The first time I read Kristin Lavransdatter, I almost put it down. The plot felt so, so slow. My sister said, "Just keep going until she gets to the convent. Then things get interesting." So I held on until the convent, maybe even skipping every other word until I got there. But I was glad I did, and didn't stop reading Sigrid Undset until I'd made it through all three volumes of Kristin, The Master of Hestviken series, Jenny, Gunnar's Daughter, and several history books on Medieval Norway (beating a good thing to a pulp).
It's interesting though, having been through all of that, to revisit these first 100pages. I think I get what Undset is trying to do with all of these childhood scenes. On one hand, the book is an epic, following the span of Kristin's life, from age seven through death. But the scenes Undset chose to reveal in her childhood, set up the big themes of the novel.
First, we know how much she loves and respects her Father, and how much everyone else respects her father. She grows up in this confident manhood that sets up the foil to her prospective husband, but that's sort of the "duh" aspect of these pages.
There's a scene that I've always glossed over, the one where she and Arne and the neighbor kids play priest, and they dress a piglet in a Christening dress. They are in the middle of mocking the young bride (Kristin) for conceiving her piglet during Lent when the actual priest comes along and punishes them (quite harshly in my opinion). For days after that, Kristin is unable to look her friend, Arne, in the eye. Kristin has this childhood piety, now wounded with her first inkling of sexual shame.
It flows so naturally into her first experiences of darkness and evil, when she goes up in the hills with her father, hearing stories about all the wild people that live in the woods, and then she sees the vision of the lady. I've always wondered who the woman was... Fru Aashild? A vision of her future self? A hallucination? Everyone else takes it so seriously.
Then there's the beautiful scene with Brother Edvin, when she begins to understand God's mercy: "There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it's because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and the flesh, that we are miserable in life and death....It was because of God's mercy towards us that He saw how our hearts were split, and he came down to live among us, in order to taste, in fleshly form, the temptations of the Devil..."
Brother Edvin seems to sum up Undset's philosophy and the gist of the whole book in those two paragraphs. Kristin has a heart divided, beginning from the age of accountability, and on to her death. But she always loves God.
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