Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lessons from In The Wilderness

His life had now become like a journey in a trackless wilderness; he saw neither path nor trail, and he had to find his way alone.

Sigrid Undset's third book in her Master of Hestviken tetralogy is aptly titled: In the Wilderness.  For me, it differed greatly from the previous two books.

Ingunn, Olav's childhood companion and wife, has died, leaving him a widower.  Ingunn's death is deeply felt; there seems to be even a hole in the narrative.  Olav has lived so much of his life by her side that he feels lost without her presence.

As far back as he could remember, he had been used to think of her as much as of himself, whatever he were doing or thinking.  When two trees have sprung up together from their roots, their leaves will make one crown.  And if one falls, the other, left standing alone, will seem overgrown.  Olav felt thus, exposed and grown aslant, now that she was gone. 

In an effort to get away and clear his mind, Olav sets sail for England with some trading companions. While there, he becomes lost in the countryside during night.  It is a symbol for the wilderness in his soul.  Olav is lost--literally and figuratively.

El Toro Wilderness in Puerto Rico

Though he had determined to reconcile with God and seek forgiveness for the sins of his past, Olav recoils from actually accomplishing the act.  

He lacks the courage to strip his soul bare and acknowledge a humiliating fact: his own lust and childish desire was what propelled his fate forward to his current state.  He has been living a lie, telling people he had taken Ingunn for his own because he learned her family would not honor their childhood betrothal.  

It is a lie he has almost come to believe as truth.  Olav prefers this false version of the story: in it, he appears resourceful and strong-willed.  In reality, he acted as a child, grasping for what is shiny and attractive without ever considering the consequences.

Now he saw that he might have gone astray from weakness, from childish thoughtlessness and blind desire--that he had sought to deny at any cost: even if he should take upon himself the guilt of far worse deeds, charge himself with a burden of sorrow so heavy that it broke him down, then rather that. If only it might look as if he had acted with premeditation and accepted his sorrows knowingly and of his own free will. 

Unwilling to combat the pride that masks his sin, Olav is not only divided from his wife, but from his God.  He makes his way alone, not at all certain where he is going.  

For that reason, In the Wilderness is more of an introspective, slower-paced novel.  Much of the action is within Olav's head and heart as he grapples with the uncertain path before him.  

In this haze, Olav seems incapable of self-giving love.  He has two children: Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate son whom they have falsely presented as their own, and Cecilia.  Olav also becomes a foster-father to a young girl named Bothild.  Though they are innocent and desire the love of a father, Olav's sentiment toward them is more often than not cold, distant, and reserved.  

This is especially heart-wrenching in Eirik's case, who adores his father.  Eirik is like a hungry beggar, eager to claim any scraps of affection Olav happens to send his way.  Undset describes a terrible, stormy day when Olav takes Eirik down to a shed by the water where they must do some work.  Eirik could not be happier being alone with his father, working side by side.

In a similarly poignant passage, Undset writes:

But it only needed a friendly word from Olav, and Eirik forgot all his bitterness.  Afterwards he remembered it and was angry at his own weakness.  But no sooner did the man show him the least indulgence, no sooner did Eirik see but a shadow of the pale, frozen smile on his father's lips as he spoke to him, than the son became insensible to all but his abject adoration of his father.

And while Olav does care about Ingunn's son, he is more prone to anger than to forgiveness and love.  When Olav finds Eirik indecently flirting with a young girl, he severely chastises and embarrasses him.  Eirik accuses Olav in return, reminding him how Olav committed adultery with a serving woman at Hestviken.  Beside himself with rage, Olav beats Eirik until the snow is bloody and the boy unconscious.

Later that evening, Eirik stonily approaches Olav and aptly observes:

"It is almost as though you had taken a hatred to me, Father." 

It is because Olav is in the wilderness.  He is in the dark, removed and separated from God.  His soul mired down with sin, how can he love in a pure, selfless, and sacrificial way?  One could wonder how Olav can treat his children so coldly, and yet we read in the newspapers of parents killing their children.  

It is the terrible darkness that is the wilderness of sin, driving people from God and making even the most natural human relationship--that between parent and child--one of hatred. 

Because when you are intentionally separated from Him who is Love, how can you hope to love at all?

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