By Katie Branigan, Hillsdale College
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter is set in fourteenth century Norway, a Christian nation that emerged from a historically pagan land. Yet centuries of traditions and worship are not easily uprooted, and the result is a country steeped in past pagan rituals while simultaneously cultivating the salvific Christian ideology.1 Men invoke the name of God in traditionally pagan rituals and worship Him as their ancestors worshiped the gods. The distinction between the two religions becomes confused, and Kristin struggles with the resulting tension between the pagan and the Christian over the course of her life, constantly and unconsciously engaged in a war for her soul. She finds herself drawn to Erlend, who approaches the Christian God with a pagan mindset, but was raised staunchly Christian by her father. Yet no character is a pure allegorical representation of one side of the pagan-Christian binary—inculturation has woven the thread of Christianity into the fabric of Norway. Thus, the complicated conflation of paganism and Christianity in Kristin Lavransdatter suspends Kristin between the two worldviews as she struggles—throughout her life—to pursue God.
Kristin has her first encounter with paganism when she is seven, traditionally the age of reason when children become culpable for their actions. With this in mind, the story—which follows Kristin from age seven until her death—is a chronicle of her moral actions, both good and evil, and the temptation to paganism rears its head early on in the form of a dwarf maiden who shows the child Kristin “a wreath of golden flowers and [beckons] to her with it” (Undset 19). Lavrans, her father, is struck with horror when she tells him this story; he makes “the sign of the cross over the child and himself” and pulls “the golden chain with the reliquary cross from inside his shirt and [hangs] it around Kristin’s neck, placing it against her bare skin” (20). Lavrans’ response affirms that the dwarf maiden is neither a vision nor a dream; this shrouds the realm of medieval Norway in enchantment. The presence of good and of evil is palpable, and temptation marks the beginning of Kristin’s struggle to pursue God, drawing the line between the Christian and the pagan. Here the binary is expressed with the dwarf maiden on the pagan side and Lavrans championing the Christian viewpoint—Undset will utilize this type of dichotomy to juxtapose paganism and Christianity many times throughout her work. Here, the dwarf maiden lures the child Kristin out of the sight of her father and toward the pagan realm, the wreath a foreshadowing of Kristin’s fall to temptation; “Kristin has not been rescued. The golden flowers of the garland have marked her” (Lytle 11). The dwarf maiden is juxtaposed against Lavrans, and the wreath is juxtaposed against Lavrans’ gilded reliquary cross.
In medieval Norway, brides wore wreaths in their hair as a symbol of their purity. During their courtship, Kristin goes to meet Erlend in a garden surrounded by “a hedge of sweetbriar,” evocative of Eden (Undset 128). Andrew Lytle, in his commentary on Kristin, comments that Erlend and Kristin approach each other as Adam and Eve approach the Tree of Knowledge; fulfillment of will is “the promise from the Winesap tree, in the garden walled off from the tangled wilderness…but to live as gods is not to be God, only confused” pagan subjects (37). There, she weaves “several roses…into the circlet at her temples,” a parody of the traditional bridal crown and a reminder of the dwarf maiden’s flowers, and Erlend takes one from her, “so clumsily that he scratche[s] his fingers and [draws] blood” (Undset 129). Erlend takes the bridal flower from Kristin roughly, improperly, and underscores this mockery of a marriage. Later, when Kristin officially marries Erlend, she does so with her family’s heirloom bridal crown on her head and his child in her womb—but Lavrans’ gilded cross still hangs around her neck.
Knowing that Kristin will not be a virgin at the time of her marriage to Erlend adds a taunting element to the dwarf maiden’s temptation; her attraction to Erlend is linked to the lure of the pagan from the beginning. Kristin describes the dwarf maiden with “flaring, pale-pink nostrils” (19), which remind her of Guldsvein, her father’s “huge red stallion” (12). Later she observes Erlend’s nose, which is “strangely thin, with fine, quivering nostrils,” and reminds Kristin of “a skittish, frightened stallion,” linking the man who will tempt her away from the purity of the bridal wreath to the dwarf who taunted her with it as a child (123). Thus, in another binary representation of Christianity and paganism, Kristin is caught between her relationship with Erlend and her relationship with her father, who has complete control over his horse—towards Lavrans, Guldsvein is “as gentle as a lamb” (12). Kristin expressly states that she views marriage to Erlend as a “separation from her home and family and Christianity,” albeit a “temporary” one, but she recognizes her weakness to a degree and knows that “Erlend would have to lead her back [to her Christian roots] by the hand,” for she is not strong enough to turn back from the temptation herself (149). Erlend does not recognize the boundary between the heathen and the Christian—he “[wants] to see her as a bride wearing… a high golden crown… but he also [wants] to possess her during all those sweet, secret hours”—and he therefore proves a poor spiritual leader for Kristin and their children (258).
The first mention of Erlend is through Fru Aashild, whom Lavrans and Ragnfrid hire to help care for Ulvhild. Ulvhild is seriously injured in an accident when she is about three, and Ragnfrid views her daughter’s illness as punishment for her own sins. Desperate, she summons Fru Aashild, despite rumors that she is a witch—“she would have been executed or burned at the stake if she hadn’t been of such high birth” (41). Ragnfrid swears that she would “offer [herself] up to the Devil if he will help” her child, and so Fru Aashild comes to Jorundgaard. Here, Undset highlights the link between the bartering stage of grief and the temptation to paganism as Ragnfrid, grieving simultaneously for her ailing child, the infants she has already lost, and her own purity, desperately clamors for control. Throughout her stay at Jorundgaard, Kristin grows fond of Aashild, for the child has “never seen such a beautiful or noble woman as this old witch whom the gentry of the village [refuse] to have anything to do with” (46). Kristin, transfixed as she was by her first taste of paganism, notes the “resemblance between Fru Aashild and the dwarf maiden” (52). It is through this lens that Kristin learns of Aashild’s methods for healing—which are fundamentally at odds with Christianity, rooted in a desire for control and a distrust of God’s plan—and of Erlend Niklausson, Aashild’s devilishly handsome nephew from Husaby, who she thinks would make a good match for Kristin. Erlend, like Aashild and the dwarf maiden, embodies the unchecked will of the pagan; he lets his earthly passions and desires fuel his actions and yearns to wrench his life out of the hands of God. Lytle states that he “possess[es] or [is] possessed by excessive vitality” (37).
Erlend has a fundamental misunderstanding of the mercy of God; he is nominally Christian with a lingering pagan conception of worship. Pagan sacrifice is transactional; man satisfies the desires of the gods, and in exchange, they provide him with his earthly longings. Prayers are not a conversation with the Creator but a bargaining with a deity, which usually possesses human emotions, motivations, and desires. Erlend imports this concept into his Christian life, and it is especially prevalent in his approach to confession. Lavrans is shown throughout the novel going to confession and making reparations for his sins, and after his death, Simon finds evidence that he practiced—quietly and privately—intense self-flagellation. For Lavrans, confession and repentance are the heart of his relationship with God. For Erlend, it is just another transaction. Thus, he cannot comprehend why Kristin must journey to the archbishop as penance for her sins when he has already “bought for her thirty masses and an annual mass for her soul and burial in consecrated ground” (386). This makes sense as a practice for a pagan, who is sacrificing to garner favor with a deity. There is a radical difference in pagan and Christian sacrifices—even ancient Jewish sacrifices—which lies in the answer to the question: for whose sake is the sacrifice? For pagans, the sacrifice is substantially for the gods. For Christians, sacrifice is for men; it provides an opportunity to participate in loving self-gift. The trouble with the pagan model is that, sooner or later, man will realize that he cannot make up for all that he has done. There is no way to completely balance the scales. No amount of bargaining can bring Eline back to life, restore Kristin’s lost virginity, or heal the relationships she has wounded. From a pagan perspective, she is backed into a corner, but Christianity is rooted in the mercy of Christ. A pagan who attempts to imitate the gods requires, in order to forgive, sufficient recompense; a Christian who looks to imitate Christ forgives without this, for no recompense is sufficient to atone for all the wounds man has inflicted upon Christ. Lavrans states that whenever he recalls his wife’s betrayal, he thinks “about all the times [he has] betrayed Christ” (549). Pagan sacrifice is impersonal; “the gods accept no restraint, satisfy all desire, act without remorse, suffer for no act, and leave compassion and pain to human creatures” (Lytle 37). This is the antithesis of the Christian God.
A second distinction between this method of worship and the Christian one is a question of endpoint; if a man is living his life to get to God, God is an end in Himself, but if he is using God to live his life, then God is a means. As seen in ancient texts such as The Odyssey, the afterlife in pagan cultures is not a heavenly place. Odysseus, Achilles, and many others lament from the underworld that their lives are past. Thus, if the earthly life is the best part of human existence, then it is the highest good. This is why the best death in ancient Greece or Rome was death in battle, not necessarily because a man is fighting for a great cause, but because in making a mark on history, he becomes immortal. Man craves immortality because he is built for the eternal, but in pagan culture attaining it is impossible; thus, one does not pursue immortality or salvation in God, but on earth. Applying a transactional pagan style of worship to a Christian conception of God can lead to an idolatry of the self or of the will. Erlend worships his desires and privileges them above all else; after he and Kristin sleep together, she tells him trustingly, “no doubt you would have let me go as I came if I had asked you to,” to which he replies, “I’m not sure of that” (142). Immediately, he feels the weight of the debt he owes her, hides “his face in her lap,” and swears, “may God forsake me in my last hour if I fail to be faithful to you until I die (142). He will later claim that this promise, an exercise of his own will and made out of a simultaneous sense of debt and desire to possess Kristin, a prioritizing of his own will over right action, should suffice in the place of a sacramental union (387). He wonders, as he does regarding his economically if not morally sound penance, is this not enough? The child begotten in this union, under the seal of a pagan vow, is baptized Nikulaus, but Erlend calls him Naakkve, despite the priest’s “protests that Naakkve is a pagan title” (Lytle 51).
Kristin, despite Lavrans’ influence, struggles with the pull of debt throughout her life. Under Fru Aashild’s influence as a child, she wonders if “God would perform a miracle for Ulvhild if she became a nun” (Undset 67). Kristin tends to veer toward bargaining in times of desperation, and Fru Aashild’s coming to Jorundgaard at Ragnfrid’s request to help Ulvhild prefigures a similar scene later in the novel, when Simon begs Kristin to come and save his child. “Andres is so ill, Kristin,” he tells her, “we fear for his life” (733). Kristin goes with Simon, but the child does not respond to her attempts to help him. After days of unsuccessful treatment, she steps into the shoes Fru Aashild once filled. She feels the weight of all that Simon has done for her on her shoulders and feels beholden to him. She turns to witchcraft “to rid herself of a little of the debt” but comments that “if it had been one of her own children, she would not have dared make this last attempt. To turn away God’s hand when He reached out for a living soul” (742). Kristin does not go to the graveyard, does not invoke pagan rituals, because she has somehow come to believe that it is right to do so, but rather because she feels the burden of debt upon her. Here, acting out of obligation, Kristin again turns to the pagan, but when loving her own children—with her father as a model—Kristin turns to the Christian path and merely prays, “Lord, you love them better than I do, let thy will be done” (742).
It is through her love of her children that Kristin comes to realize the depth of her father’s love for her; she says that it is “easy to forgive her children,” even when they wrong her (1068). No man’s heart is moved by a sense of obligation; it is not in leveling the playing field or exercising power that he experiences love. Rather, God’s merciful love is what draws people to Him. For this reason, Christ died on the cross. Christ did not have to die for man; He was not obligated to do so, and He owed man nothing. The glory of God is not that He had to die but that He chose to die. Out of love for man, Christ suffered so abundantly. Love is self-sacrificial, and the perfect sacrifice is an overflowing of love; Christians see this in the blood of the New Covenant on the Cross. This is what continually draws Kristin back to God; the “undeserved beneficence broke her heart in two; crushed with remorse, she lay there with tears welling up out of her soul like blood from a mortal wound” (401). Here, Undset encapsulates the movement from the blood sacrifices of the Old Covenant to the baptism of the New Covenant. Kristin’s tears bathe her in the cleansing water, a reminder of the fact that she belongs to Christ. As water from Christ’s side, tears of love for God’s mercy flow from Kristin’s eyes. God cares not for pagan animal sacrifice but for self-sacrifice prompted by love;
No matter how far a soul might stray from the path of righteousness, the pierced hands [are] stretched out, yearning. Only one thing [is] needed: that the sinful soul should turn toward the open embrace, freely, like a child who goes to his father and not like a thrall who is chased home to his stern master. (409)
Conversely, the pagans turn toward their gods in times of crisis not out of childlike love but out of a need for control over their lives and in order to maintain a business relationship. They pay their gods respect so that they will grant them glories in the earthly life; Pagan animal sacrifice is prompted by obligation.
The problem with a transactional pagan style of worship applied to the Christian God is that man has nothing to offer to the Lord who, in His mercy and love, owes nothing and gives everything. Kristin, upon realizing “how hideous sin [is],” says desperately, “I made myself pitiable and wretched and begged that the commandments of righteousness be broken, for I could not bear it if God should keep His promise and punish me in accordance with the Word that I have known all my days” (409, 401). The Christian is not destroyed by the knowledge that he has fallen, and though Kristin “sees how low she lies in the dust… in her merciless self-examination and self-knowledge, there is also the will to mount up, so that she can accept the help she is proffered” (Winsnes 124). If man is judged solely on his ability to follow the letter of the law without the hope of forgiveness for transgressions, he will inevitably be condemned. Yet God is not only just, but merciful. This is why the pagan style of worship is incompatible with a Christian theology; it posits that man in his own powers is capable of warranting rewards from the gods, and when he realizes his sinful nature, he becomes ashamed and hides from God, as Adam and Eve did in the Garden. Christianity offers something more than this; the knowledge that Christ looked upon man in his weakness and unrest and chose to convey His love in terms man can understand, in earthly sacrifice, recognizable from centuries of Jewish worship, not a transaction but a gift. Kristin encounters the truth of God as gift repeatedly throughout her life—in her father, in her children, and in the knowledge that God is with her even when she fails, for “God has helped you each time you prayed, even when you prayed with half a heart or with little faith, and He gave you much more than you asked for” (Undset 1095). Still, Kristin, like all men, continues to fall. She knows the Word and goes against it, though she tries her best to love God as He loves her; Sira Eiliv tells her, “you loved God…not as much as you loved your own will, but still enough that you always grieved when you had to part from Him” (1095). Kristin is overwhelmed by God’s mercy, and at the end of her life, the Black Plague ravaging the world around her, she again encounters the lure of paganism, revealed without the glamour of the dwarf maiden’s temptation or Erlend’s handsome features.
The setting, fittingly, is a garden, biblically charged with images both of the fall of man and of Gethsemane. The men of the village, panicked and fearing for their lives, find a child named Tore “down in the grove near the parish church at twilight,” and they decide to offer him in sacrifice to “Hel, the plague giantess,” claiming that it is better that one should die than all of them; in this time of fear, they clamor—like Ragnfrid—for control, turning away from God’s love and toward Hel’s bargains (1108, 1109). They say pragmatically that the child “belongs to no one,” but Kristin replies that “he belongs to Christ” (1111). She “[falls] to her knees, [bends] down, and [pulls] out the little boy who [is] standing in the bottom [of the pit], still complaining because there [is] earth on the good piece of [bread] he had been given” (1110). Kristin descends into the realm of Hel to rescue the life of this boy, and she recalls Fru Aashild’s talk of “sinful measures which the Devil tempt[s] desperate men to try” (1108). It is desperation and a disordered desire for control which sends men running to the perceived comfort of illusive pagan bargains. Kristin, the child in her arms, stands before the town as “the gold cross on her breast glitter[s];” she is, in this time of terror which has already sent men fleeing to their pagan roots, an emblem of Christ’s love (1111). Kristin does not owe these men anything, yet she goes to retrieve the body of Tore’s dead mother, Steinunn, that they might “believe in the mercy of God” (1113). Kristin, for the sake of the many sinners, descends into the house of the dead. This last scene of the novel is saturated with Christological imagery; Kristin, the weight of the dead lying stiff across her shoulders, ascends the slope, with Ulf Haldorsson accompanying her, and they encounter a crowd which includes “several men who had been in the cemetery earlier that night; many of them [are] weeping” (1118). As she collapses into Ulf’s arms, she wonders at the abundance of blood in her body, for she did not know how much she had to give for the glory of God until she was giving it. Kristin wakes to “the smell of vinegar,” and one of the sisters offers her a final drink (1120). She does not blame the men who pushed her to go into the plague-infested house, but she is glad that she “rescued the little boy and prevented those poor people from being burdened with such a misdeed” (1120). Kristin, as she lies dying, reminds Ulf that she has promised masses for Steinnun, and she deliberates between selling her wedding ring and her father’s gilded cross, her only two earthly possessions. She chooses, after a moment, to give away the ring. She relinquishes the symbol of her life with Erlend, her link to the transactional, and holds fast to Christ’s merciful love, as demonstrated throughout her whole life by her father.
1I use the term Christian rather than Catholic throughout this paper, despite the fact that Kristin has a very strongly Catholic worldview. It features devotions to the saints, all seven sacraments, the Eucharist, and many other traditionally Catholic hallmarks of the faith, but Kristin takes place before the Protestant Reformation, and a distinction between Catholicism and other Christian denominations was not formalized.
Lytle, Andrew. Kristin: A Reading. University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Undset, Sigrid. Kristin Lavransdatter. Translated by Tina Nunnally, Penguin Group, 2005.
Winsnes, A.H. Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism. Translated by P.G. Foote, Greenwood Press, 1970.