Hilary Paynter, Turf Farm, wood engraving (detail) - Karin-Altenberg, The Kristin Lavransdattir trilogy - Slightly Foxed Isuse 61

On the Wings of History

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I recently found myself in the excavated ruins of Stöng, a chieftain’s farmhouse in the Icelandic valley of Þjórsárdalur. The manor, along with many neighbouring farms, was abandoned when the volcano Hekla erupted in 1104, covering this Icelandic Pompeii in pumice. Stöng is the best preserved early medieval farmhouse in the Nordic area, with massive turf walls still standing waist-high and a remarkable double-drained social lavatory, which would have accommodated a large gathering. In the main hall the cold slabs of the large central fireplace are visible and I was reminded of the appropriateness of the word ‘window’ – from the Old Norse vindauga, ‘the eye of the wind’ – where the smoke would escape through a single slit in the turf roof.

As I was standing there, imagining the densely walled, fire-lit hall, something stirred in me – a familiar sense of wonder and curiosity about the people who once made their lives here; who created culture in an unforgiving world, charged with the magic that stalked the borders between paganism and Christianity. An image formed in my imagination of a sleeping household, flea-ridden and night-barricaded against the battleaxe-wielding and torch-carrying neighbours of the Icelandic sagas, or perhaps against more unknown, Grendel-like monsters of the mind.

Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset’s most celebrated work, brings the medieval North to life in an unparalleled way. Set in fourteenth-century Norway the trilogy of novels was published between 1920 and 1923. Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1928, and by then Kristin Lavransdatter had been translated into many languages and copies sold all over the world.

Born in 1882, Undset grew into a writer at a time when the ‘New Woman’ was starting to view life through the prism of her own being: through her intellect, her eroticism and her desires. She found support in her inner self, her ‘woman

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About the contributor

Karin Altenberg is currently writing a novel set in a time and place she knows little about. As a result she’s trying very hard to live in the present, knowing that the good old days never really happened.

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