Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why The Master Matters

We are family, every single not-so-solitary one of us. We are both father and son, both mother and daughter. If life has its full way with us, this is what we become: not one nor the other but both—child and parent—twin pilings holding up the bridge of generations.

I carry my father and mother within me just as surely as I carried my beloved daughters in my arms. And when a man dies, he becomes a child again, in the presence of his children. I saw this at my father’s deathbed.

This notion of the-family-as-I lies near the heart of Sigrid Undset’s great series The Master of Hestviken and may help explain why it is so moving—in ways that even Undset’s brilliant Kristin Lavransdatter is not quite. I am not alone in thinking so.

According to independent scholar Stephen Sparrow, “Undset considered [The Master of Hestviken] superior to Kristin and the German Jewish Carmelite nun and philosopher Edith Stein (canonized in 1998) never tired of recommending it to any young female student whom she thought lacked a firm grip on reality.”

Or as my friend Suzanne said of The Master in an e-mail this evening, “And btw, WOMEN (like me) love it too!!”

It is easy to see a simple distinction between these two Norwegian epics: Kristin is a woman’s story, Master a man’s. Otherwise, they are so similar. Each series (three books in one case, four in the other) takes up life in 13th- and 14th-century Norway when pagan culture was giving way grudgingly to Christian culture, a time when family—not the Norse gods nor the Christian One—provided the ultimate ethical backdrop. Both series end in the time of the Black Death, circa 1350.

But something more than gender differentiates the two series. In comparison with Master, Kristin is relatively one-dimensional, following a single human being, who happens to be female, through a single human life. (Though what a life!) The point of view in the three books forming the Kristin trilogy—The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross—is usually hers. The point of view of The Master of Hestviken and its four books—The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger—shifts repeatedly. It begins as double, then doubles again. 

The Axe establishes multiple perspectives by dividing neatly into two halves: “Olav Audunsson” and “Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter.” These two characters are the Adam and Eve of Undset’s troubled paradise along the Oslofjord. The Axe tells half its story from Olav’s point of view, half from Ingunn’s after Olav has left the scene and gone to battle.

But after Ingunn dies midway through the series, the POV shifts from husband-and-wife to father-and-son. The son Eirik becomes the other “I” of the saga, the other half of his father’s “we.” As Olav nears death at the conclusion of The Son Avenger, we jump back and forth between the father’s heart and the son’s.

Then comes the ending itself—so hard to explain without spoilers. Let me say only that in the case of Olav Audunsson and his son Eirik Olavsson, each helps serve the other’s redemption. God matters—oh, does He matter—but we fathers and sons need each other as well.

Daughters too. At the conclusion of The Master of Hestviken, with mother Ingunn long dead, three unforgettable characters gather: father Olav, son Eirik, and daughter Cecilia. The salvation of each is bound up with that of the others.

And then there’s God.

(Note: The photo illustrating this post shows Undset, center, with her own family in Oslo in 1928, the year she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. At her moment of greatest indiviudal achievement, she was with them.)

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