Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lessons from The Son Avenger

"God, my God, who lovest us all, who loved me--whom I once loved; had I chosen Thee, I should have chosen my deepest love."

With a title like The Son Avenger, I thought for sure Undset's final chapter in Olav Audunsson's life story would center on his adopted son's final realization that he is not the biological son of Olav and that, in fact, Olav is the murderer of his birth father.  Thus, Eirik would avenge Olav for the evil deed committed so long ago and never confessed of.

I was correct that Eirik is the avenger, but not in the way I had anticipated.  Eirik's personal conversion, love, and sanctity are the avenging forces.  It is they that battle the sin that Olav bears on his soul.  

But all that is preceded by more suffering.  Olav, now an elderly man, has only his children left and they become his source of joy.  They are also his source of consternation as Olav is forced to watch them commit the same sins of his youth.

Eirik, especially, tries Olav's wits, as he always has done.  Capricious and fickle, Eirik veers from folly to faith, from marriage to a celibate brother.  In response to these character flaws, Olav wishes Eirik never to return to Hestivken, while simultaneously wishing to talk to the son who has become so much more of a son than he had ever thought possible.

And he had loved Eirik, who lied and boasted and followed every fancy and turned again from every path he had set out on--loved this incubus that he had got on his back, this goblin that had sucked blood of him till they were as father and son after the flesh.  The murdered man's son had avenged his father as secretly as he himself had slain Taint.

Throughout the tetralogy, the main conflict has always been the inner struggle Olav wages with himself: will he finally confess his hidden murder and be reconciled with God?  Now, in the last years of his life, the risk is higher than ever.  As his children marry and move on, Olav is left with his inescapable sin.

Then he would be left alone with his own soul, as a captive in the deepest dungeon is left alone with the corpse of his fellow prisoner. 

While Olav still remains trapped in his sin, Eirik experiences a profound conversion.  He prays for his father, even asking God to remove some of the suffering from Olav and bestow it upon himself.  Eirik's reckless and selfish habits give way to a sacrificing, forgiving nature.  

Suddenly, like gleam after gleam of summer lightning, there flashed across Eirik's soul--all the forgiveness and all the gifts he had received in these last years.  And even if it were now his lot to forfeit his happiness in this world, that did not diminish the value of what God had done for him: never more could he become as he had been ... he realized in wonder how his raw and immature nature had ripened to hard grain.

When Olav becomes convinced that his personal transgression has produced ill-fruit in the next generation--certain his daughter had also committed an act of murder--he goes to make his confession in hopes of at last purging his family of the curse of his sin.  Yet, on the way to the confessional, Olav has a stroke, leaving him mute and, thus, unable to confess his sin.

In the end, Undset does not give her readers a clear scene of Olav's reconciliation with God.  We do know the desire is there in his heart and that he receives final absolution on his deathbed.  The idea is very much present that, as much as the fire of his sin has burned his soul, Olav's fervent fire for God burns even brighter.

Then the very rays from the source of light broke out and poured down over him.  For an instant he stared with open eyes straight into the eye of the sun, tried even, wild with love and longing, to gaze deeper into God.  He sank back in red fire, all about him was a living blaze, and he knew that now the prison tower that he had built around him was burning.  But salved by the glance that surrounded him, he would walk out unharmed over the glowing embers of his burned house, into the Vision that is eternal bliss, and the fire that burned him was not so ardent as his longing.

Undset's prose is beautiful and, on that merit alone, the tetralogy is worth reading.  I will say, however, that I was disappointed in Olav's story.  I was frustrated by how long it took him to confess ... or not confess, as the case may be.  For four books he knew that he should come clean to God and yet he kept delaying it!  I suppose that is what happens sometimes in real life, but for me, it made the plot languish.  

Another point of disappointment for me: Eirik never learned the truth of his birth.  Eirik never knew his birth father had been murdered and Olav's guilt in the deed, nor did he realize the quiet sacrifice Olav made throughout the years in rearing the bastard son as his own.  I feel that conversation would have added depth and meaning to their relationship.  At the very least, it seems Eirik deserved to know the truth.  It was frustrating this exchange never took place.

I also felt the tetralogy ended on a very odd note.  I won't give away anything by going into details--though it was so anti-climatic and strange, I don't know if it really would detract to explain the final few lines.  I'll just say it left a very unsatisfying taste in my mouth.  It could have been something much more than it was, or at least something a little more emotional or meaningful.

So, in the end, I don't regret reading The Master of Hestviken tetralogy, though I found Olav's character quite frustrating and redundant at times.  If you are considering reading Undset, start with Kristin!