Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On "The Bridal Wreath" by Sigrid Undset *****

The first volume in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Bridal Wreath essentially tells of Kristin's three would-be loves. But the novel is much more than that. It is a study of medieval Norway, at a time when Christianity has only recently taken hold, when pagans still roam some areas of the country, when the Norwegians still think of themselves as Danes. And it is a story of love versus duty and faith.

Kristin grows up the daughter to two very religious parents, the first surviving offspring, after four brothers have died early on in their lives. She grows up next to a young boy named Arne, a child from a not-so-well-to-do family. Her own family is of vaguely noble birth, and her father is the kind of hard worker that good fortune comes to the family. Kristin is not a match for her friend Arne.

Instead, she is matched by her father with a kind and dutiful man named Simon. At first, she is enthused by this betrothal. But some displeasure arises when Arne expresses an interest in her. It is impossible, of course, since he is of low birth. He decides, heartbroken, to set off to foreign lands, but before he leaves, he asks that Kristin meet him one final time. This she does, to her own downfall, for on her return from the meeting place, a man decides to take advantage of her. Though she escapes her would-be rapist, her honor is compromised, the man claiming that she's done inappropriate things with Arne, and her own absence, caused by the troubles created in her escape, lend a kind of credence to his words. Simon and her father decide it is best to send her to a nunnery for a year, till the scandal dies down.

But the medieval world is full of unsavory men, and while there, Kristin has yet another run-in with another set of bad fellows, and this time she is saved by the so-called knight in shining armor, a man of noble birth who soon begins to pine for her. But his armor isn't so shiny as we soon learn. He has lived much of his youth with a married woman and fathered two children by her, and in the process he has been banished from his family and squandered most of his wealth. No matter, Kristin likes a dangerous dude and quickly falls in love.

And herein yet more complications ensue. She's already betrothed to Simon, and getting out a wedding proves not to be so easy, for it will bring dishonor to herself and to Simon and will be much to her parents economic disadvantage as well. Nevertheless, Simon agrees to let her go, much to his own hurt, hiding many of things that would ruin his betrothed's reputation. In all, Simon seems a man of great honor whose attention to duty is unfortunately rewarded by a less-savory partner in life, an older, sickly woman who struggles to give him children.

Meanwhile, Kristin works hard to convince her father to let her marry the disreputable Erland, a man who can't seems to lack all self-control and can't even manage to return the family cart in good repair. He cheats with another man's wife (he was young, his excuse) and deserts her (she's married, his excuse--only when she is freed, he fails to live up to his promise to her to marry her) in favor of Kristin. He may be a swaggering hero, but he is untrustworthy and irresponsible and likely a lot of trouble. And somehow, eventually, her father is persuaded to give Kristin to this bad man, to allow this love match to go forward, even though he suspects it will lead to much sorrow for them all.

The story ends with the reflections of her parents, in which secrets from their own parental match are exposed, calling into question not only what constitutes love but what constitutes duty.

The translation of Undset's original language reads awkwardly, in what I assume is a deliberate attempt to mimic an ancient language, and after a short bit of getting used to the tongue, it works quite well. Appendixes explain some of the traditions of the medieval Norwegian world. In all this proved a fine start to a trilogy that I'll be sore tempted to return to in order to know the future sections of the story.

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