Sigrid Undset: Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken 2 (The Snake Pit; later: Olav Audunssøn. 2. Providence)
This is the second book in Sigrid Undset’s tetralogy about Olav Audunssøn, set in medieval Norway. In the previous book, we left Olav in a not very happy state. He has just returned to Norway, after years of exile. He is separated from Ungunn, the woman he loves. He has paid his blood money for killing Einar so is not too well off.
He returns to his estate at Hestviken and finds it in poor condition. During his absence, it had been looked after by a relative, Olav Ingolfssøn. Olav had tried his best but had not done a particularly good job, not helped by the fact that he has an injured leg. (We get the full story later.)
It was many years since Olav Audunssøn was last at Hestviken and he had remembered it differently. He lost some of his land, which had to be sold to pay his blood money. His ships had been confiscated. He now wants to restore his shipping.
He also feels remorse for killing Einar and is clearly becoming a more mature adult. He also learns that his family had not behaved well, particularly a man called Torgills.
When Ingunn tries to kill herself, he makes the decision to bring her to Hestviken. However, things are not as smooth as they might be. She finds him rougher and more tempestuous than he used to be. He finds her more unhappy, which is perhaps not surprising. She struggles with managing the household.
However, as we know from the previous book, they both have a past which they try to repress but cannot. The past is Eirik and Teit. Teit was an Icelander. He visited Ingunn’s family when Olav was away. She had no idea where Olav was or whether he was going to return. They had a quick fling, which resulted in Eirik, disgrace for Ingunn and Teit’s premature death at the hand of Olav, when he did return. Olav continues to feel guilty, while Ingunn does as well but she also misses Eirik, who has been placed with foster parents. This incident will cast a shadow over their marriage and, indeed, the whole book.
Matters are made worse when Ingunn has a series of miscarriages. Eventually, without Olav’s knowledge, she goes to visit Eirik, who is shy and wild and runs away from her. However, to please ingunn, Olav adopts him, claiming he was the father, and he is brought up as their child. However, while Eirik worships the man he now considers his father, Olav is not too pleased with his behaviour. Eirik is unruly, lives in a fantasy world with imaginary playmates and frequently tells lies. Ingunn supports Olav’s criticism of Eirik in front of Olav but when Olav is not there, she indulges him.
While all this is going on, we are learning much more of the back story of Olav’s family which inevitably turns out to be more complicated and, indeed, messier than he and we knew.
A long shadow remains over the marriage and the household. Olav and Ingunn seems to have many differences, they both feel guilty for what happened in the past and both have not recovered from the traumatic events which led to Olav’s absence. It is not only with his wife that Olav has problems. He generally does not seem to get on with the locals. He is polite but offhand and distant and they are aware of this and resent it.
Things do not get much better, even when Ingunn finally gives birth to a healthy child, a daughter. Eirik himself does not fully understand why his mother and (adoptive) father behave as they do.
The key issue here is one of sin. While, if we were to kill someone who, in our eyes, probably deserved it for having behaved badly, I suspect most of would feel very guilty about it and would, of course, fear the legal repercussions. However, there is an extra dimension here, the religious one. For Olav, the key issue is that he has sinned and has not sought expiation for his sins. He has confessed many times since then but has failed to mention this, his most serious sin. In addition, he has committed the sin of leaving a Christian man unburied under Christian rites. He rationalises it to himself by saying that if he did confess the crime, the bishop would require him to tell the authorities and if he were arrested and imprisoned, there would be no-one to look after Ingunn and Eirik. Despite this, he remains with this strong feeling throughout the book that he is going against God’s law and, sooner or later, will have to pay the price.
Ingunn’s sin is much lesser if, indeed, it is a sin at all. She feels that by having sex with Teit, she has betrayed Olav, even though Olav was nowhere to be seen and had disappeared for a long period, with the strong prospect that he would never return. Nevertheless she still feels very guilty about it.
What is the solution? Well, most wives and, perhaps, some husbands, would say the couple should at least talk about it but it is not till much later in the book that Olav and Ingunn do talk about it, though, of course, that does not bring full resolution.
Undset superbly portrays this shadow hanging over Olav and Ingunn, their marriage and their relationship with others, including but certainly not limited to Eirik. As I mentioned above, it colours the entire novel and it is this, rather than the action we had in the first novel that is the overall theme of this book.
First published in 1925 by H. Aschehoug & Co; translation as Olav Audunssøn. 2. Providence in 2021 by University of Minnesota Press
First English translation in 1925 by Grosset & Dunlap
Translated by Arthur G Chater (The Snake Pit), Tiina Nunnally (Olav Audunssøn. 2. Providence)