Gunnar's Daughterby Sigrid Undset, Arthur G. Chater (Translator), Sherrill Harbison (Editor)
More than a decade before writing Kristin Lavransdatter, the trilogy about fourteenth-century Norway that won her the Nobel Prize, Sigrid Undset published Gunnar's Daughter, a brief, swiftly moving tale about a more violent period of her country's history, the Saga Age. Set in Norway and Iceland at the beginning of the eleventh century, Gunnar's/i>/i>
More than a decade before writing Kristin Lavransdatter, the trilogy about fourteenth-century Norway that won her the Nobel Prize, Sigrid Undset published Gunnar's Daughter, a brief, swiftly moving tale about a more violent period of her country's history, the Saga Age. Set in Norway and Iceland at the beginning of the eleventh century, Gunnar's Daughter is the story of the beautiful, spoiled Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, who is raped by the man she had wanted to love. A woman of courage and intelligence, Vigdis is toughened by adversity. Alone she raises the child conceived in violence, repeatedly defending her autonomy in a world governed by men. Alone she rebuilds her life and restores her family's honor until an unremitting social code propels her to take the action that again destroys her happiness.
First published in 1909, Gunnar's Daughter was in part a response to the rise of nationalism and Norway's search for a national identity in its Viking past. But unlike most of the Viking-inspired art of its period, Gunnar's Daughter is not a historical romance. It is a skillful conversation between two historical moments about questions as troublesome in Undset's own time and in ours as they were in the Saga Age: rape and revenge, civil and domestic violence, troubled marriages, and children made victims of their parents' problems.
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In this case of medieval date rape and the grim consequences which follow hard upon it, Sigrid Undset created a wonderfully literate experience using the saga 'voice'. Although I detected slippages in tone, here and there, and felt the ending too contrived and overwrought to be pure saga, I was still swept along by this book, finishing it in a single sitting. It is short, yes, but also a very compelling narrative as it details the tribulations of two would-be lovers who are too proud and self-willed for their own good or for the society in which they find themselves. As with the typical viking hero, Viga-Ljot is overly confident of his own qualities and impatient of results, while Vigdis, the maid he has set his heart on, is no less aloof and overbearing in her own way than that historical figure, Sigrid the Haughty, who so angered King Olaf Tryggvesson that he slapped her in the midst of their courtship and thereby sealed his doom. But Viga-Ljot does much worse in this tale and his fate is thus forever bound up with a woman who cannot forget or forgive him. Like Gudrun Osvif's daughter in Laxdaela Saga, Vigdis bides her time and nurses her pain but, in the end, that pain is not assuaged by the actions she takes, for it is ultimately destructive to everyone it touches. A good example of the saga form in modern literature indeed, and yet, despite the finely tuned prose of this novel, capturing the nuances and understatement of the saga voice with masterly strokes, there is an underlying stridency here, an almost emotional overreaching which is not, itself, true to the saga form. In some ways this book is too modern and its author's sensibility, at this juncture in her career, almost too young and unseasoned. Undset seems to be reaching for the tragic denouement of the Greek classics to end her tautly told tale rather than content herself with the flatly understated and finely nuanced wrap-up more appropriate to the saga form. But this Greek-like ending left me much colder than the drily tossed-off afterthought of a true saga might have done. And yet, for all that, Undset has here given us one of the best modern novels done in saga form. My hat is off to her.