Sigrid Undset won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928, but, tragically, she seems to have been largely forgotten as an author of historical fiction. I do see her Kristin Lavransdatter books pop up on some Goodreads-lists, but Undset wrote several great novels that deserve more attention in my opinion. In The master of Hestviken, she writes beautifully of: how childhood friendship turns into love, how a marriage can survive under difficult conditions, and how children must live with the sins of their parents.
The book is set in Norway during the 12th century, just after the Viking era has ended. The Norwegians are Christians now and the land is no longer ruled by various chieftains but by one king in Bjørgvin (today called Bergen). But still the wealthy families across the forest covered country have a lot of power and blood feuds between lineages are rife. There is no such thing as villages in Norway at the time and farms lie scattered around fjords and in deep valleys. Your kin is your only protection against violence and starvation.
Ingunn and Olav are engaged to be married when they are very young children, and Olav is brought up with Ingunn’s family as a foster son. As they grow up the two fall in love, but Ingunn’s father, Steinfinn, and his kinsmen start having doubts about the match; Are there not better men, better families Ingunn could be allied to through marriage? And also, was Steinfinn not quite drunk when he made the initial deal many years ago? Everything and everyone seem to be set against Ingunn and Olav marrying, and soon their situation gets worse. I won’t spoil the details of how, but Olav is made an outlaw and must flee abroad, Ingunn is left stranded at the farm of a relative, unable and unwilling to marry anyone but the missing Olav. Their separation is both emotional and physical. Even later, when they finally can start a life together, they struggle to find that closeness they shares in their youth. Whilst Olav has been away, Ingunn has had I child with another man, although the world thinks Olav is the father. and Olav comes back hiding a terrible crime that he can never confess to and so can never have peace. This will colour their lives and that of their children.
Even though they live in a completely different time from us, Ingunn and Olav are very relatable; they feel like us today, both good and flawed. Ingunn is not a beauty and tends to fall into depression and indecision when things become difficult. And Olav is not a paragon of virtue and beauty either. He is not particularly tall, is rather distant and just cannot let an issue go. Still the two want to be together and do their best to make it work.
Undset has an uncanny way of getting into the mideival mindset. Sadly, I have never been able to go back in time and gotten to know some 12th century Norwegians, but I bet they would be like Undset describes them: torn between doing what is needed to survive in a harsh climate where you must fight for the scarce resources and being extremely aware of their own mortality and, at the same time, wanting to ensure their place in heaven in the after life. It often seems impossible for Olav and Ingunn to make the right choice either; on one hand there is the survival of their family and kin and on the other salvation in heaven.
I first read this book in its original Norwegian language when I was in secondary school, but since I am a linguist and therefore extremely geeky about stuff like this, I decided to reread it in translated English just out of curiosity. And the translation is actually pretty good: the translator has managed to keep Undset’s ability to say much with few words and has kept the elegance of her old-fashioned prose. The English version was published in four volumes: The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness and The Son Avenger, but really this is one book divided into four parts.
“The Steinfinnsons was the name folk gave to a kin that flourished in the country about the lake Mjøsen at the time the sons of Harald Gille held sway in Norway.”
Undest writes her story like a proper Norse saga. The language is elegant and minimalistic, and story is more about the inner struggles of the characters than huge action scenes. And of course, the book begin like a Norse saga with reader being informed about the stories of the characters parents and grandparents (see above) – because the family, or ætta, was everything to the Vikings. And, sadly, like the old sagas, the story does drag a bit at some points. But it is still an old classic well worth the read.