A Masterpiece by a Nobel Winner: Sigrid Undset’s “Olav Audunssøn”

Sigrid Undset

The Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset is one of my favorite novelists–to the point that I tried to teach myself Norwegian after I read  Kristin Lavransdatter. Set in medieval Norway, this fascinating trilogy focuses on the struggles of willful, beautiful Kristin, who dumps her betrothed to marry Erlend Nikulaussøn, a charming but irresponsible knight with a bad reputation, whose neglected estate she must manage, along with yearly pregnancies and one handicapped child, and the consequences of Erlend’s radical politics (he goes to prison).

I am also a fan of Undset’s Olav Audunssøn, previously translated as The Master of Hestviken, a brilliant tetralogy set in medieval times. Somehow, this classic has been forgotten, while Kristin’s fans remain manifold.  And so I was delighted to learn that the first volume, Olav Audunssøn: I Vows, will be published by The University of Minnesota Press this fall.  The award-winning translator is Tina Nunnally.

I have an advance copy, and it seems appropriate to review it during Women in Translation Month. (Mark your calendars: the publication date of Olav Audunssøn is Nov. 10.)  The graceful prose had me spellbound from the beginning to the end. Like The Wreath, the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset’s Olav Audunssøn delineates a tragic love affair.

In Olav Audunssøn, Olav and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter are betrothed when they are children by their fathers–while their fathers are drunk. Is the betrothal real, or a joke? That is the question.  After Steinfinn Toresson’s death, the couple meets opposition to their match. Because they have had sex, they believe their relationship is a legal marriage. Ingunn’s relatives want her to make a better match.  Eventually the Bishop finds  witnesses to the betrothal and declares them married.  But an act of violence during a fight ends in Olav’s killing one of Ingunn’s kinsmen, and he goes into exile.

Olav has adventures abroad, while Ingunn suffers a brutally lonely ten years taking care of her grandmother on her aunt’s isolated estate. Ingunn goes nowhere, and sees no one.  She is loyal to Olav, but as an adult she suffers from his absence and wants to be married like other women. She becomes friendly with a young scribe who runs errands for a priest. And   Undset shows us without moralizing the different standards for the sexes.

Christianity is an important factor in Undset’s work, and I am fascinated by her descriptions of the lives of the monks and well-educated priests, the feast days and the church services, and the structure Catholicism gives to people who suffer unforgettable and unforgivable sins wrought by themselves and others.

Olav Audunssøn is a masterpiece, and I hope the University of Minnesota will publish the other books soon.

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