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Gunnar's Daughter (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
More than a decade before writing Kristin Lavransdatter, the trilogy about fourteenth-century Norway that won her the Nobel Prize, Sigrid Undset published Gunnar's Daughter, a brief, swiftly moving tale about a more violent period of her country's history, the Saga Age. Set in Norway and Iceland at the beginning of the eleventh century, Gunnar's Daughter is the story of the beautiful, spoiled Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, who is casually raped by the man she had wanted to love. A woman of courage and intelligence, Vigdis is toughened by adversity. Alone she raises the child conceived in violence, repeatedly defending her autonomy in a world governed by men. Alone she rebuilds her life and restores her family's honor -- until an unremitting social code propels her to take the action that again destroys her happiness.
First published in 1909, Gunnar's Daughter was in part a response to the rise of nationalism and Norway's search for a national identity in its Viking past. But unlike most of the Viking-inspired art of its period, Gunnar's Daughter is not a historical romance. It is a skillful conversation between two historical moments about questions as troublesome in Undset's own time -- and in ours -- as they were in the Saga Age: rape and revenge, civil and domestic violence, a troubled marriages, and children made victims of their parents' problems.
||April 01, 1998|
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36 of 37 found the following review helpful:
Fast-paced tale with wonderful Scandinavian folklore...Aug 10, 1999
Sigrid Undset's Gunnar's Daughter weaves Scandinavian folklore, mythology and violence to ensnare the reader into the period of the Saga Age. In this book, we meet Vigdis Gunnarsdatter -- a survivor in many different levels who is raped and delivers an illegitimate child. As it is said that time heals old wounds, that is not the case with Vigdis. Even with her eventual redemption, peace of mind still eludes her until she takes her very last breath. The scope of history and folklore in Gunnar's Daughter makes this an interesting and quick read. However, it is highly recommended that the reader marks the introduction and notes by Sherrill Harbison -- as they provide much information that makes the book more insightful and pleasurable to read.
22 of 24 found the following review helpful:
A fast-paced novel by a great Norwegian writerMay 15, 1998
By Lion G. Miles
Gunnar's Daughter is a surprisingly fresh tale of love in medieval Scandanavia, written by the Nobel Prize winning Norwegian author, Sigrid Undset. This new translation is fast-paced and gripping, guaranteed to keep a modern reader turning the pages to the end, which will be a surprise. I could not put it down. As an added bonus, the introduction by Sherrill Harbison provides a fascinating examination of Undset's remarkable life and career. Highly recommended. One of the great short novels.
30 of 35 found the following review helpful:
A Very Fine Example of the Saga as Modern NovelDec 24, 2000
By Stuart W. Mirsky
In this case of medieval date rape and the grim consequences which follow hard upon it, Sigrid Undset created a wonderfully literate experience using the saga "voice". Although I detected slippages in tone, here and there, and felt the ending too contrived and overwrought to be pure saga, I was still swept along by this book, finishing it in a single sitting. It is short, yes, but also a very compelling narrative as it details the tribulations of two would-be lovers who are yet too proud and self-willed for their own good or for the society in which they find themselves. As with the typical viking hero, Viga-Ljot is overly confident of his own charms and impatient of results. And Vigdis, the maid he has set his heart on, is no less aloof and overbearing in her own way than that historical figure, Sigrid the Haughty, who so angered King Olaf Tryggvesson that he slapped her in the midst of their courtship and thereby sealed his doom. Viga-Ljot does much worse in this tale and his fate is thus forever bound up with a woman who cannot forget or forgive him. Like Gudrun Osvif's daughter in Laxdaela Saga, Vigdis bides her time and nurses her pain but, in the end, that pain is not assuaged by the actions she takes, for it is ultimately destructive to everyone it touches.
A good example of the saga form in modern literature indeed, and yet, despite the finely tuned prose of this novel, capturing the nuances and understatement of the saga voice with masterly strokes, there is an underlying stridency here, an almost emotional overreaching which is not, itself, true to the saga form. In some ways this book is too modern and its author's sensibility, at this juncture in her career, almost too young and unseasoned. Undset seems to be reaching for the tragic denouement of the Greek classics to end her tautly told tale rather than content herself with the flatly understated and finely nuanced wrap-up more appropriate to the saga form. But this Greek-like ending left me much colder than the drily tossed-off afterthought of a true saga might have done. And yet, for all that, Undset has here given us one of the better modern novels done in saga form. My hat is off to her.
By the way, for another really fine novel based on the old sagas, one, in fact, that I think outdoes even this one, try SAGA: A NOVEL OF MEDIEVAL ICELAND by contemporary Canadian author Jeff Janoda. Many have tried to evoke the sagas in modern prose but few have done it as well as he has. Janoda has written a contemporary novel that does genuine justice to its original source, Eyrbyggja Saga, while not succumbing to the overwrought sensibility which mars GUNNAR'S DAUGHTER at the end. If you like fiction grounded in the old Norse saga literature, then Janoda's book should be your very next stop.
author of The King of Vinland's Saga
16 of 18 found the following review helpful:
The more things change. . . .Aug 01, 2006
In writing Gunnar's Daughter, Sigrid Undset had two aims: to show that the struggles of the human person against himself, others, and nature have no history; and to reveal a pagan past as it actually was--cruel and bloody in contrast to the growing Christian faith it encountered. In both cases, she succeeded brilliantly.
Take the first case. You often hear yammering from certain quarters that it is possible for human beings to progress as a society beyond their passions. Myopic nonsense! The characters of Gunnar's Daughter hurt themselves and others, and love as much as they hate, with exactly the same capacity as anyone today. An honest reader will realize that we are no better at heart than the men (and woman) whose stories are told here--but also that we are no worse. What we have hated and loved and yearned for, men and women have always hated and loved and yearned for. In reading this you realize for the first time that you can actually appreciate your ancestors as living men and women, and not as faceless DNA donors.
In the second case, in Undset's time--the early 20th century--there was then as now the movement to glorify the pre-Christian past, the sort of naivety only possible from the safety of the Christianized world. Undset was rightly disturbed by this movement, and in Gunnar's Daughter she draws the picture of bloody, violent, might-makes-right world--and better yet, shows the redeeming effect of Christianity as it makes its way into Scandinavia. Contrast Vigdis' exposure of her healthy but unwanted infant--an unremarkable event in her time, even if, as Undset shows, one not done without lingering sorrow--with the later refusal of Viga-Lyot to expose his deformed and sickly baby expressly because, as he states, he is a Christian, and will not hear of it. This is of even more interest in our day, when the growing nonChristian influence on our society has led us full circle to a time when once again the unwanted baby is done away with--Undset's picture was more prescient than she knew.
All in all, a haunting and true book.
11 of 12 found the following review helpful:
Harbison knows Sigrid Undset thoroughly.Jul 06, 1998
This new volume of a truly gripping story is made more enjoyable by the all emcompassing introduction of Undset biographer, Sherrill Harbison. She points out all the important considerations a reader needs to think about to fully understand this saga of Norway and Iceland.
Any secondary school trying to include books from other cultures in the curriculum should add Gunnar's Daughter to its list. The story is timeless, and young people would find great discussion material on such topics as romantic attraction, family loyalty, reputation and honor, women's (girl's) options and power compared to men's power in different cultures in history, and the power of societal laws over people's lives.
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