Thursday, August 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson. I. Vows by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Nobel-prize winning Sigrid Undset is best known for her three-volume novel of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, published in 1920-1922. Less well known is her four-volume epic, The Master of Hestviken, otherwise known as Olav Audunsson. It’s also set in medieval Norway, but in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a generation before Kristin Lavransdatter.

Tiina Nunnally has undertaken a new translation of the masterwork. The first volume, Vows, was published last year.

In this superb historical novel, we meet Olav Audunsson as a boy on the verge of manhood, living with his foster family, a family headed by Steinfinn Toresson. He’s treated with a benign neglect alongside the children of the family. Steinfinn and his wife have other problems and don’t pay much attention to what the children are getting up to.

What makes Olav unique is his bond with the eldest daughter, Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter. When they were children, the two fathers betrothed them in a silly ceremony while drunk. There has been a general acceptance of the betrothal ever since, though no one takes it very seriously except the children themselves. They grow from playmates to best friends. Neither ever questions the belief that they will spend the rest of their lives together.

Olav reaches adolescence. He’s only a year older than Ingunn, but his hormones kick into gear. She adores him, trusts him completely, and is frighteningly innocent. After a critical battle in the adult world, one in which Olav takes part, there is much celebratory drinking and carousing, and Olav and Ingunn slip away and consummate their betrothal. Not a good idea.

Olav is years away from his majority. Ingunn is only about 15. Had the foster parents lived, the marriage might have been rushed ahead, validating the union. But Steinfinn dies of his battle wounds and his wife precedes him, dying rather mysteriously. Ingunn is now a ward of her uncles, who see her as too valuable to give to Olav who, though he may have property to inherit, has no important political connections. Thinking to improve his chances of gaining the bride he thinks of as rightfully his, Olav confesses to the local bishop that he and Ingunn have already slept together. Things go from bad to worse.

The two are parted for years while Olav tries to earn enough clout to claim Ingunn. The unfortunate Ingunn is shelved in a remote estate with an elderly aunt and even more elderly grandmother. It’s a frustrating existence for Olav and a stultifying one for poor Ingunn. 

The novel delves deep into the customs and beliefs of the times. It immerses the reader in the rhythms of their daily lives and the passing of years. It shows how lives are altered by unwise choices and how one mistake compounds another. And yet, through it all, there is a beauty in the love of this pair for one another. It is, according to the author, “the simple story of a man and the people who intervene in his life.” It is that, though Olav was much more active in shaping his own life than Ingunn was allowed to be. Her passivity is painful to a modern reader, but faithful to the historical reality, which makes the novel all that more compelling.

This is gorgeous, epic, old-fashioned historical fiction, in a beautifully fluid translation. I’m looking forward to continuing the saga in book 2.

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