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Sigrid Undset: Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken 1 (The Axe); later: Olav Audunssøn. 1. Vows)

Sigrid Undset started off writing books set in contemporary Oslo, with which she had some success in Norway. However, it was when she turned to medieval epics that she really made her name, leading to the Nobel Prize. She is best known for her Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy but she followed it up with a four volume series calledOlav Audunssøn. Interestingly enough, it was first translated into English in 1927 by Arthur G Chater, who worked at the British Legation in Copenhagen between 1919 and 1921. I have a copy of this translation but have never read it. I suspect that this translation, by the very experienced Tiina Nunnally, will be a distinct upgrade. She states that the original translation does not do full justice to the author’s natural fluid style and that the translation was dusty and dull.

The story starts with the Steinfinissøn family. Steinfinn Toressøn, one of the family, has fallen for Ingebjørg Jonsdatter, though she has been promised to Mattias Haraldssøn. The couple elope and have children. Matias is clearly upset and, one night, arrives with his men and humiliates Steinfinn and Ingebjørg. It is his young foster-son, Olav, who unties him. Olav had become Steinfinn’s foster son when his father had taken ill and Steinfinn, an old friend of Audun Ingolfssøn, agrees to take in the boy, mockingly having him engaged to his own daughter, Ingunn.

Both Steinfinn and Ingebjørg are devastated by this humiliation and seem to fall into a deep depression. Mattias Haraldssøn sensibly leaves the country. Meanwhile Olav and Ingunn are growing up together and remain very close. Their first big adventure is to a distant town to have Olav’s battle-axe repaired, which he inherited from his father, as it seems to have got damaged. Ingunn wants to accompany him. The couple sneak out when Steinfinn is away and it is on this journey that Olav becomes aware that Ingunn is more than a sister.

En route they hear rumours that Steinfinn might be planning something and when they return, they learn that Mattias Haraldssøn is back and Steinfinn wants his revenge. Olav joins the band attacking Mattias Haraldssøn, which results in Matthias’ death but Steinfinn getting badly injured. On their return there is a wild party and Olav gets drunk. He goes to Ingunn’s room and she welcomes the returning hero back by allowing him to have sex with her. Both of them assume it is all right because they are to be wed sooner rather than later.

However, when Olav broaches the issue with Steinfinn, Steinfinn seems to think their mock engagement as children was not serious. He is worried that if Olav marries Ingunn, he may well be caught up in any revenge Mattias Haraldssøn’s relatives might seek. Things get worse when Steinfinn dies, as his surviving relatives want to make a politically advantageous match for Ingunn and Olav is not in their plans. Things go drastically wrong when Olav is involved in a drunken brawl with one of Ingunn’s relatives, Einar, and he has to leave the country.

The second part of this novel – the second book that appeared separately in the original Norwegian – focusses more on Ingunn. She is now more or less on her own, living with an elderly relative. However, most of her support has gone. Her parents are dead, Olav has disappeared, Olav’s friend, Arnvid, has also gone away and the bishop has been outlawed, as the barons looking after the young king are in open conflict with the church and currently have the upper hand. Ingunn’s relatives want her off their hands and come up with a good match for her. The man is a good, decent man but she wants to remain faithful to Olav.

Both we and she lose touch of Olav, who is off fighting. We know that he has become part of the retinue of earl Alf Erlingssøn. (Note that the link spells his first name Alv, while the book calls him Alf.) He remains fiercely loyal to the earl, even though he is not much more than a pirate, not least because the earl has taken him in. He travels with the earl to Denmark and England and, finally, in exile to Sweden, when the Queen, the earl’s powerful supporter, dies and he is outlawed. Ingunn seems to be think that Olav has been absent for ten years but it is, in fact, nearer five.

Things seem to be going better for Olav, in that the earl releases him from his oath, he has paid what amounts to his fines, both to the monastery (where he killed Einar) and to Einar’s relatives and he is finally allowed back. Things have not gone so well for Ingunn, however.

First of all, this book tells a really good story. It may be set in thirteenth century Norway with its – to – us strange customs but we have no problem following what is going on and why. Of course, it is essentially a love story but a love story, caught up in local politics and local customs. Women (and men) throughout the ages have been forced to marry against their will and, indeed, in many places still are but there is no doubt that Undset’s sympathies lie with her right to choose. (Undset herself fell for and eventually married a married man.)

We also follow, to a certain degree, what is happening in the country. The young King Haakon is under the control of the barons and they are opposed to the church pre-empting what they see as their rights. But we also see the concepts of honour and the idea that you can pay off a family when you commit an offence against them, such as, in this case, murder and premarital sex.

However, what makes this book is that Undset very much gets into the psychological motivations of the key characters. We follow Olav from the age of eleven and see him growing up from a young but fairly serious teenager to a young man who has become that this childhood playmate is a woman. As the author notes, when he finally returns to Norway, he changed from being a sullen and taciturn boy who had now become a courtly young nobleman who spoke with ease. Olav has his faults – he is impetuous, for example, like many young men of his age – but is essentially a good man, though with a firm idea of what he wants out of life.

Like most women of that time Ingunn has to follow the path set out for her but she is determined that, once that path has been decided, i.e. her marriage to Olav – she is going to remain true to it as far as she can. Women then had little power and she knows it but she is still a fighter. However, she is lost and alone and feels that Olav is never coming back.

Clearly, as this is the medieval era – late thirteenth century – things are very different. Steinfinn kills one man to defend the honour of his wife and himself and Olav kills two for the same reason. While honour killings still very much exist, they are clearly not accepted in Western democracies nor, indeed, in many other countries. However, most of the customs, while they may seem strange to us are clearly comprehensible.

As I have access to the two different translations, I did have a quick look. Let us take a look at the first sentence of the second paragraph.

The original version has In the years of trouble which later came upon the land, the Steinfinnssons thought most of keeping their estates unshorn and their manors unburned. In fact this is only half of the first sentence. In the second book, Chater’s first sentence is split into two to make it more readable.

This version has In the years of strife that later befell the country, the Steinfinnssøn kinsmen thought most about ensuring that their own properties were not divided up, and their estates were not burned down.

I have no access to the Norwegian text, and, even if I did, I do not know Norwegian, so I am only comparing the two English translations. I prefer strife to trouble, as trouble can be very minor even if, nowadays, in the UK at least, it may recall the Irish Troubles. Trouble, it seems to me does not come upon a land and, anyway, what land? Befell and country are better. I hate unshorn It sounds as though you have not been to the barber. And is unburned a word? I would not use it. Their own properties were not divided up, and their estates were not burned down is simple straightforward English and very clear in its meaning.

All of this may seem picky but I have no doubt the current version is superior. This is only one sentence. I have skimmed through the first few pages and could make similar criticisms. In conclusion, this translation seems to me to be far superior.

In short, this is a first-class novel and this new translation clearly enhances our reading experience. I shall look forward to the next in the series.

Other links

How Sigrid Undset Brought a Medieval Norwegian Epic to Life
Publisher’s description of this book

Publishing history

First published 1925 by H. Aschehoug & Co; translation as Olav Audunssøn. 1. Vows in 2020 by University of Minnesota Press
First English translation in 1925 by Grosset & Dunlap
Translated by Arthur G Chater (The Axe), Tiina Nunnally (Olav Audunssøn. 1. Vows)