Book Review: The Cross (Kristin Lavransdatter III)

The Cross (Kristin Lavransdatter III), by Sigrid Undset

It is fair to say that I did not see the ending of this novel coming.  And, without spoilers (see below) it is fair to say that many people were likely greatly surprised to see the way that the author tied together themes of parental and family responsibility, the crisis of faith of both the fourteenth and twentieth centuries (a crisis that still continues today), as well as her own religious beliefs and ethnic identity as a Norwegian Catholic when this novel came out.  Having enjoyed The Mistress Of Husaby a great deal more than The Bridal Wreath, I can say that The Cross is the best volume of them all, and puts them all into a better context that makes this novel a highly accomplished saga of the life of one woman who goes from an attractive and somewhat heedless youth to a heroic and self-sacrificing mature woman who faces her death [1] with bravery and commendable spirit.  This novel is not a springtime novel, nor a summer novel, but a novel of autumn and the beginning of winter, where the world of the Middle Ages was disrupted for good, and where the ethical demands of Christianity and the desire to escape personal responsibility in the face of ugly realities was not an easy one for people to make.

This novel of about 400 pages is divided into three parts.  In the first part, “Kinship’s Dues,” we see the life of Kristin and her husband Erland as small folk running her ancestral estate after his lands were taken away from him for his rebellion.  We see the sort of stress that fewer resources and a refusal to accept reality has for Erland and we see him hostile to Kristin’s brother-in-law and ex-fiance Simon, a division that makes it difficult for Kristin to be loyal to both her husband and her family.  The second part of the book, “Debtors,” shows the growing to adulthood of some of Kristin’s many sons, as well as her own struggles and disagreements with Erland, who ends up leaving the family and living by himself in the wilds far from the parish, until some slanderous rumors about the paternity of Kristin’s last child drive him to hostility with his neighbors and his death at their hands.  We see more deaths as well, all of which contributes to the darkening mood.  Finally, in “The Cross,” we see Kristin’s family scattered to the winds and one of them inheriting her farm and kidnapping a young woman to be her bride, which forces some awkward and embarrassing negotiations, eventually leading Kristin to renounce the world and become a nun, which leads to a dramatic ending as the black death reaches Norway.

Having only read the three most famous and notable novels of this author, I can see how on the strength of this novel and the way it brings this series to a close how Undset won her Nobel Prize in literature and how these novels have never gone out of print.  Undset manages in this book the rare task of looking at the small and narrow concerns of a single family and even a single woman in a remote part of Norway and making her life and its ups and downs and her struggles with faith and the accidents of history resonate with larger questions that are of great relevance to the reader.  How does one age gracefully?  How does one successfully pass on one’s beliefs and practices to the next generation?  How do people cope with divided families and the desire to get ahead in the world?  How does one be courageous about one’s faith in the face of various revivals of paganism and moral dissolution?  These are all questions that many readers of Undset’s novels have faced, and if this book does not give any easy answers, it shows a moral courage that is impossible to deny and that commands our respect, while also encouraging our own example in the sagas of our own existence.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/03/03/non-book-review-environment-society-and-the-black-death/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/11/02/book-review-chaucer-1340-1400/

 

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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