The edition I have contains a forward and afterword by Thomas Cahill, who praises the book as "Sigrid Undset's Lost Masterpiece." The story is set in 11th century Norway and Iceland - well off the beaten path in terms of both period and location. I don't intend to go into detail about the story itself, but I do want to highlight one section that boldly and beautifully confronts one of the ugliest and most tragic sins of our time: abortion.
Abortion is not new, it is merely grown more sophisticated, as most sins do over time. In olden days, people disposed of unwanted babies for the same frivolous reasons, only instead of aborting them, they simply exposed them, savage-fashion. Gunnar's Daughter contains one instance of this desperate cruelty, though you will be relieved to know the child was rescued and grew into a fine man. Later in the book, in the form of a tale told by a visiting priest around the hearth at evening, Undset approaches the issue directly, in a style similar to that used by Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress in describing the various visions and wonders of the Interpreter's House. The following parable immediately captured me with it's directness, pathos, and power. Read it, be reminded, and be changed.
There was once a woman in Odinso. Her name was Tora and she was very fair. So it befell that she was seduced, and seeking to hide her misfortune she cast the child into the sea.
Afterwards she made a good marriage, lived respected and beloved and had many children, of whom she was very fond. But then she fell into a grievous sickness and swooned away, so that she lay as one dead. While she lay thus it seemed to her that she was dead, and she was clothed and adorned and laid in the burial mound; but she could hear her little children weeping for her at home in her house and she fervently desired she could find means of going home to comfort them. Then it seemed to her that one came into the mound; he was wrapped from head to foot in a black cloak, and he took her by the hand, saying: 'Rise up, Tora, and come with me.' Now she no longer felt that she was dead, and she begged that she might go home, where her children were crying for her. The man in the cloak nodded and led her with him. 'But this is not the way we are to go,' said Tora. 'Yes, this is the way,' replied the man.
When they had gone a long way they came to a deep, dark valley; there was a black river at the bottom of the valley and a sheer cliff down to the water, and on the other side there was also a sheer cliff. But on the mountain there stood a castle of pure gold; it shone like the sun, and outside it stood knights in golden armour, and within the castle they sang and played upon harps, so that she had never thought that anything could be so beautiful. She asked who was the master of the golden castle. 'I am the master there,' said the man. 'Will you come with me, Tora, and see my house?' Yes, she would come gladly, but afterwards she would go home to her children.
They began to go down the mountainside. Then it looked to her as if the valley were full of little white lambs; they stood as close as in a fold, they crawled and climbed, trying to get up both sides of the ravine. But when she came nearer she saw they were little children; there were many thousands of them; they were quite naked and newly born, but their faces were old, and some were bloody and horribly mangled, and some were wet. They tried to climb out of the valley on both sides, but they rolled back again at once, for they were so small and weak. This seemed to Tora such a sorry sight that she began to weep; she asked him in the cloak what it was and how the poor little things had come there. 'Their parents have left them here,' said the man. 'They willed it so.' 'I can never believe it,' said Tora.
The children had the power of speech, and they said: 'It is true, and now we must lie here. Gladly would we come up and see the world, and gladly would we see the other world on the far side of the valley; but we are so small that we must stay here, and it is so bare and ugly, and we are so cold.'
Then Tora took of her cloak and tore it in pieces; she wrapped the nearest ones in it. Now they all crowded about her, so she took off her outer garment and shared it among the children, and so she went on till she was left as naked as they. And yet there were just as many who had received nothing; there were many thousands of children in the valley. All this time they went forward, and the children swarmed about her, begging her to carry them up, that they might see how the world looked. 'Oh, there is indeed no delight in seeing it,' she said. 'Yet they are so loath to be rid of life, those who come hither,' said the children. 'They all wish to go back again - and so do you.' 'I only wish to go home to my children,' said Tora.
Now they came to the water, the man and Tora. And it too was full of little children; they stood with the water up to their necks, as thick as a shoal of herrings, and they shivered with cold and caught hold of Tora. She felt so sorry for them that it made her weep, and she gathered them up in her arms, as many as she could carry, and she asked the man if she might not take them with her to the golden castle. She might indeed, the man answered. Soon she could carry no more. Then she asked the man to lend her a cloak that she might wrap them in it. He took it off, and then she saw that under it he wore a splendid armour of gold with a cross of precious stones on his breast and a gleaming crown on his head. But his face shone even brighter, and it seemed to Tora she had never thought any man could be so handsome and kingly.
Then he said: 'Here the slope is so steep that you cannot come up it unless I carry you. Shall I carry the children first, or you?'
'Take the children first,' she said. 'If you cannot carry them all together, I can sit here and wait meanwhile.'
'That will be a long time,' said the knight; 'you see how many there are here - and more are coming all the time. You wished to see my golden castle, and after that you wished to go home to your children. But here you may sit till the end of the world, before I have brought all these children home to me.'
'Then I must wait, however long it may be,' said she; 'I have not the heart to leave these poor little children here; mine are well at home, so these have greater need of our help.'
Then said he in the golden armour:
'It is your eldest son, Tora, who is now lying next against your breast - all these are children who have been robbed of life before they could live in the world or learn the way to my house.'
Tora fell on her knees and asked in terror:
'Who are you, chieftan, and what is your name?'
'Christ is my name,' said the King. And now a radiance went out from him, as though the sun had risen upon the valley, warming all the children. But Tora had to shut her eyes before the glory of it. And when she opened them she was at home, lying in her bed.
-Sigrid Undset, Gunnar's Daughter, (Harrington Park, NJ: Ampersand Associates), 161-165
Image courtesy of sflifeandjustice.org
Image courtesy of sflifeandjustice.org