Undset, Sigrid

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Undset, Sigrid

Undset, Sigrid (1882-1949) Danish- Norwegian novelist and polemist

A feminist writer, lecturer, and translator, Sigrid Undset reprised details from the medieval Danish Empire. According to her autobiography, Elleve Aar (The Longest Years, 1934), she learned folk narrative in her native Kalundborg, Denmark, and mastered two defunct Scandic languages, Old Danish and Old Icelandic. The invalidism of her archeologist father, Ingvald Undset, and his death from malaria in 1893 depleted family finances and ended her plans to attend a university. With certification from Christiana Commercial College, she worked in the office of a German electrical engineer while extending her knowledge of world fiction by reading such works as the Icelandic Njals Saga (ca. 1250), medieval German CRUSADER LORE, and SNORRI STURLUSON’S Teutonic Heimskringla (Orb of the world, 1220) as well as the fiction of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and the Scandinavian playwrights Heinrich Ibsen and August Strindberg.

On a government scholarship, Undset traveled through Germany and Italy and published Gunnar’s Daughter (1909), a feminist historical novel set during the 10th-century expansionism of Olaf I of Norway and Iceland. The text depicts the andro- centrism of Scandic rule in state, church, and clan, an exaltation of machismo that disempowers and discounts females. The heroine, Vigdis, describes the male egoism that dates to the Viking era: “My father believes in nothing but his own power and strength, nor had my grandfather any other faith” (Undset 1998, 7). Using parallel themes and motifs, Undset created a three -volume masterwork, Kristin Lavransdatter, comprised of Kransen (The Bridal Wreath, 1920), Husfrue (The Wife, 1921), and Korset (The Cross, 1922), set during early 14th-century Norwegian feudalism. The trilogy, a diatribe against patriarchal marriage, pits the title character against her promiscuous mate, the knight Erlend Nikulausspn. She describes the feudal customs of King Haakon the Old, who awarded Kristin’s father the manor of Skog, the family estate. Competitive Norwegians serve royalty and vie for positions at court, the height of ignoble ambition according to STORYTELLING about Nordic history.

Undset structures action to reflect on the faults of imperialism. In the second volume, scandal ballads recall a military traitor who was hanged for selling out Haakon’s forces for seven barrels of gold. A more pressing contretemps involves King Magnus’s bankruptcy while trying to gain control of Skaane, Sweden. In Kristin’s search for salvation in the last volume, she rejoices in the selection of a monarch who does more than “[squander] his time, energies, and the wealth of the kingdom on incursion in other lands” (Undset 2001, 306). She regrets the “wicked and turbulent times that had descended upon the realm after the death of blessed King Haakon” (385), when nobles abandoned religion. The motif of the “good old days” reflects not only a shift away from imperialism but also Kristin’s advancing age and inability to cope with modernity.

Undset followed Kristin Lavransdatter with a tetralogy of medieval Norway, Olav Audunss0n (The Master of Hestviken, 1925-27), which won her the 1928 Nobel Prize in literature. The narrative features the political maneuvering between Denmark and Norway over Iceland.

The War Years

The Nazi occupation of Undset's home in Oslo on April 9, 1940, and the combat death of her son Anders in World War II induced her to support the Resistance and to spy for the U.S. government. Her anger at the onset of World War II repudiates Adolf Hitler's self-glorification in MEIN KAMPF (1925-1926), an apologia for racism and for his fantasy of a master race. Before fleeing by trawler across Sweden to Siberia, Japan, and San Francisco, she composed Tillbake til Fremtiden (Return to the Future, 1942), a wartime memoir suppressed during Josef Stalin's tyranny in Russia. At the sight of Siberians forced into beggary, she shuddered at the effects of rickets on undernourished children, who peddled raspberries and blueberries at the depots: “From out their rags protruded ugly chickenbreasts and the rows of knobs in crooked, humped backbones. Legs and arms like matches, with large knobby joints” (Undset 1942, 135). Her eyewitness account reveals random arrests of foreigners, particularly those foolish enough to photograph military terrain.

Undset's anti-German polemic begins with a recall of Norway's stone borders, “silent witnesses of our right to this land which our forefathers for more than two thousand years have toiled to conquer so that homes for man could be built” (2). She honors Viking oarsmen as Norwegian farmboys are put to the test. The memoir catalogs disbelief and panic as Nazi invaders entered Oslo, German ships seized major ports, and Luftwaffe bombers loomed overhead in blatant intimidation of noncombatants. She outlines the shrewdness of the Wehrmacht general Richard Pellengahr, who ordered confiscation of every vehicle, sled, and pair of skis in Norway as a form of house arrest. Of his forces, she regards their robotic predations as a testimonial to the “legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin” (224) and proof that the goodhearted- ness of the Hohenzollern era was absent from the Panzer divisions.

At the same time that Undset noted international concerns that Germans were, by nature, evil megalomaniacs, she strove to preserve global fairness and good memories of her motherland. She joined the American Commission for the Protection and Saving of Historical and Artistic Documents, an international effort to rescue irreplaceable writings from Hitler's bonfires. At the request of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, at the war's height, Undset wrote Lykkelige Dager (Happy Times in Norway, 1942), an introduction to life with her children at Bjerkebaek in Lillehammer, Norway, before the German occupation. King Haakon VII awarded the author the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav in 1947, both for her patriotism and her literary work. She died in Lillehammer on June 10, 1949. In 1995, the Norwegian actress Liv Ullman directed the film version of Kristin Lavransdatter.


Stone, Harry. Writing in the Shadow: Resistance

Publications in Occupied Europe. New York:

Routledge, 1996.

Undset, Sigrid. Gunnar’s Daughter. Translated by Arthur G. Chater. New York: Penguin, 1998.

------- . Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross. Translated by

Tiina Nunnally. New York: Penguin, 2001.

------- . Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife. Translated by

Tiina Nunnally. New York: Penguin, 1999.

------- . Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath. Translated by

Tiina Nunnally. New York: Penguin, 1997.

------- . Return to the Future. Translated by Henriette C.

K. Naeseth. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1942.