The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 25 June 2004

The Snake Pit

by Sigrid Undset

When Norwegian author Sigrid Undset first published The Master of Hestviken, her massive epic novel of thirteenth-century life on the fjords, it was released in two volumes. In its English translation, the novel was broken into four parts, of which The Snake Pit is the second. In The Axe, we read of the misspent youth of Olav and Ingunn, as they discovered their love for one another, and as they fell into misguided sin (i.e. premarital sex and vengeful murder). Now, Olav has returned from his voluntary exile to Denmark, and has reclaimed his homestead at Hestviken. He reclaims, also, Ingunn as his wife, and even puts forth her illegitimate son, Eirik, as his own heir to the manor. His attempts to restore his honor, however, are stymied by Ingunn's inability to give him a legitimate son and heir, and by a gloomy atmosphere of loss, exile and death. This volume is more explicitly religious than the first, though the two parts were once contiguous. The reader cannot avoid the implication that Olav and Ingunn's youthful indiscretions are now the source of their sufferings. Niether has genuinely repented before God, and so both suffer. The religious allegory is somewhat blatant and heavy-handed. This is unfortunate after the smooth dramatic flow of this book's predecessor. Also, as this should be part and parcel of the first book, the reader would be well-advised not to let too much time pass between reading one and the other. They may yet flow together more seamlessly. Despite Undset's coarse religious moralizing, the book remains very well written. The author brilliantly captures the mood and imagery of thirteenth-century Norway. The environment is compellingly described. The landscape feels empty and cold. The people seem to spring from a long bygone era. So, despite being broken into four volumes, the Hestviken saga is probably best read as one piece. One would have to keep in mind its era, and the moral intent of its author, but the writing can be quite moving.

(Sigrid Undset was awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize for literature.)

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Also by Undset: [The Axe]

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