Saturday, April 27, 2019

Sigrid Undset, Gunnar's Daughter


Opening Passage:

Verlide Glumsson was the name of a man from the East Fjords in Iceland. He saild often on trading voyages in summer.

His nephew's name was Ljot. He was the son of Gissur Hauksson of Skomedal, who was killed while Ljot was a child. Veterlide took up the suit for Gissur's laying and bore it with great honour; that is beside our story. Lyot's mother's name was Steinvor; she died young. Ljot was reared by Torbørn Haalegg of Eyre; afterwards he dwelt with Verlide, who loved him as his own son. (p. 1)

Summary: Love betrayed fuels the hottest hate.

Vigdis Gunnarsdatter and Ljot Gissursson fall in love with each other from almost the first moment they meet. But she is obstinate and proud, and he is impetuous and imprudent, and the combination of the two will spell ruin for their relationship. Ljot intends to marry Vigdis, but he quickly becomes jealous of Kaare of Grefsin, who also clearly intends to marry Vigdis, and may have more influence with her father. In jealousy he will do things that cannot be recalled, and the gravest of these will be when he rapes her before he is to head out on a long trip. She becomes pregnant, and when the child is born, she leaves it exposed in the forest. She will soon experience remorse over that, and fortunately for her the child was saved by others; she will eventually call him Ulvar. Of his father she will tell him very little except that, if he ever sought him out, he would have the responsibility to bring his father's head to her.

Undset is effectively writing a modern saga, and she has the tone and style down; it is very reminiscent of Njal's Saga, with its bland plainspokenness covering a dry, ironic sharpness. It is short and easy to read.

It is also very melancholy, of a love that could have been that yet spoiled in the bloom, in ways that neither Vigdis nor Ljot can ever overcome. As I noted in the Introduction, and as is suggested by the exposure of infants as a standard practice, it is a pagan world. Christianity is making slow inroads, but it is all very limited. Christianity is throughout almost like a rumor of a rumor. Even the Christian king, Olav Trygvesson, in many ways almost saintly, has a very loose interpretation of how Christian morals apply to some features of Scandinavian life. Vigdis is raised pagan; she converts to Christianity because King Olav is the first man to be truly good to her, and it's sincere enough, but beyond her supporting some churches it plays relatively little role in her life. Ljot was baptized a Christian from birth, but knows practically nothing about it, with the exception that, later in life when his child by another wife is born deformed, he refuses to expose the child on the bare ground that it is not what Christians do.

This latter, however, is not a minor thing; it shows, perhaps, how much Ljot has changed, but it also is sharp, bright line in the story. It is pagan mercy to kill a crippled infant, but it is Christian mercy to raise it. Between the two there is a very large gap. Undset published the book in 1909. Eugenics was increasingly the progressive thing. Norway's greatest literary hero, Knut Hamsun, a candidate for being the greatest novelist of his day, was insisting that there is no God, only gods, understood in a somewhat pantheistic way; that superior races must remain pure; that defective children should be killed. All for the greater good, of course. And he was, if anything, one of the mild ones, at this early period, at least. It is not, I think, accidental, that the exposure of infants, and the gap between pagan and Christian views of it, is a recurring theme in the work. Gunnar's Daughter comes from a period in which Undset had no commitment to Christianity, being an agnostic and skeptical cultural Lutheran in the way many Scandinavians are. But there's no doubt that even at this period she was unsettled by the return of some of the more savage aspects of paganism.

And for the same reason it perhaps continues to have something to say today to a society that prides itself on its great and extraordinary moral progress, no longer engaging in the barbarism of exposing infants on hilltops and in forests to be eaten by wolves and ants, having discovered instead, by great and benevolent efforts, the clean and clever legalistic nicety of ripping them apart while they are still in the womb.

Favorite Passage:

Uspak said after a pause:

"He is no longer in Iceland, Ljot; I have been told he left that country many years ago--his wife and children died."

"Was he a friend of yours?" asked Ulvar.

"No," said Uspak. "He was no better a friend to me than to your mother." (p. 135)

Recommendation: Recommended, but you have to be in the mood for Nordic melancholy.


Sigrid Undset, Gunnar's Daughter, Chater, tr., Penguin Books (New York: 1998).

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