Olav Audunssøn: I. Vows

Written by Sigrid Undset Tiina Nunnally (trans.)
Review by Jean Huets

In 13th-century Norway, Olav and Ingunn are betrothed to each other as children. As teenagers, romantic love grows between them, but their passion gets entangled in the unbreakable net of kinship and custom that holds their world together.

Every decision in Undset’s medieval Norway is made communally, every action is weighed for its potential effect on the extended family’s prestige. The medieval church mediates as, in a sense, a force of modern law and order: carefully wrought statutes to be obeyed by all citizens and enforced by authorities. This budding justice system conflicts with what Olav calls “the laws for men with hearts of flesh, volatile blood, and vengeful spirits.”

In medieval Norway, in Undset’s 1920s, in our time, the conflict endures. Codes of law go against the visceral urge to erase shame by personally avenging physical injury and violations of one’s communal code of honor. The lovers’ struggle, too, endures: individual passion against the security of the enveloping family.

Sigrid Undset received the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages” (Nobel Prize website). But Undset’s lucid and precise prose, as cast in English by Tiina Nunnally, goes beyond describing a milieu long gone by. Olav Audunssøn brings to historical fiction readers what they most cherish, but too rarely find in one book: a vivid, living time and place authentically inhabited by men and women whose joys and woes, wrath and love, resonate in the hearts of men and women to this day.