Recently my husband and I were out to dinner on the San Antonio Riverwalk. He asked me how
the Kristin/Project Redux was going, and I said I was having trouble writing about Erlend. I’d
written many things — none of them quite right. If Kristin were a musical, Erlend deserved a big show-stopper of a tune, and I didn’t know how to write it.
“He’s the husband?” asked my husband of thirty years. “And you don’t like him?”
I took a big sip of my sangria. “I think I’m falling in love,” I said.
My sainted husband took this confession in stride. “Oh, really?”
My husband is nothing like Erlend. I’ve never dated someone like Erlend. I’ve never even kissed someone like Erlend.
He is far from perfect. In this section, especially, when he does not go back to Kristin after he
learns of her pregnancy, followed by the birth and death of the son named for him — I judge Erlend harshly for those failings. And yet, what is it about this heroic bad boy with a heart of … well, a heart of pumping, throbbing passion that attracts me so much?
Erlend Nikkulausson is many things.
He is a ladies’ man
From the moment Erlend and his men rescue Kristin and Ingeborg, we know exactly who he is.
“But first we must escort the maidens back to their convent. I’m sure you can find some
straps to tie them up with…”
“Do you the maidens, Erlend?”
It’s no surprise that when he is away from his marriage bed, fighting in the wild north, he wakes
up with a Finnish woman on either side of him. (Who can blame them?) When he carves love
runes into apples and tosses them to any lady who wants one, it’s no great shock, not even to
Erlend did resist Sunniva, many times. When he finally does give in, Undset writes, “He was already quite aware that no man had ever had less pleasure from a sin than he was having from his dealing with Sunniva Olavsdatter.” (How was he to know the woman could read?)
After that affair, there’s no indication he sins with another woman again. Even with all Kristin’s
faults, Erlend believes she is “worth thinking about for twenty years.”
He is a chieftain
Men admire this man who laughs “out loud in the dark.” They want to drink with him (even
though he never lets himself drink too much). They can’t help but place their “trust in a hand that lets everything run through its fingers like cold water and dry sand.”
Simon couldn’t help it. Even Lavrans couldn’t help it. Although Erlend is “too heavy-footed and light-hearted for secret plans,” men join in a conspiracy with him. And he does not betray a single one of them, evenunder torture.
“And if I tell them to go to Hell when I get angry, they know that I don’t mean for them to set off on the journey without me in the lead.”
Dogs love him. Horses love him. As his sons grow into young men, they love him too. He’s a
man’s man, surrounded by bands of merry men.
He is a father
When his son Orm dies, his first child conceived in his first dalliance with a married woman,
Erlend weeps. He defends his daughter Margret’s honor, even when she cares nothing for it.
With Kristin, he’s unprepared for the horrors of childbirth and hands their newborn son back to
her, saying this:
“I don’t think I’m going to be properly fond of you, Naakkve, until I forget what terrible suffering you caused your mother.”
When his sons are young, Erlend doesn’t know how to father them, but after he loses everything — ancestral estate, his position as sheriff, what was left of his reputation — he begins to teach them what it means to be men in this medieval world. That means a lot of hunting and weapons training. It also means a story of a 200-year-old witch! That he keeps hidden in a leather pouch! Every Christmas he feeds her the thigh of a Christian man!
“The children shrieked and tumbled into their mother’s bed. […] Kristin complained — Erlend shouldn’t tease them so horribly. But Naakkve toppled off the bed again; in an ecstasy of laughter and fright he rushed at his father, hung on to his belt and bit at Erlend’s hands, while he shoulted and cheered.”
You know who else shouted and cheered at this gruesome fairy tale? Me.
He is a Christian
Erlend is a man who claims the Christian faith as his own, whether or not he finds it convenient
to practice it at any given moment.
Does he owe the church a fine? He pays it. Does he need to atone for sin? He does it. He’s not a
holy man, like his brother, Gunnulf, the priest. He doesn’t observe every fast, like Lavrans. But
when the church catches on fire, he rushes in to save the holy vessels. When the flood comes, he is there, praying and crying Kyrie eleison.
His sword is inscribed with the words Keep the faith. He can’t even keep the sword. He makes
his final confession, but not to a priest — to his son Lavrans. But he does confess the thing he is
most guilty of.
Unlike Kristin, he can’t keep a grudge. After Erlend’s death, she comes to understand and admire this about Erlend. She tells Gunnulf:
“He never held on to anger or injustice any more than he held on to anything else. […] I’m certain that God the Almighty knows that Erlend never harbored rancor toward any man, for any reason.”
From the moment Kristin meets him, her love for Erlend leads her to greater love for Christ,
beginning when she the nuns make her stay in the chapel until midnight and contemplate her sin. Contemplating Erlend makes her contemplate God.
If Kristin had married Simon, she would have had a provincial life with few worries or troubles.
With Erlend, she had adventure and heartbreak and passion. That’s what happens when you
marry the Mountain King.
He is the mountain king
In the poems I’ve written for this project, I’ve used many forms that repeat. That’s because this story is very Psalmic — it doesn’t rhyme, but it repeats and repeats again. The poetry of the book is in the phrase in one scene that pays off 800 pages later. One of those ideas is about the mountain king.
It seems to be the tale everyone knows (like everyone now knows Harry Potter). It’s a story of a
maiden lured inside the mountain, to live with the mountain king. Lavrans tells a version of this
story to Kristin, regarding Audhild the Fair of Skjenne. But she’s already referred to it many
times: in her meeting with the elf maiden, the first time she visits the cathedral of Hamar, in
choosing to marry Erlend, and in choosing to leave him at Haugen.
“She felt as if she were returning home from inside the mountain. As if Erlend were the mountain king himself and could not come past the church and the cross on the hill.”
After Erlend’s death, at the end of the book, Kristin does a very brave thing. I don’t think she
would have done it without being married to him. There is a recklessness she gets from him —
the kind of thoughtless, bold deed that saves the day. Sure, it costs you everything. That’s the
stuff stories are made of.
IMarriage has changed me — in love, in work, in parenthood, in faith, in my very soul. Like Kristin and Erlend, John and I have had our personal fires and floods, our scary childbirths,
our losses of all we held dear, the deaths of loved ones.
Just as he’s changed me, so I’ve changed him. I don’t think the 19-year-old young man I met at summer camp would have been remotely interested in my affection for some dude from a century-old book. Now that middle-aged man just smiles and lets me keep talking.