Friday, November 25, 2011

In the Wilderness with Olav Audunsson

Third of the four books in The Master of Hestviken series by Sigrid Undset, In the Wilderness is a slow penultimate movement, where the strings and horns wander around for 15 minutes before breaking out into a thunderous finale.

The wilderness wandered by our hero, Olav Audunsson, is mostly internal, although he does make a brief trading foray to England, where he gets lost in a forest. But most of the action takes place at home, Hestviken, the ancestral estate on the Olsofjord in Norway that he has let run down while his suffering and tally of sins rise. Alone after his wife’s long wasting illness, he finds that he has violated every law of man and God. Now he has given up on God—although I suspect that God has not given up on him. (Will there be a “thunderous finale”?)

Olav is a father every which way but happy.

Olav has an illegitimate child, Bjorn, whom he fathered with a good serving woman, but Bjorn lives across the fjord and is not part of Olav’s life.

Olav has an adopted daughter, Bothild, whom he generously took into his household when her mother died.

Olav is the grudging stepfather to Eirik, whom his wife, Ingunn, conceived by a wandering Icelander before she and Olav were married. Olav has tried to pass off Eirik as his own, but neither the neighbors nor his heart have bought into the lie. By the end of In the Wilderness Olav and Eirik are estranged.

Olav has one legitimate child, a daughter, Cecilia Olavsdatter. Sorry, ladies, this is 14th-century Norway, a man wants a son, and Olav wants an Olavsson. Now past “forty winters,” he is probably past the time for this too.

(Note to anyone who might read this series: My write-up may seem crammed with spoilers, but the strongest plot twists in Sigrid Undset’s work are twists of the soul. These are her greatness, and I cannot spoil them.)

This constellation of children around a dissatisfied father—foster, step, illegitimate, and legitimate—provides exceptional food for thought about what we call today the traditional family. To what extent is Olav’s soul-sickness the result of his family mess and his own domestic failings—including disloyalty to Ingunn, and a nasty family murder?

It would be easy for a modern skeptic to dismiss Undset as irrelevant to today’s “broad-minded” world, with its same-sex marriages, in vitro fertilization, and humanitarian adoption agencies that bring children halfway around the world to give parents offspring that they could very well provide themselves. But her greatness, as I said, is in the twists of her character’s inner lives, and these are so vividly, realistically portrayed that the result is anything but a moralism. Olav’s life has not failed because he had a child out of wedlock or because his only possible male heir, Eirik, is a kind of living lie. But these things are inextricably entwined in his heart. They cannot be tweezed out, so as to leave the “real problem” behind.

I told Katie about Olav’s family constellation and she had a series of simple questions: What about the children? What’s their experience? Do they feel loved? That’s what a child needs, she said, to feel loved by a father and a mother.

Like many of Katie’s observations, this brought me up short. The Master of Hestviken is a “man’s series,” the way Kristin Lavransdatter is a woman’s—and I continually identify with Olav. I wander by his side and feel his pain. But what about the children?

In his suffering and loneliness and failure of faith, Olav forgets about the children and their experience. He particularly fails to provide love for the two children closest to him, Eirik and Cecilia. To Eirik, he is a moody, demanding, uneven role model and mentor; to Cecilia, his only legitimate child but female, he is distant. Meanwhile, he yearns for his “own” son across the fjord and is often more loving to Bothild than to his biological daughter, Cecilia.

As the fourth book opens, Cecilia falls in love and Eirik returns home. Will these two underappreciated, underloved children be Olav’s final downfall? Katie might be right. Stay tuned.


  1. The Master of Hestviken is Sigrid Undset's greatest work. I welcome your thoughts -- just happened upon them today (Dec.30), but hope you'll follow up with more.

    He became GOOD, and completely misunderstood and unable to defend himself. I simply love Olav Audunsson.

    Have you finished the last book yet?

  2. Thanks, Amy. Yes, I have finished the Master. Search on Undset in the left sidebar for other stuff I've written. As an old would-be professional actor, I am intrigued with the idea of a one-man show on Olaf in old age.


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