Undset: The Master of Hestviken

November 26, 2013

The Master of Hestviken
The Axe; The Snake Pit;
In the Wilderness; The Son Avenger

Sigrid Undset
[Translated from the Norwegian by Arthur G. Chater]
(A.A. Knopf, 1958) [1925-27]
994 p.

“A man’s faith is put to the test on the day God’s will is not his.”

“…whoso is minded to do as he himself wills will soon enough see the day when he will find he has done that which he had never willed.”

It has now been well over a year since I finished reading this great tetralogy. I have been putting off writing about it until I could find time and space to write something that would “do it justice”. But it is fairly evident that that time and space are not going to be found anytime in the near future or in this neighbourhood, so here I am, resigned to pecking out something inadequate but appreciative. Some spoilers follow.

The books tell the life story of Olav Audunssøn, a fourteenth-century Norwegian landowner. Olav is a Catholic, and much of the drama of the story is driven by the conflict between the moral vision of the Church, rooted in mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, and the traditional moral vision of the Scandanavian people, rooted in honour, reputation, and vengeance. Olav feels the demands of both moral systems in a very acute way, and he is crushed at the place where they press against one another.

In the first volume of the tetralogy Olav commits a murder. It is done for the best of reasons, so to speak, in order to defend his wife’s honour (and his own), and he does it without anyone knowing, or even suspecting, that anyone has died. He gets away with it, and he must keep it secret — not so much for civil reasons, for according to the honour code the murder was defensible, but because he cannot reveal his motive without revealing the shameful secret which the murder was committed to avenge.

Yet Olav’s conscience torments him, and his unwillingness to repent begins to harden his heart. His unwillingness to confess begins to disrupt his relationship to the Church. He twists and turns, rationalizing his acts. All the while he senses that Christ pursues him, offering grace which Olav refuses. “I thought I could not live if another had stained my honour and I let it go unavenged,” he says. “I thought it easier to live besmirched if I myself had stained my honour — so long as none knew of the stain. For such a cause as this I turned Judas against my Lord, armed me with the hardest sins, if but they might be hard enough to weigh upon my weakness like an armour.” The heart of the story, across all four books, is about how this internal struggle plays out. It is told with nuance and sensitivity, moral wisdom, and, I am convinced, love for Olav and sympathy with his predicament, in which he must suffer if he does not confess, yet also suffer — and not just him, but his family also — if he does.

Olav lives a long and eventful life; we travel with him to England on a commercial venture, and he joins his countrymen in a war against invading Danes. He is, in many significant respects, a good man: respected, magnanimous, protective and supportive of his family, willing to suffer for the good of others. Everything he does and sees is absorbed by his inner turmoil, casting it in new light or new shadow. He has moments of spiritual clarity (“But now he tardily understood that then he must choose, not between God and this or that upon earth, not even his worldly life, but between God and himself.”) but his general trajectory is one of growing hardness and reluctant resistance to grace. “His soul was grey and cold as a corpse,” we are told in the final volume. Yet Olav’s God is one who can raise even a corpse to new life. The offer of mercy is never foreclosed.

After his death, his son and daughter, even after learning of the great sin which had cast its long shadow over this life, call him “an upright man” for all the steady good he did them throughout his life. And he did more than they knew.


Readers of Undset’s more famous Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy might be amused to learn that Kristen’s parents make a brief appearance in these books. The two stories are quite closely related, and are, I am tempted to say, of comparable stature as literary achievements. I expect that her Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded chiefly on the strength of these two books. This English translation of The Master of Hestviken, by Arthur G. Chater, is serviceable; early in the first volume it is unpalatably sweet and somewhat stilted in its efforts to sound antiquated, but it improves as it goes. It is highly recommended nonetheless; there are no other options.

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