Monday, July 2, 2012

God's Wreath

[Spoilers for Books 1 and 2]
In an earlier post, Lauren asked what we felt might be the significance of Kristin's encounter with the elf maiden who bears a wreath.   I am a few chapters into book three and should probably wait until I've finished the entire work to post, but these are the thoughts going through my mind at this point.   I think I can write about the wreath more than I could write about some of the other large themes, such as sin's true nature and effects, before I have finished the novel.

Kristin's encounter with the elf maiden is not the first time we will find Kristin, on or before a rock slab (usually the stone floor of a church or chapel), and  overcome by a reflection of herself, in water, in another's eyes, or in the heart of God.

      Kristen heard a stream trickling and gurgling somewhere nearby.   She walked toward the sound until she found it...Beneath the rock slab the water stood motionless in a deep black pool; on the other side a sheer rock face rose up behind several slender birch trees and willow thickets.   It made the finest mirror, and Kristen leaned over and looked at herself in the water.   She wanted to see if what Isrid had said was true, that she resembled her father (emphasis added).   
      She smiled and nodded and bent forward until her hair met the blond hair framing the round young face with the big eyes that she was in the water.
     All around grew such a profusion of the finest pink tufts of flowers called calerian; they were much redder and more beautiful here next to the mountain stream than back home near the river.   Then Kristin picked some blossoms and carefully bound them together with blades of grass until she had the loveliest, pinkest, and most tightly woven wreath.   The child pressed it down on  her hair and ran over to the pool to see how she looked, now that she was adorned like a grown-up maiden about to go off to a dance.
     But suddenly she discerned a face among the leaves--there was a woman over there, with a pale face and flowing, flaxen hair.   Her big light-gray eyes and her flaring, pale-pink nostrils reminded Kristin of  Guldsvein's.   She was wearing something shiny and leaf-green, and branches and twigs hid her figure up to her full breasts, which were covered with brooches and gleaming necklaces.   Kristen stared at the vision.   Then the woman raised her hand and showed her a wreath of golden flowers and beckoned to her with it.' (p. 19 of Nunnally Penguin Classics edition)

This encounter occurred in the early pages of the first book, or part, of Kristin Lavransdatter, which is titled "The Wreath," so it did remain in the back of my mind as I continued to read, especially this episode when the bridal crown is finally placed upon her head before her wedding to Erlend.   After reading the two, their parallel nature became apparent.

     Kristin...was wearing her scarlet bridal gown.   Large brooches held it together at her breast and closed teh yellow silk shift at the neck...
     "Tomorrow you will wear it loose for the last time," she said with a smile, winding around Kristin's head the red and green silk cords that would support the crown.   Then the women gathered around the bride.
     Ragnfrid and Gyrid of Skog brought over from the table the great bridal crown of the Gjesling family.   It was completely gilded, the tips alternated between crosses and cloverleaves, and the circlet was set with rock crystals.
     They pressed it down onto the bride's head.   Ragnfrid was pale and her hands shook as she did this.
     Kristen slowly rose to her feet.   Jesus, how heavy it was to bear all that silver and gold.   Then Fru Ashild took her by the and and led her forward to a large water basin, while the bridesmaids threw open the door to let in the sun and brighten up the loft.
     "Look at yourself now, Kristin," said Fru Aashild, and Kristin bent  over the basin.   She saw her own face rise up, white, from the water; it came so close that she could see the golden crown above.   So many light and dark shadows played all around her reflection--there was something she was just about to remember--and suddenly she felt as if she would faint away.  --p. 275

 There is so much to cover in these two passages where symbolism is as lush and abundant as the pink blooms Kristin finds at the stream.    The elf maiden encounter's place and function in the novel reminds me of story of Adam and Eve in scripture, in that it sets the stage and can be returned to for connections throughout the story.   Every line is loaded with meaning.   There are the allusions to Kristin's physical appearance in both reflections that we find in her descriptions before and after each experience of childbirth.   There is also the contrast between Kristin's rescue at the hands of her father and the way she must part from Erlend after she givers herself to him in the barn.   And then there is the color red which has such symbolic significance throughout the novel. 

 It makes sense that the little Kristin should have such an encounter in the wild, natural environment of a secluded stream.   The little Kristin, like the young Christian faith of the Norwegian people, was raised on --and nourished by-- a mixed diet of inspiration and caution.   Her spiritual diet included the ancient tales and the more recent stories of Christ and His saints.  In one day, it was possible to experience the wildness of the Norwegian landscape, alive with myth and legend, and then enter the peaceful sanctuary of a solid church, with its tamed timbers and stones--offerings themselves from the land--that had been chiseled and bent to bear witness to the glory of the Creator Himself.    Within herself, the child Kristin embodies a longing for that which is free and wild in nature, while at the same time finding peace and comfort in the form of people such as her father and Br. Edvin and in her Christian faith, young and immature as it is.

It is tempting then, as modern readers, to set an extreme contrast between the wild ancient superstition of Norway and the reasonable faith established by Christ, as they are presented in the 14th century setting of this novel.    Also, as modern readers, we might be tempted to think that we have risen above any mingling of superstition and sound theology in our own times and even in our own faith lives.   That is the always the trap set for the mind of modern man.   Pride in our supposed enlightenment and assurance of our progress can cloud our vision--and our judgement--just as surely as they did for our ancestors.  

In both episodes, Kristin is offered a golden wreath, or crown.   One is in the form of a vision, to which she is beckoned by the elf maiden, while the other one is of substantial physical form, as the family bridal crown.   The crown, and its wedding celebration trappings, had been used by families to beckon maidens throughout centuries before.   Also, Erlend, just as wild and alluring as the elf maiden, uses the crown to beckon Kristin from her despair, as he tries to convince her that she will be able to wear the crown as they marry and then they will make their confessions and all will be set right.   In all three instances, it is the crown of superstition, or a mingling of immature faith with superstition, that is set before, or upon, Kristin.  

As Christians, we sometimes make the same feeble attempts in our present society, albeit those attempts don't have the widespread appeal they once enjoyed.   "No one buys the cow if he can get the milk for free."   "Nice girls don't."   And then, there's that white dress and the elaborate wedding ceremony and reception.    Chastity is often viewed as the end itself, instead of a means to an end--part of our sanctification--as virgin brides walk down our modern wedding aisles.   It can also be seen as a proverbial "get out of jail free" card, in terms of future suffering in marriage or religious life, if presented to young girls in only this shallow, incomplete manner.   Would that were true, how easy indeed would life be!   And how less disappointing for those who "do the right thing" and yet still suffer. 

Kristin's faith journey reflects that of her beloved Norway, but it is also a reflection of our personal Christian journey.   In scripture, we find many references to our spiritual growth and maturity described in the terms of childhood and its stages.   St. Paul makes many such references in the New Testament:

     Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.
I Peter 2:2
     Brothers, stop being childish in your thinking. Be like infants with respect to evil, but think like adults.    I Cor. 14:20

Again, these references are numerous, as we are instructed to be like children, while not being childish.   It sounds so simple!   And it would be, if we frail humans didn't complicate it so.  

My thoughts started to take real substance as I read the episode of a conversation between Kristin and her dear Brother Edvin (our dear Brother Edvin, after reading and loving this character).   In this dialogue is the following profound line:

'"I have often prayed that you might have a yearning for the convent life," said Brother Edvin, "but not since you told me what you know, I wish you could have come to God with your wreath, Kristin."' --p. 251

I cannot help but think that this line from Brother Edvin has double meaning, for Kristin and for us.   It was not simply the offering of her maidenhood that she should have properly made to God, as she offered it up to Erlend on their wedding bed.    It was Kristen herself--her heart, her mind, her soul--that God wanted.   That would not change whether she was to be adorned with the gown of a bride or the habit of a nun.   The offering would be the same.  I am the wreath.   You are the wreath.   And we belong to God.

Kristin felt that something was amiss, even if she could not completely understand or express it.   And she experienced the real results of her choices, although she could not fully explain those either.   In conversation with Erlend's brother, the priest, Gunnulf, she says:

Gunnulf...I was afraid when I went inside for the wedding mass with him, with the golden crown on my flowing hair, for I didn't dare speak of shame to my father, with all my sins unatoned for; I didn't even dare confess fully to my parish priest.   But as I went about here this winter and saw myself growing more hideous for each day that passed--then I was even more frightened, for Erlend did not act toward me as he had before. --p. 361

 With a focus on wreaths, crowns, humiliation before men, ruination of reputation and honor, the true offering is pushed to the background or it is completely lost.  As mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, teachers, etc (of course men, also, but this is addressed to our female book club)...we don't have to be so anxious about our role in nurturing vocations.   We can simplify our methods to focus upon the truth of self-sacrifice--to others, through God's grace--and ultimately of ourselves to God.

We can return to the natural and free garden of Adam and Eve, to their creation, where Pope John Paul II and others have found the richness of the teaching of our very nature and selves.   We can place purity and chastity in their proper place, as part of our spiritual journey--requiring self-sacrifice and sometimes suffering--rather than a source of pride or accomplishment in and of themselves.   And we can teach that purity and chastity make our hearts and souls more open to and ready to receive God, through prayer and His sacraments.   I think that Kristin's parents, Erlend, Gunnulf, and Kristin herself discovered such truths as they grew in Christian wisdom.   Even with that wisdom, though,  there are no guarantees and it is up to the individual to make decisions.   And healthy, righteous fear and shame alone cannot deter an individual forever.   At some point, as we mature, we must make decisions that are a choice of our will to follow where God leads out of love and obedience.   And sometimes, more often than not, suffering is what changes our hearts so we can follow God's path.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise--Psalm 51:17

The truth of this scripture shines forth in the vivid, heart-and-soul-stirring description Undset gives us as Kristen travels to the shrine of St. Olav at Christ Church, to offer her bridal crown and make amends for her sins.   Again, we are given the image of a forest, stone, water, and a vision--this time of St. Olav--as Kristen finally lays her soul and heart bare to Christ, the bridegroom, and offers herself up to His love, examination, and healing.

 The line which struck at my heart, upon re-reading the episode of the elf maiden encounter, was the one to which I added emphasis:  She wanted to see if what Isrid had said was true, that she resembled her father (emphasis added).   It did not grab my attention upon my initial reading, but upon re-visiting this portion, I gasped and my heart was struck by the depth of its meaning and its relation to the thoughts about the crown that had already started to form in my mind.

As a child in the woods, she sought her reflection in the pool of water to see if it were true that she resembled her earthly father.   There, upon that stone floor, sprinkled with Holy water, the adult Kristin seeks and finally sees the first glimpses of her true reflection--her resemblance to and place in the heart of her Father--her Heavenly Father--whose love she experienced in imperfect, but powerful ways through her father, Lavarans.  

     ...The imperishable vines of eternity wound their way upward, clam and lovely, bursting into flour on spires and towers with stone monstrances...The huge, massive walls with their bewildering wealth of pillars and arches and windows, the glimpse of the roof's enormous slanting surface, the tower, the gold of the spire rising high into the heavens--Kristin sank to the ground beneath her sin.
     She was shaking as she kissed the hewn stone of the portal...She sprinkled holy water over her son and herself...She walked as if through if through a forest.   The pillars were furrowed like ancient trees, and into the woods the light seeped, colorful and clear as song, through stained-glass windows...
     She had seen the water from the well back home.   It looked so clean and pure when it was in the wooden cups.   But her father owned a glass goblet, and whenhe filled it with water and the sun shone through, the water was muddy and full of impurities.
     Yes, my Lord and King, now I see the way I am!
     ...Feeling lost and uncertain, she was standing at the entrance to the chancel when a young priest came out the grated door...Then she pulled out the golden crown and held it out.
     "Oh, are you Kristin Lavransdatter, the wife of Erlend of Husaby?"   He gave her a rather surprised look; her face was quite swollen from weeping.   "Yes, your brother-in-law, Gunnulf, spoke of you, yes he did."
     He led her into the sacristy and took the crown; he unwrapped the linen cloth and looked at it.   Then he smiled.
     ...Another priest came in, and the two men talked to each other briefly.   The first priest then opened a small cupboard in the wall and took out a balance scale and weighed the crown, while the other made a note of it in the ledger.   Then they placed the crown in the cupboard and closed the door.

And finally, we see the golden crown put in its proper place.   A mere object, made by men, having no more value than that which is simply weighed, catalogued and put away in a cupboard.   Separate from the true offering that Kristin had finally made--herself--to God.

It was to be the first of many offerings, again and again, as Kristin would turn face and heart toward God and then let pride and stubbornness set her apart from his always-present and never-ending grace.    Was Kristin really ready to make that offering before the suffering she endured?   It was not God's will that she chose immorality, but, as in all things, He could use that for good.   There is always hope because there is always God.

 As Catholics, we understand that faith is not a single decision or moment in time.   It is a constant process and journey.   Spiritually, our development is like the linear development of a child and our journey is cyclical, like the distinct seasons of the Norwegian landscape.   We each find ourselves, like Kristin, turning away from God and then turning back to Him.   And each time we find our peace and hope with God--through private consolations, in the confessional or at the Banquet Table of the Lamb--we get little glimpses of the reality that will be Eternity.   And only then will we no longer be like the adventurous child Kristen or the tempted Kristin, as a maiden stirred by the wildness of physical desire or as the wife who refuses to fully open her heart to God's grace through forgiveness of her husband.   In Eternity with God--true Heaven--we will be like the weaned child of the Psalm, no longer restless and on a childish quest for the satisfaction of mere physical desires and reception of consolations:

 But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.  Psalm 131:2


  1. Terrie, this is so beautiful. I got the foreshadowing of the elf maiden and the wreath, but this is amazing. I LOVE LOVE this para (among many others including the whole thing):

    "I cannot help but think that this line from Brother Edvin has double meaning, for Kristin and for us.   It was not simply her maidenhood that she should have properly offered to God, as she offered it up to Erlend on their wedding bed.    It was Kristen herself--her heart, her mind, her soul--that God wanted.   That would not change whether she was to be adorned with the gown of a bride or the habit of a nun.   The offering would be the same.   I am the wreath.   You are the wreath.   And we belong to God."

    Yes, it's so clear (once you explain it - LOL). I believe one of my favorite parts was her journey of redemption when she finally offers her crown (herself, her sins) to God. Very powerful.q

  2. "one of my favorite parts of the book" is what that should have said in the last paragraph. Sorry I didn't proofread.

  3. Thank you Terri for writing this! Wow! This was very helpful to me! I am looking forward to Wednesday evening! I just finished book 1 and 2 last night!

  4. I love how you tied everything together (much like a beautiful wreath, we could say? :) I enjoyed the last part as you described how our faith journey resembles the very nature of creation - the cyclical seasons which we all go through...births, deaths and re-births. Thank you for outlining so many themes and symbolism, this is really going to enhance the rest of the novel's experience for me!


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