Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Elf Maidens and Christianity Converge, Notes on Kristin Lavransdatter

Statue of Kristin Lavrasdatter in Sel, Norway
I found this interesting blog post written by Emily over at eveningallafternoon.com.

I trust Emily's perspective because she has a miniature dachshund named Mr. Bingley.

But, I digress...

In this post, she discusses the portrayal of Christianity in Kristin Lavransdatter. Being a topic several of us have mentioned, I thought I'd share this snippet with you:

"To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of The Wreath is its portrayal of the process of Christianization. Kristin's family are devout Christians; it's established in the early pages of the novel that they're more pious than average: "...the other people in the valley felt that God's kingdom had cost them dearly enough in tithes, goods, and money already, so they thought it unnecessary to attend to feasts and prayers so strictly or to take in priests and monks unless there was a need for them." Yet even for the extremely pious in Undset's novel, it seems that their world has only been partially Christianized: in the villages and cities Christian beliefs apply, but in the mountains, away from civilization, live the elves, dwarves and trolls of the old, pre-Christian belief system. It's as if the medieval Norwegians perceived the work of religious conversion as applying more to the actual land itself than to the people living on it - as if the act of buildling churches and cities transformed a region from the territory of the old beliefs to a Christian region. Even Lavrans, who gives ample proofs of his piousness, sees no contradiction in continuing to believe in other kinds of supernatural beings in the mountains. Before seven-year-old Kristin has her titular vision of a blonde maiden with a golden wreath beckoning to her from beyond a pool, Lavrans admits that "I've seen herds of cattle and sheep, but I don't know whether they belonged to people or to the others." And after the little girl runs terrified back to her father, saying that she thinks the vision was a "dwarf maiden," nobody thinks to contradict her:
"Oh, that must have been the elf maiden - I tell you, she must have wanted to lure this pretty child into the mountain."

"Be quiet," said Lavrans harshly. "We shouldn't have talked about such things the way we did here in the forest. You never know who's under the stones, listening to every word."

He pulled out the golden chain with the reliquary cross from inside his shirt and hung it around Kristin's neck, placing it against her bare skin.

"All of you must guard your tongues well," he told them. "For Ragnfrid must never hear that the child was exposed to such danger."
So the Christian ethos, while real for these characters, is something that needs to be guarded and invoked, rather than something that naturally permeates the whole world around them. And threats to a Christian enclave are often localized and external - similar to a modern person's bodily fear of venturing into a "bad neighborhood." It's a take on religious conversion I'd never run across before, and one that fascinates me."

Nonneseter Chapel, all that remains of the Nonneseter Abbey in Bergen, Norway
I like this thought: "It's as if the medieval Norwegians perceived the work of religious conversion as applying more to the actual land itself than to the people living on it - as if the act of buildling churches and cities transformed a region from the territory of the old beliefs to a Christian region."

And then, today, I read Steven Greydanus's review of Brave over at the National Catholic Register. This Pixar film is set in medieval Scotland (which was invaded many times by the Norse Vikings, so they could be relatives of Kristin for all we know). Greydanus writes about Brave:

"It’s no spoiler to say that magic is involved; we meet the ghostly will-o’-the-wisp fairy lights in the opening scene, when little Merida gets her bow and King Fergus loses his leg to a monstrous black bear. 
In folklore, fairy lights that recede or extinguish as one approaches are often thought to mischievously lead travelers astray from well-trodden paths into marshes or bogs (compare the elvish camp fires in The Hobbit) — but Elinor tells Merida that some say the wisps can lead you to your “fate.” Where the fairy lights lead Merida now, and what happens as a result...."

This got me thinking once again about that strange elf maiden scene at the beginning of the book. One gets the impression that it means something. But what? What do you think? Do you see a greater meaning in the elf maiden encounter, and how does the portrayal of medieval Christianity impress you?


  1. I have not finished the "Wreath" yet (but getting close!) I always like to look at multiple perspectives when reading a book, and I wonder if the mountain people were just as frightened and "superstitious" about the Christianized people of Norway. It's all a matter of perspective. I am fascinated by ancient civilizations and their folklore. Pre-Christianity, people found other ways to make meaning of their existence. The Church has tried to build upon those ancient traditions in so many cultures in order to make Christianity more meaningful and relatable. It is interesting to see what remains of those "beliefs" today, I think.

  2. I just wonder if these early Christians were not more open to Christianity than we are today. Their pre-Christian folklore and beliefs seems to help them relate to and accept the stories of the saints and miracles.


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