The Master of Hestviken: Whoa.

Dang! Almost 200 people joining Jen in blogging every day this week. I wonder how that translates into square footage of unmopped floors or baskets of laundry…. 🙂

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Much, much later than I anticipated (was Felix a newborn when I started…? It’s possible), I finally finished Sigrid Undset’s The Master of Hestviken tetralogy. The Axe (The Master of Hestviken, #1)There’s so much to ruminate on in these 1,000+ pages of Olav Audunsson’s life in 13th-century Norway, but since a) it’s been so long since I started, the first three books are a little fuzzy and b) I actually want to post today …. I’ll try to keep it brief.

Ahem. Some main takeaways, with maybe minor spoilers, though probably nothing beyond what you’d get by reading the back of the books:

1. I know motherhood is a strong theme in Kristen Lavransdatter, but I think I pulled away something broader when I finished Undset’s Nobel Prize-winning trilogy: the cycle of mercy, sin and redemption that carries on through our entire life, and is never a one-stop conversion experience that solves all our problems. Kristen’s motherhood is definitely part of this cycle (especially when her firstborn is conceived out of wedlock), but also her daughterhood — her relationship with her saintly father, and her relationship with God.

The Master of Hestviken brings out these themes again — applied to a man’s life, of course — but it’s darker. Because while Kristen keeps striving, however painfully at times, to rise again each time she falls into sin, the vast majority of Hestviken‘s four books is about Olav’s literal rejection of mercy: he refuses to confess the secret murder of his wife’s former lover. And while things certainly get dark for Kristen as she finds not only herself, but her husband and children, spiraling out of control because of what sin sets in motion, it’s nothing compared to the hellish despair that awaits Olav and manifests itself throughout the books.

2. So, on that happy note, I’d love to hear a man’s thoughts on the series. Unfortunately, the one English translation is kind of clunky (and how this edition gets away with not translating any of the Latin is beyond me), but there are still exquisite, quintessential-Undset passages that simply soar. This struck me early in the first book, as it dawns on teenage Olav that he’s transitioning from eldest-boy-on-the-manor to, well, manhood. This realization, coupled with his new awareness — in the deepest sense — of his foster father’s daughter, to whom he’s been betrothed since childhood, is described so keenly, it’s almost eerie coming from a woman.

3. I also think anyone in love with Catholic liturgy (you know who you are, slim readership of this blog) would also appreciate the role of the Church — and specifically, its liturgies — in Olav’s world. Each time a character enters into a church for Mass, or vespers, or another communal prayer; or is present for someone’s Last Rites (it’s medieval Norway, right, they happen a lot :-o); or in some other way takes part in the life of the Church — you get the sense that everyone there is present to something much greater than themselves or their own stories. That even as Olav’s inner turmoil is racking him as he stands in an unfinished church, the crucifix in front of him and the prayers around him speak of an even greater drama that encompasses his own. The people coming to Mass are present to it, they take part in it, and they receive grace from it … but it’s not about them, and they don’t expect it to be, because everyone seems to almost take for granted that these centuries-old prayers and traditions are immovable for a reason.

Heddal Stave Church, via Wikimedia Commons. I just spent 15 min. clicking through incredible pictures of stave churches, and have convinced myself that we should go to Norway. (Next WONC? 😉

4. The Master of Hestviken was long, very very very very long, and especially since a good part of it was about Olav’s inner conflict, I felt that maybe Undset — dare I say — dragged it out juuuust a tad more than necessary. And it was dark. And by the fourth book I just wanted it to end. And yet, passages like this (and also one final, searing description of conversion and redemption that made me stop reading and just think, My God…) made it all so worth it:

The crag that rose behind the line of outhouses seemed to stand out vaster and more immovable now that it was bathed in the late yellow sunlight. The firs shone with their hard red trunks and branches washed light after the winter’s snow, and above was the burning blue vault of heaven. Eirik thought that never before had he seen so plainly how infinitely deep was the ocean of sky, and against this depth the firm rock was more rock and the firs were more intensely firs than he had ever guessed before. The wakeful Eye that watched over all rested upon every single one of the midges that danced before him in the air and knew every pulse-beat in his body. And in the likeness of the bread He came, borne by the priest on the great horse that was now mounting the hill by the barn, to give Himself as food for His own.

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3 thoughts on “The Master of Hestviken: Whoa.

  1. There are too many books to read! I will read this some day! I hope you do post everyday this week. I like your posts! 🙂

    P.S. That is a beautiful passage, but all I could think of when it got to “the wakeful Eye” was Sauron…

  2. I am reading this now. Have arrived at volume three, In the Wilderness. It is certainly an impressive work, but, for ME at least much less appealing than the Kristin trilogy. Olav has got to be one of the most irritating characters in literature. Every time he starts to do something sensible, he thinks better of it. Or doesn’t thin.k, actually, just falls back into. His usual depressive state. His best chance at happiness would have been to marry Torhild. As soon as possible after Irgunn (another depressed and depressing character) died. So Torhildd was of a lesser social class — people would have talked for a while. So What, Olav prides himself on not really caring. As for the killing of Teit — so what, nobody seems top mind in medieval Norway very much about the occasional killing, and when it”s your wife’s lover most folks would have probably seen it as justified. His atonement price (especially sine it was some wandering Icelander of moo great account) would probably have been minimal.
    So instead Olsv makes himself and everybody. Around him miserable. For four thick volumes.

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