Kristin Lavransdatter, the novel, unfolds in 14th-century Norway. It has been several centuries since Norway was converted to Christianity, but the ancient pagan ways still run side by side with the new faith. The priests may build churches and perform the newfangled rites, but the elf-maiden still haunts the forest pool and the mountain king presides in his subterranean hall. Mediterranean Christianity is like a cleared, sunlit glade in a dark, encroaching northern wood. Me, I've always felt a hankering for the woods.
This is part of the novel's appeal: the contrast between a faith based (however superstitiously) on the mysterious and omnipresent forces of nature, in conflict with a faith that encourages people to lift their eyes out of this world of animals, plants, Sun, Moon, sex and death, to a parallel supernatural world of incorruptible spirit.
Kristin is caught between these two worlds. She is one of the great heroines of literature, passionate and headstrong as a girl, steady and resilient as a wife and mother, brave and compassionate in her old age, always struggling to balance the fraught demands of body and soul.
This is a novel of impetuous desire, love, adultery, childbirth, family, honor, violence. The elf-haunted forest pool and the Catholic shrine at Trondheim each owns part of Kristin's soul. Her heart is torn between the impulsive, unreliable, but charismatic Erlend, and steady, ever-faithful, adoring Simon.
Over the years I have given copies of Kristin to favorite students. It is as adequate a guidebook to the rewards and perils of life as I can imagine, laying out all the paths and obstacles, without ever suggesting with smug approval which way we should go.
(If anyone is inspired by these musings to read the novel, make sure to get the new translation by Tina Nunnally.)