Sigrid Undset’s The Master of Hestviken

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I had been vaguely aware of Sigrid Undset as an author for quite a long time, but hadn’t read any of her work. Some years ago I bought a collection of 5 novels entitled The Master of Hestviken, and read it early this year.

The novels are set in Norway in the 13th and 14th centuries, but are less historical novels than a psychological study. Olav and Ingunn first meet when 5 and 4 years old respectively. Olav’s father has brought him to Ingunn’s because he knows he’s going to die and wants Ingunn’s father to raise Olav, who has an inheritance of a fairly large farm. The two men spend some time drinking and say that Olav and Ingunn should marry when they’re old enough. In the meantime they’re brought up as brother and sister.

When he’s 16, and she’s 15, hormones suddenly kick in. He sees how pretty she is, the attraction is mutual, they think they’re supposed to get married anyway, and initiate a physical relationship. Of course matters quickly become more complicated. Ingunn’s father dies before they can talk to him about the possibilities of marriage, and her uncle, who takes over for her father, has other ideas. Olav tries, through a prominent priest, to get permission for the marriage, but just before this seems to be accomplished, gets into an argument, kills someone, and has to leave the country. Ingunn, her reputation damaged by no longer being a virgin, is placed with a couple of older women, one of them her grandmother, whom she helps take care of, and waits for Olav to return.

Up to this point the narrative has been focused on Olav. From here, through the end of the first novel, the focus is on Ingunn. She’s pretty, but not extremely smart (though she sometimes has insights), and is neither physically nor emotionally strong. Olav has taken service as a soldier with a relative in Denmark, and stays away almost 10 years. Ingunn is left alone with limited resources, and this takes a great toll on her. Olav comes to visit after some years, and she begs him to take her with him, but he’s not ready, though he’s still determined to marry her. After that she meets a young man she finds attractive, encourages him, though she hardly means to, and finds herself in bed with him. Worse than that, she finds herself pregnant.

This is the final blow to her self-esteem. She tries to commit suicide, but is rescued. When the baby is born she has him sent to a foster family, but remains depressed. Finally Olav comes back to Norway, having paid a fine for the killing, and still determined to marry her, but is devastated to hear that she’s been unfaithful and had a child. He fins the young man who impregnated Ingunn, and who wants to marry her, goes with him on a journey, fights with him, and kills him. He leaves the body in the isolated cabin where they had spent the night, and sets fire to the building, hoping the body will be entirely destroyed.

Then he marries Ingunn, obtains his inheritance, the estate called Hestviken, and takes her there to settle in as a farmer. This is where the second novel, The Snakepit, begins. A footnote explains that the title is a reference to the Volsung saga, on which Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas was based, in which a man is thrown into a pit full of poisonous snakes. His wife throws his harp down to him, and he’s able to charm the snakes so they don’t bite him, except for one, which bites him in the heart. That’s a powerful image, and one that well describes the second novel in the series.

At first everything seems to go well. Ingunn is happy to be at the farm, though she’s not strong enough to do the work that a farmer’s wife would be expected to do, so Olav hires a young woman to help her, one who has been orphaned and is supporting her younger brothers and sisters. Besides not being strong, Ingunn doesn’t have a lot of skills that farmer’s wives should have. She isn’t really happy, and there seems to be nothing Olav can do to help her, even though he tracks down her illegitimate son, takes him from the foster family, and acknowledges him as his heir. Ingunn, meanwhile, has been getting pregnant with some regularity, but repeatedly having miscarriages. As that process continues, her health gets worse. Neither is really happy. Nothing Olav tries can make Ingunn happy, and her unhappiness exacerbates his.  At one point, in despair, Olav has an affair with the housekeeper he’s hired, she gets pregnant, and he gives her property that she can work to support herself, her son by him, and any other family. This story gets out, of course, and doesn’t do Olav’s reputation any good. He’s known by his neighbors as being honest, just and charitable, but nobody really likes him. The unconfessed killing weighs on his mind, and he finally confesses to an older man who has helped him considerably in the past. The man urges him to make public confession, but Olav doesn’t feel he can.

Meanwhile, Ingunn finally has a son, but he’s not healthy, and dies before his first year, which doesn’t help her state of mind or body. A couple of years later she finally gives birth to a healthy daughter, who survives, but her health is now ruined. She loses the ability to walk, spendes most of her time in bed, eventually developing bedsores, and after a long time, finally passes away. Olav goes off to England as a trader, and while there has time to reflect on his behavior.

He had had some idea of Ingunn’s situation when he was out of the country, and could have come back sooner, but was enjoying his independence, travel in other countries, and his life as a soldier. He still feels guilty about his unconfessed killing, and wants to reach out to God, but again feel unable. He returns from his trip to find that some of his neighbors have suggestions about whom he ought to marry to replace Ingunn, but he feels it’s fitting for him to remain unmarried, which doesn’t help his relationship with his neighbors.

Meanwhile, his children are growing up. Ingunn’s son Olav doesn’t really like, considering him frivolous and talking too much. He spends some time with the boy, but not a lot, and finally, in his later teens, the boy runs off and enters the service of a nobleman as a soldier. This Olav can respect, and it makes him feel better about him. After several years the boy comes back home, uncertain of what he wants to do. One of his friends, whom he’s known since childhood, and with whom he served the nobleman, comes to visit, and the young man urges Olav to let him marry his sister, who is now of age. Olav has some misgivings, but agrees. Unfortunately, the friend turns out not to be good for much: he doesn’t do anything useful, runs around on his wife, and gets involved with illegal activities.

Meanwhile, Ingunn’s son has decided to opt for the religious life, and enters training to become a monk. This seems unlikely because of his previous frivolity, but he feels pretty comfortable with the life. Not comfortable enough to follow through and become a monk, though. So he comes back home to decide what else to do. His father suggests marriage, and he likes that idea, and the young woman his father has picked out, but he’s gotten involved with his brother-in-law’s illegal activity–to prevent them, but it looks otherwise–and that ends that marriage possibility. Instead, he finds a woman who has a particularly bad reputation, falls in love with her, and marries her. She had been married young to a much older man who mistreated her, so in revenge she had affairs with others. After her husband suffered a stroke and was paralyzed, she conducted the affairs in front of him. She has somehow managed to survive, and is sorry for her earlier behavior.

Subsequently the young man’s brother-in-law is murdered. At first it looks like his wife did it, but she is exonerated. Olav suffers a stroke and is partially paralyzed, unable to communicate much, and has time to consider his whole life and the mistakes he made. After his death, his son and his wife enter a monastery and convent respectively, which seems like a way for him to do what his father felt unable to do.

What I’ve written here seems incoherent, with the basic story extended to great length for reasons difficult to understand. It does extend to great length, and I think the reason is to study a whole human life, and how it can go wrong. Olav has been a strong man, but he’s applied his strength in the wrong places, and refused to do what he knows he should. He’s gotten lost, and his behavior has grievously hurt the woman he most loves. His family survives in pretty good shape, but Olav never regains his happiness.

Undset describes his unexpressed feelings clearly and passionately. A blurb on the cover says she began writing this series when she was in the midst of annulling a marriage of 13 years, and converting to Catholicism. Much of the passion in the book must be related to her feelings at that time, however disguised. She doesn’t absolutely condemn Olav, but makes it clear where he failed, and what he should have done instead. These particular novels won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but whatever their shortcomings, they are profound, the author is an extremely good writer, and the books are worth the time for anyone attracted to good writing about deep subjects.

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