A favorite parlor game of mine is to ask literary-minded friends to name important works of fiction which not only have mothers as primary characters, but feature rich explorations of motherhood. If the topic were otherwise—What works from the canon feature meditations on death? Explorations of romantic love? Or even fatherhood?—I am sure my query would yield better results. As it is, friends are usually stumped. Those who have read Kristin Lavransdatter, the epic trilogy by Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset, name it with satisfaction. Undset deftly depicts all the love, ambivalence, anxiety, nostalgia, pain, and spiritual significance of motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter.
The story follows the irresistible and impossibly willful character of Kristin through most of her days in fourteenth-century Norway, first as a young girl enjoying bread, butter, dried reindeer, and mead in sunny alpine meadows with her father; then through her thrilling first encounters with the love of her life, the beguiling Erlend Nikulausson, during which Undset precisely renders the romantic heart of a teenage girl; and finally through Kristin’s adulthood as a brooding but hardworking mistress of a household and mother of many sons.
Kristin Lavransdatter is set squarely within the sphere of women. From looms and birthing houses, to themes of motherhood and daughterhood, the reader is immersed in the feminine. Yet, Undset’s depiction of the sphere of women indulges in none of the clichés which pervade contemporary fiction about women’s lives, instead it is dignified and thoughtful. And refreshing, as well, since stepping outside the familiar bounds of masculine settings and themes which dominate the canon of world literature is invigorating for all readers, men and women alike.
Among the feminine themes in Kristin, motherhood is dominant. Nearly two thirds of the thousand-page trilogy recounts Kristin’s life as a mother, with the full spectrum of mothering detailed: Undset shows Kristin as a young nursing mother of infants, convinced that the estate priest is the only adult in the house with any sense because he alone will speculate endlessly about important matters, like whether the baby is teething or what color his hair will turn out to be. Later, Kristin frets over her rowdy adolescent sons, who are quick to use their fists on each other and to flirt with the servant girls behind the smithy. As time passes, Kristin experiences comity with her adult sons, the sort of harmony which comes about only when they are mature and Kristin accepts their manhood.
Undset compellingly presents the material challenges of motherhood amid accurate and well-rendered historical detail: the difficulty of concealing a pregnancy as Kristin struggles with first trimester nausea while feeding leftover mash from ale-brewing to the pigs, the relief of breastfeeding her infant from engorged breasts after a twenty-mile barefoot pilgrimage to St Olav’s Cathedral, and the joy of cuddling with small children in a freshly-made, hay-stuffed bed in the manor.
The portrayal of motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter, however, is not confined to mundane matters. Kristin’s is the reflective mind of a devoutly Christian mother, who regularly contemplates the spiritual significance of her maternity. Gazing at her firstborn son, Naakve, who was conceived before she and Erlend were married, Kristin contemplates: “Conceived in sin. Carried under her hard, evil heart. Pulled out of her sin-tainted body, so pure, so healthy, so inexpressibly lovely and fresh and innocent. This 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.” Kristin is struck by the contrast between the sweet purity of her child and the darkness of her own adult heart; this contrast allows her to recognize and appreciate the “undeserved beneficence” that is one’s child.
Kristin’s is one of many stories of premature maternity in the novel, all of which occur within the rigid expectations of a medieval society. Yet, because of the recent Christianization of Norway, the rules of courtship and marriage are more than just feudal customs: They offer the collective means by which to safely usher the expectant mother and father into the sacred state of matrimony, and to, hopefully, heal the wounds of individual sin.
Kristin Lavransdatter illustrates the value of such shared ideals of marriage and parenting amid realistically sloppy lives. David Bovenizer notes that Kristin “is a story true to the whole of life in a society aware of (if not, of course—for none is—perfectly conformed to) the mysterious relationship of all creatures one to the other, of the troubled (by sin) relationship of man and God, and of the poignancy of the human pilgrimage from time unto eternity, and that an eternity of either redemption or doom. In times past, such a society existed, and it was called Christendom.”
In our own era, when many are tempted to fabricate a golden age in which everyone lived a uniformly Christian life, Kristin Lavransdatter serves as a corrective, a reminder that a perfectly Christian time never was; that passions and imperfection are rampant across time and space. Yet still, the tale stands as a vision of something to be remembered, mourned, and aimed for: a world in which “the mysterious relationship of all creatures one to the other” is at the forefront of the collective consciousness.
Kristin defines herself by her motherhood; she understands it as her life’s purpose. From the moment she carries her first son “under her heart,” she works to secure her children’s future. Kristin does not just work, she toils for their betterment: She is constantly milking cows, picking herbs, planning new fields of flax, and sewing clothes for the next son to be born. Kristin believes that “everything that was in her possession lawfully belonged to her sons. They lawfully owned her sweat and blood and all her strength.”
Yet, Kristin is not a one-dimensional character whose every decision is in tune with her devotion to her children. She has moments of great ambivalence and distraction. Indeed, there are ironic moments when her absorption in her work for her family leads her to ignore the children themselves. In one scene, her young sons Lavrans and Munan ask her a question while she is picking medicinal herbs for their benefit, but it takes her a long time to answer: “She replied so much later that by that time they had forgotten what they had asked, But this didn’t bother them; they were used to the way their mother seemed not to listen when they spoke to her or the way she would wake up and give an answer after they had long forgotten their own question.” Kristin’s motherhood is so vivid because even though she is ferociously devoted to mothering, she is an imperfect mother. Undset has crafted a real mother who loves intensely, fails spectacularly, and reads completely convincingly.
It is through reflection on her own experience of motherhood that Kristin is able to understand her parents’ love for her. After a decade of motherhood she considers the character of her parents’ love: “That love had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep; while the love she gave them in return was weak and thoughtless and selfish, even back in childhood when her parents were her whole world.” Kristin realizes that even though she loved her parents, her love for them did not approach the love they had for her, and that she now feels this same “strong and wide” love for her own children. Through her maternal meditation, Kristin understands that she belongs to a lineage of love linking her children, herself, her parents, and all of humanity back to God’s “unfathomably deep” parental love.
The most enduring and important quality of motherhood illustrated in Kristin Lavransdatter is the portrayal of motherhood as something which, when taken seriously, is spiritually formative for a woman. In the case of Kristin, being a mother shapes her very soul; she is marked deeply and mysteriously by this office of motherhood, and the relentless toil of motherhood is the prototype of her salvific labor. The seal of motherhood as a holy endeavor is shown perfectly in the final scenes where Kristin’s heroically Christian actions are also profoundly maternal.
Through such a deep and long portrait of one flawed yet devout Christian mother, the reader is reminded of true piety—the constant turning towards God even in the aftershocks of grievous failure and sin—and the ever present possibility of redemption. Of the many wonderful qualities of Kristin Lavransdatter, one is that it can be read as a thousand-some page answer to the question, what is motherhood for? The answer is salvation.
Carrie Frederick Frost is a scholar of Orthodox theology who lives with her husband and five children in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is on a personal mission to get bookish people of all ages to read Kristin Lavransdatter, and she hopes you will join the ranks of Kristin converts.