A Queer Character in ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’?

There is no way to know.

The three books that comprise Kristin Lavransdatter — The Wreath (1920), The Wife (1921), The Cross (1922) — were written almost a hundred years ago by the Nobel prize-winning author, Sigrid Undset, who died in 1949. Moreover, the story is set in 14th century Norway, a time when a person who might have been gay could not have been out and proud.

There is a scribe, a sexual predator, who wants to take Kristin’s son Naakve as an apprentice, but thankfully, her husband Erlend sees the man for what he is and does not allow the boy to go with him.

But that’s not the character I’m interested in. I’m interested in whether Kristin’s father, Lavrans Bjørgulfsson, could have been a man who struggled his whole life with urges for other men.

Consider this passage, long after Lavrans’ death. Kristin is telling her sons a silly story about trolls that Lavrans used to tell her. She looks off, remembering, and says this:

“‘Father!’ She remembered a tremor passing over his face, a paleness, the way a forest slope grows pale whenever a stormy gust turns the leaves of the trees upside-down. And edge of cold, sharp derision had in his voice. A gleam in his gray eyes, like the glint of a half-drawn sword. A brief moment, and then it would vanish into cheerful, good-humored jest when he was young, but becoming more often a quiet, slightly melancholy gentleness as he grew older. Something other than deep tender sweetness had resided in her father’s heart. She had learned to understand it over the years. Her father’s marvelous gentleness was not because he lacked a keen enough perception of the faults and wretchedness of others. It came from his constant searching of his own heart before God, crushing it in repentance over his own failings.”

“The Cross,” Sigrid Undset

Those failings — it’s something Lavrans’ neighbors talk about both while he is alive and after his death. None of them can figure out why he was so pious. Why was he always fasting? Why did he give so generously to the priests and the church? What sins could he have possibly committed? No one has an answer.

I think it’s possible that he constantly was attracted to men, but never acted on those feelings, because of his faith.

I first began to wonder about Lavrans on the night of Kristin’s wedding, when he and his wife, Ragnfrid, have one heck of a heart-to-heart. Lavrans confesses that he never loved her. Ragnfrid is heartbroken, thinking that it’s something about her. She confesses to him that she was pregnant when they married — a young man, drunk (it was probably rape, although she doesn’t view it that way). Lavrans is horrified. How could she not keep herself pure? How could Kristin not keep herself pure either? (Kristin is also pregnant on her wedding day.)

Lavrans loves his wife and his daughters, but he cannot forgive what he considers their sexual sin. I suspect he can’t understand how they could give in to temptation when he had managed not to give in his entire life.

In fact, of all the men that we spend any time with in the story, Lavrans is the only one who does not sleep around. (Except, perhaps, Bjørgulf, who is mostly blind.) Every other man is described as having an affair, a series of one-night-stands, or both. Within this world, it’s presented as what men do, even priests. Lavrans doesn’t.

The other reason I wonder about Lavrans is that most of his happy moments are spent either alone — hunting with his beloved animals or carving intricate designs — or in the jolly company of other men. Lavrans loves a good party, too much ale, and bawdy jokes (as long as they are not about the church).

He’s a man who dearly loves his daughters and later, his grandsons. He plays with them, tells them silly troll stories, and takes them everywhere.

When he dies it is clear he and his wife have developed great affection for each other over their decades together, but it’s not the passion that characterizes Kristin’s relationships with men. I can almost imagine the old couple singing “Do You Love Me?” from Fiddler on the Roof, only it would be Ragnfrid singing it to Lavrans, and Lavrans listing all the faithful husbandly things he’s done, including fathering six children with her. I have a bold tenor voice in my head for Lavrans, and I can hear it singing, “If that’s not love, what is?”

And it is love. But I don’t think it was the kind of love Lavrans wanted, the kind he could not stop confessing.

I don’t know whether Kristin understood his nature, which in that time would have been considered “upside-down,” whether she grasped the reasons why he took his heart and was constantly “crushing it in repentance.” I don’t know whether Sigrid Undset meant for Lavrans to be read this way, whether she would’ve pulled a J.K. Rowling and casually mentioned it at a book event, the way Rowling did with Dumbledore.

I could be wrong. But I’ve begun to look for characters who might be considered LGBT today, especially in old stories. I’ve found that when I’m open to that possibility, sometimes a storm wind reveals what is hidden in plain sight.

Reader, Come Home: ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’

Published May 3, 2019