~ The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset ~
I read the first installment of Sigrid Undset’s three-volume Kristin Lavransdatter shortly after finishing the Saga of the Volsungs and I can’t help but wonder how the Scandinavians ever got a reputation for stoic reticence. Garrison Keillor’s cool-blooded “Norwegian bachelor farmers” are a sham. It’s one big drama club up north, from the Gulf of Bothnia to the black sand beaches of Iceland.
Writing soon after the First World War, Undset was doing something very different from her contemporaries. They worked to dismantle what was left of the traditional moral order and to “animalize” humanity, but Undset believed in the validity of that order and insisted that man was still half angel. They preached the abolition of sin and its removal from the dictionary of common usage, while Undset wrote an apologia for sin’s reality and a meditation on the complexities of grace and repentance.
Removed from its medieval setting, the basic plot of The Bridal Wreath might have been a D.H. Lawrence novel: a young woman discovers love and sex and rebels against the strictures of her elders. In such hands it would have been a drama of passion confronting the toothless ghosts of dead pruderies. The heart wants what it wants and there’s an end to it.
But Sigrid Undset, for all her realism of style, avoids that kind of adolescent appeal. She fails in sympathy neither for the weakness of the flesh nor for the soul’s more noble longings. Her characters enact a drama that is for them a real participation in the greater cosmic drama of their Christian medieval world view.