Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

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The third volume in the Master of Hestviken tetralogy, In the Wilderness is set in the Middle Ages, a period whose significance in the development of Western thought and values had achieved great importance in scholarly circles when Sigrid Undset began writing her novels. More than other works in the series, In the Wilderness depends for its action on the large historical movements of the time; the protagonist’s journeys and his service in historical conflicts link the novel more closely to other examples of historical fiction, especially since Olav’s viewpoint—that of the rank-and-file soldier—on these events is one not likely to be represented in the actual chronicles of the period. The colorful details of war and trade are in fact merely the background for a concentrated examination of the protagonist’s character and spiritual condition.

The central theme of In the Wilderness is Olav Audunssøn’s confrontation with his selfish pride. With the death of his wife Ingunn, recorded in the final pages of The Snake Pit (1929), Olav expects to be able to abandon the lie in which he lived for so long. Instead, he finds himself more closely bound to it than before, for he must continue his silence about his act of murder and about the licentiousness of his wife for the sake of his daughter Cecilia and his wife’s son Eirik. The tensions created by his inability to articulate his guilt lead him to behave miserably toward Eirik, whom he accepts intellectually as his son and heir but who still brings up in Olav strong feelings of revulsion when he remembers that Eirik is the product of Ingunn’s liaison with Teit, the man Olav murders. Away from Hestviken, he hopes to escape the torments of conscience by immersing himself in travel, trade, and warfare. When the struggles of his conscience come to a head at the church for pilgrims near London, however, he decides to resolve the problem by going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem without returning to Hestviken first. He changes his mind when he realizes that his resolution is prompted as much by his desire to avoid the vexed situation at home as by a wish to humble himself before God and be cleansed of his old sin.

In taking up his old life as a cross to be borne for his children’s sake, Olav acts out the Christian precept that sin is its own punishment; his decision not to take Torhild into his house again carries out the penitential theme. Nevertheless, in consciously giving up his soul that his children might thrive, he regresses, in effect, into a pre-Christian state of being. The last part of the novel shows him immersing himself in thoughtless paganism: attempting to call Ingunn from her grave, applauding Cecilia’s spirited use of a knife, and glorying in the panoply and comradeship of war. In a way, he comes full circle, experiencing again the emotions of his youth and his early manhood.

This sense of returning to his youth gives only temporary and false hope, however, since Olav is unable to shake free from the feelings of emptiness and despair that continue to plague him. He knows he must do something to atone for his transgressions, but he is not yet ready to engage in the final act of abnegation that will bring forgiveness from God. His journey toward self-knowledge and acceptance of Christianity is not yet complete. At the end of the novel he is forced to recognize that his body has deteriorated, and that he has become old. As a result, the link with his early life as Ingunn’s husband dissolves, making way for the renewal of the conflict between Christian and pagan values that characterizes the final novel of the series, The Son Avenger (1930).

When Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928, that award was made, according to the citation, “principally with regard to her powerful pictures of Northern life in medieval times.” No one who has read Kristin Lavransdatter(1929) or The Master of Hestviken will deny the justice of that statement. Those not familiar with her novels must be prepared to find a writer who, while true to the life and spirit of a past age, pays little attention to great personages and big historical events. Undset’s stories of medieval life are so rich in detail that there is little need in her books for a parade of names and dates. In the Wilderness is the one exception to her usual practice, however, in that the closing episode of this novel deals with a traceable historical event, the invasion of Norway by Duke Eirik of Sweden in 1308.