Sunday, January 29, 2023


By Tim Rohr

This post is a little off the beaten "jungle" path and pretty much personal. 

For some reason I am re-reading a book (actually a collection of essays) titled THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE

I first read the book in 2010 at a time I was looking for ways to intelligently engage the same-sex union/marriage debate then raging in Guam. 

I'm not sure what made me want to read this collection of essays again, but on further thought, I believe I was prompted to do so after getting about a third of the way through the first book of the Sigrid Undset tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken.

For those who don't know, Undset (1882-1949) was a Danish-Norwegian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, the first Norwegian woman to be awarded the Prize. 

More interesting (to me) is that Undset, though raised by atheist parents, converted to Catholicism in 1924. 

And even more interesting (again, to me), is that it appears that Undset converted herself to Catholicism while still an atheist and while writing her two most famous medieval mega-sagas: Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken

Both mega-sagas, Kristin, a trilogy, and Hestivken, a tetralogy, delve deeply into medieval Catholicism shortly after Catholicism arrived in Norway at the beginning of the 2nd millennium. 

One would have to read at least Kristen to understand Undset's conversion, but that wouldn't be the reason to read it...or any of Undset's writings. 

Undset is simply a magnificent writer, and, while not a novel reader, I can tell you that not only could I not put the Kristen trilogy down, I cried at the end. 

And I cried not because of "the ending," but because I had reached the end of a truly transforming literary experience - something that had never happened to me before, at least not via a novel. 

And as long as we are on the track of "more interestingly," I - having never heard of Sigrid Undset - was "turned on" to Undset by a friend who was herself a convert to Catholicism. 

And even more and more interestingly - or perhaps serendipitous is the word - this friend, raised an atheist like Undset, converted to Catholicism in part due to her relationship with my family and specifically my wife - "whose openness to life" (we had 11 children) was a natural witness that touched our friend in the heart in a way no direct evangelization could ever effect. 

Meanwhile, ten years later, and only because I am "between things," I have finally "made" the time to get around to reading Undset's other mega-saga,  The Master of Hestviken. And once again, I cannot put it down - even though I have to read certain medievally-worded paragraphs multiple times to figure out what's going on.

In short, Hestviken is about a boy and a girl, who, as children were not only betrothed to one another by their fathers, but who grew up as foster-son and sister...and then...well let me copy the synopsis of "The Axe," Volume 1 of 4 of The Master of Hestivken:

Set in 13th-century Norway, The Axe is the first volume in Unset's epic tetralogy, The Master of Hestivken. In it, we meet Olav Audunsson and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, who were betrothed as children and raised as brother and sister. In the heedlessness of youth, they become lovers, unaware that their ardor will forge the first link in a chain of murder, exile, and disgrace. Undset's novel is also a meticulous re-creation of a world split between pagan codes of retribution and the rigors of Christian piety --- a world where law is a fragile new invention and manslaughter is so common that it's punishable by a fine. "Undset reproduces medieval Norway in all their rich pageantry of color and form...she can transport us eight centuries and several thousand mils more effectively than most writers can take us into the house next door." --- The Nation

Well, I got so into promoting Undset that I ran out of space and time as to why I began this post which was to reflect on THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE. So I will get to that later. Meanwhile, check into Sigrid Undset. I would recommend beginning with Kristen and probably the translation by Tina Nunnally. 

More later. 

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