The Bridal Wreath
Date Published: May 12, 1987
Number of Pages: 288
Print Price: $10.91
eBook Price: $
The Bridal Wreath, set in fourteenth century Norway, is the first book in a trilogy by Sigrid Undset about the life of Kristin Lavransdatter. The reader is immediately immersed in a sense of family and community life that is steeped in faith and culture. The tenuousness of life is reflected in the poetically visual descriptions of nature, at times bringing splendid abundance and at other times dire famine. The interactions of the characters are a mix of coarse behavior and deep spirituality, most sublime in the counsels a holy monk, Brother Edvin, gives to Kristin. Throughout the story, there is a sense of the spiritual realities underlying the material—of the eternal juxtaposed with the temporal, expressed by Brother Edvin telling Kristin that he could hang his work gloves on a ray of sunshine if he had true faith.
This first part of the trilogy focuses on Kristin’s fall from grace. The reader is struck by how quickly she disregards her moral upbringing, but realizes that potential consequences of imprudent actions are clearer from an outside vantage point.
There is an early sense of foreboding when seven-year-old Kirsten wanders away from her father, Lavrans. Wearing a floral wreath in the custom of unmarried maidens, the child is admiring her own reflection in the water when she sees a mysterious elf maiden tempting her with a gold wreath. Worried by this vision, her father puts a saint’s relic on her for protection.
Although Lavrans is a wise and affectionate parent, Kristin lacks closeness and sound guidance from her mother, Ragnfrid. Having lost three sons, Ragnfrid believes that God is punishing her for her sins, especially for losing her maidenhood to a man who did not want to marry her. Instead, she married Lavrans, a younger man without passionate love for her. When Kristin’s younger sister has a crippling accident, Ragnfrid invites a woman known to practice witchcraft to stay with the family. Upon hearing about the elf maiden, this woman tells Kristin that is it possible to take the gold without harm, to obtain some good out of situations better left avoided. Kristin helps her make magic healing potions, a practice allowed by Ragnfrid. Moreover, Kristin overhears her mother tell a priest that she would offer herself to the devil to save her injured child. He tells Ragnfrid that her extensive prayers and fasting have accomplished little good because she wants to force her will on God.
When fifteen-year-old Kristin is betrothed to a good man chosen by her father, she sneaks out at night to bid farewell to her childhood love. The reader grows aware that eternal consequences may even come from small choices when a man attempts to rape Kristin on her way back home. Her childhood friend is later killed by this attacker for defending her name. Kristin discovers the inconstancy of her heart when she later realizes that she had not thought of her friend a year after his death.
As she is not overly attracted to her betrothed, Kristin asks to spend some time at a convent, and here continues along the path of imprudence. She leaves the grounds and meets Erlend, an older adulterous man. Immediately succumbing to his charms, she gives herself to him completely, even meeting him at a brothel. She grows obstinate and makes excuses for their actions. They give in to their passions regardless of the harm to their own souls or to others, falling deeper into sin when they urge Erlend’s mistress to kill herself.
The form of negative pride shown by Ragnfrid is echoed in the behavior of a sister at the convent who grows hysterical over her sense of unworthiness. She is cured when she is made the center of attention and thus realizes that she is thinking too much about herself. Kristin follows this mode when she thinks that God burned the village church down because of her sins.
When Lavrans finally gives his permission for their marriage, Erlend still cannot restrain his passion, and Kristin still cannot refuse him anything. She becomes pregnant before marriage, and guilty thoughts mar her wedding day. She swoons when she catches her reflection in the water, wearing her hair and jewelry similar to the elf maiden from the lost innocence of her childhood memories. Miserable throughout the ceremony, she sees a vision of the dead mistress there. The red marks from the church fire on Erlend’s face prompt her to worry that God will deform her baby as a punishment for her sins. She promises St. Olav that she will give her gold bridal crown to the church if he protects the innocent baby, but even this bridal wreath is a deception because it is traditionally only worn by virgins. When Lavrans realizes that his daughter has been intimate with Erlend before marriage, he is devastated that he has failed to protect her from a seducer who has taken her honor.
A very powerful scene in the story images the answer to the temptations, sins, and sorrows of life that beset souls living in a fallen world. When the village church burns down, Lavrans carries out the large crucifix, places his arms on the cross, and leans on the shoulder of Christ, Whose face bends towards him in consolation. This was the lesson Brother Edvin tried to teach Kristin when she was a child: in response to the misery of divided human hearts, God put on earthly flesh to show His love and to show the way.
The reader can well imagine that Kristin would have saved herself much sorrow (to be further multiplied in the next book focusing on her married life) if she had placed her Creator first in her life, rather than becoming a slave to her love for a creature. If she had made efforts to know God and grow closer to Him, she would have humbly trusted Him. Brother Edvin had urged her to consider God’s providential care and to be grateful for His gifts rather than longing for seeming goods. And even after succumbing to temptation, she had only to look at Christ on the cross to know God’s love and mercy towards sinners. In contrast to her younger sister who had a more direct path to heaven, Kristin does not resign herself to God’s Will but follows her own way and suffers the consequences.
One who reads this story without an understanding of rebellion against God’s law and redemption through God’s mercy may miss the deeper story of Kristin’s restoration at the end of the trilogy when she finally comes to Christ with her bridal wreath. Her love for Erlend, which was not centered on helping each other grow towards God, matures into a self-giving love, as does Ragnfrid’s, whose heart is won over time by the virtuous man she married.
The Bridal Wreath is rich with insights into the spiritual battles that unfold in everyday life. Readers feel as if they are travelling alongside Kristin, struggling with the consequences of sin while trying to find a path to peace. The story prompts reflection on how easily the kingdom of God is forgotten in the face of trials and temptations. As explained by Brother Edvin, these temptations can be of all types, including spiritual ones—any desire where God is not placed foremost. One can either sink further in the spirit of the world or rise in the Spirit of God, with Christ by way of the cross to the Father.
This work was the basis for Undset receiving the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. There are two English translations to choose from depending on style preferences: a classic approach from Archer and Scott and a modern approach from Nunnally. Often, much is lost in translation, but the story itself has so many life lessons for reflection that one can derive new insights with each rereading. Undset skillfully reveals human nature and spiritual truths through the course of daily existence, described with a poetic sensibility that makes for savory reading.Publisher: Vintage
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
Subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter Catholic, Ink. - click here - receive book reviews and the column "The Catholic Imagination and You"
Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival.