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Sigrid Undset, Olaf's Way and Me

Let's not quibble over pronouns! I promised a post on how I came to embark upon a PdD with Undset for a thesis subject. This may be a boring post; or it may satisfy some readers' curiosity.


Some time ago, I decided to get away for a month to clear the cobwebs from mind and soul. Previously I had been in the habit of walking one of the Caminos de Santiago each year or two, but thought I might do something a bit different. I had heard about the medieval pilgrimage route from Oslo to the cathedral in Trondheim (Nidarosdom) that was being resurrected after pilgrimages for so long had been out of favour in reformation countries. As an aside, I think they still are, but pilgrimages are great for tourism and the economy of small villages! It seemed that Olavsveien (as it is called; the Way of St Olaf) would be quieter than the ways to the tomb of St James in Galicia.


Before I left, a friend asked me if I had read Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I had a vague recollection of the author's name, but confessed that I had read nothing by her. My friend swore that Lavransdatter was the best novel he had read and he recommended it to me heartily. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to read it before I left for Norway, and given the weight of the tome, it would have been murder to put it in my already overweight backpack. In reality, I was so engrossed in preparing for the adventure in the Norwegian wilds that I forgot about it.


Some weeks later, I found myself traversing the Gudbrandsdal, a long narrow valley that follows the broad Mjøsa river (which, as one walks northwards, narrows to form Lågen (literally, "the lake"). All along the way there were references to both Sigrid Undset and Kristin, such as the statue pictured here, at Sel, some twelve kilometres north of Otta. I spent a night in Lillehammer where Undset lived and where there is a museum in her house; but I didn't visit it as I was not yet well acquainted with her work. I even stayed at Jorensgård (the family home of young Kristin), where a medieval village was built for a film version of Lavransdatter. By the time I went to Skaun (two days walk from Trondheim), near the site of Kristin's and Erland's home, and heard from a local farmer how his father played with Undset's children, my interest had grown.


Upon my return from Norway, I finally ordered a copy of Kristin's Lavransdatter and obtained the old Charles Archer translation, which I found to be rather affected and so grating to read. Besides, Archer omitted the "steamier" parts; which in fact are not steamy at all but handled rather delicately by Undset.


Having completed my Honours degree some years ago, I always had in the back of my mind to pursue a doctorate, but neither had the time nor the subject that I believed would hold my attention for three to four years. My circumstances changed to make the study possible, and the subject presented itself. As my majors are in history and philosophy, it never occurred to me to approach Undset through the prism of literary criticism as I do not believe myself qualified to do that. Nor - I must confess, with apologies to my literary-academic brethren - do I find that particularly interesting. Further reading of Undset's non-fiction brought me to her defence of the Catholic religion. The idea came to me to approach these writings (and to wherever relevant, drawing on her novels) in relation to the four marks of the Church: unity, sanctity, catholicity and apostolicity. This is my current plan, though of course, the scope may narrow over time.


In the meantime, I have to scrub up on my Norwegian, thankfully not a particularly difficult language. Undset's very broad and descriptive vocabulary does add to the challenge, however. As I'm still in the beginning stages of the work, my current focus is the Norwegian, getting through the remaining novels and examining her essays and articles.


From both a Catholic viewpoint (I am one) and a human perspective (I have one), it is my firm belief that Undset's writings are as relevant today as in her own time - perhaps even more so, since she was in many respects quite the prophet. I thought I was tackling a niche subject, but I have been thrilled to learn that there is a quiet but passionate following of Undset, and several eminent academics are further investigating her life and writings. While I don't consider myself a career academic, I feel privileged to make a humble contribution to Undsetalia.




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Guest
Jul 30, 2022

Keep writing! I’m thrilled to read of your interest in Undset’s Catholic worldview.

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