It seems a universal propensity of the human mind to imagine that at some time in the past or future there was or will be a paradise. Whether or not one is justified, as C.S. Lewis and others have suggested, in drawing religious conclusions from this fact, it does seem to be a fact. Our century has seen a strong impulse to locate this paradise in the future, and to suppose that we will construct it ourselves: that fabulous future of the engineers, in which white plastic and chrome will constitute the environment and we will all look like Ken and Barbie. That party has had as its rival and opposite the neo-pagans who appeared, like the other, with industrialism, and who imagine their paradise in a pre-industrial, pre-Christian past. They conjecture a world in which the supposedly chill hand of Christianity had not yet frozen the warm springs of natural vitality, when humanity was at ease with nature and passed its time in sexual frolic or mystical revery.
Those of us who regard industrialism as a blight may have some sympathy for this picture. After all, we believe that modern life creates an unhealthy distance between people and nature, and there is no doubt that pre-industrial societies are much closer to nature than ours is. And so we expect that those unblighted times should have been happier. Healthier in some ways they may have been—they were at least in touch with reality—but “happier” is certainly to be doubted of pagan societies.
Most of the neo-pagan myth is simply the writing of contemporary fantasy upon the blank slate of pre-history. What we know of pagan Europe, or of existing pre-industrial societies, bears little resemblance to the fantasy. The ancient Celts, favorites of neo-pagans, seem to have practiced human sacrifice, and the world we see through the eyes of the poets who gave us epics like Beowulf is dark and brutal, its heroism of a hard violent kind abhorrent to the touchie-feelie ambience of contemporary neo-paganism.
Gunnar’s Daughter, a small masterpiece by the Norwegian novelist who later produced the large masterpieces Kristin Lavrandsdatter and The Master of Hestviken, is, among other things, a corrective to sentimentality about paganism. I don’t pretend to know very much about pre-Christian Scandinavia, but Undset’s portrayal rings more true to me, and fits better with what I do know, than does the image of pastoral innocence advertised by neo-paganism (though it must be admitted that they don’t generally use the Scandinavians in their advertising, the Vikings being too well known). The world of Gunnar’s Daughter is so hard and cold that most of us would find it unendurable. In it young men are casual killers soon after puberty, and women celebrate an enemy’s death by bathing their hair in his blood. Our own neo-paganism will turn equally cold if it ever gets past being post-Christian and becomes truly pagan, and then no doubt the choices will seem clearer. If Sigrid Undset’s vision is accurate, then it is Christianity which provides the warmth we need when, as Auden wrote in neo-pagan 1939,
...the tears of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
It is not, however, upon the contemporary cultural or religious scene that the book sheds its strongest light. One can’t help noticing its application to current developments, but fads come and go while the elemental facts of human nature remain. For a Catholic novelist these facts are seen in light of, and the questions they raise illuminated by, the Gospel. I spoke earlier of pre-Christian Europe, but the story of Gunnar’s Daughter actually takes place in a Scandinavia which has just been evangelized, when the pagan mind was only beginning to consider the implications of the new religion while treating it in many ways as an extension of the old. And the green shoots of that new religion play a major part in the novel.
So far I have said nothing about the actual story. That is because a brief summary would make it sound conventional and a lengthy description might spoil a first reading, when the story unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy or a Flannery O’Connor short story. I will say only that it is about a man and a woman, that it involves love, betrayal, and revenge, and that I hope I haven’t left the impression that it is an abstract or didactic work.
In fact there is nothing overtly philosophical in the novel at all. It is pure story, and in my opinion it is only a rare gift which can choose and present the incidents of a narrative in such a way that no commentary or reflection by the author is needed. The narrative is terse and tightly focused, with no digression from the essential events. This approach can seem sketchy and thin, or contrived, as in writers too much influenced by Hemingway. In Undset’s hands, though, the effect is like that of English and Scottish ballads: brief, laconic and understated, but of concentrated potency. It is so much in the spirit of old stories that I often found myself thinking of it as a translation of an ancient work, recalling with a shock that it was written in our own time.
Literary people, in their quest for novelty, are forever reviving some forgotten book and proclaiming it a neglected masterpiece. At the risk of sounding like one of them, I must say that I think Gunnar’s Daughter truly merits such treatment. Perhaps I’ll retreat from that opinion after another reading or two, but I don’t believe that it is a book I am likely to forget, nor do I expect to have to qualify my very strong recommendation of it.