he was threescore years old.

Critical Evaluation:

THE SON AVENGER gathers together the many threads of Olav Audunsson’s story and brings to an inevitable and tragic close the second of Sigrid Undset’s long novels dealing with Norse life in the Middle Ages. Some critics have complained that THE MASTER OF HESTVIKEN lacks the human warmth of KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER (1920-1922). This judgment is true for an obvious reason: Olav’s sin is greater than Kristin’s, his remorse is more terrible, and his confession is denied him when he dies speechless at the end. Like KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER, THE MASTER OF HESTVIKEN is a great work of the historical imagination and of Christian morality. The novel lives in its gradual, richly detailed evocation of the past and in the writer’s ability to create men and women who are true to the hopes, passions, and sufferings of humanity of any time or place.

THE SON AVENGER specifically deals with the effects of Olav’s concealed sin on his children’s lives and on his own old age and death. Because of his old misfortunes in the uplands, he denies Cecilia a match with a man from that part of the country, making way for her unhappy union for Jorund Rypa. By this decision, every kind of evil springs—from Eirik’s broken match with Gunhild Bersesdatter to the murder of a cripple. The last and worst consequence is that Olav believes Cecilia guilty of murder; his stroke comes on at the realization of the monstrous wrong he had done her in thinking her capable of his own sin—murder compounded by concealment.

In that moment of being struck down, and afterward as he lies, speechless but conscious, awaiting death, the full consequence of his sin breaks upon him. Olav has spent the better part of his life so absorbed in his secret that self-pity and remorse have been a wall between his daughter and himself. He realizes that he does not really know her but has fabricated a personality for her out of her mother’s frailties and his own wishes, thus thinking her likely either to forget her first love or murder her wedded husband. Worse, Olav knows he has lost Eirik in the same way, realizing only at the end that Eirik has loved him best. As he lies dying, Olav has a vision of Eirik gleaning among the tare of his father’s life for good deeds to lay on the scales of divine judgment. He senses at last the depth of the love Eirik has always offered him, its quality of absorbing slights and hurts, its constancy saintly. Eirik has been the avenger, not of the slain Icelander as Olav had always thought, but of God, whose rod is love. In a strange way he is Olav’s avenger as well. Eirik, who always had the most cause for complaint against his father, by his words and demeanor in later life belies all the evil gossip against which Olav, because of his guilty secret, had never been able to defend himself.