Andrew Lytle on Kristin Lavransdatter

I recently discovered that the last thing Andrew Lytle published before he died at the ripe ol’ age of 92 was a book entitled Kristin: A Reading by Andrew Lytle.  Naturally, he’s referring to the heroine of the medieval Norwegian saga: Kristin Lavransdatter.   This is exciting on several levels—mainly that Kristin seems to be Lytle’s favorite heroine (though a close tie with Emma Bovary), but also, there really is very little said about this trilogy.  As Curtsinger’s great love for Moby inspired him to publish a reading before his death, we can consider Kristin to be Lytle’s Moby.

If you had Fr. Maguire for American Lit, you can already appreciate this Southern Agrarian as the (courageous) author of “The Hero with the Private Parts”, a collection of literary essays where Lytle analyzes the private and public parts of some of literature’s greatest heroes.  Thomas Carlson, a former student of Lytle’s, writes in the Forward to Kristin that Lytle typically began his courses by telling his students: “Life is melodrama. Only art is real.”   From there, the students learned imaginative writing (Lytle didn’t believe in “creative” writing) through intense courses of reading the greatest works of literature.  Next to War and Peace, Lytle says: “Only one other story, Kristin Lavransdatter, allows the reader to experience so fully the variety and complexities of private and public action”.  Carlson elaborates:

Kristin Lavransdatter is that one special work of literature which in structure, characterization, and action peculiarly stimulates Andrew Lytle’s imagination and sympathy.  In its depiction of rural manners and mores and in its historical milieu, he clearly finds a close connection between the pre-industrial South and medieval Europe. “I know these people.  I grew up with them,” he once told a startled class before discussion of the novel began.

Lytle’s favorite heroines in literature contain what he calls, “a passionate and incorruptible heart”.  It is Kristin’s heart that he is concerned with because he sees it as one with “inordinate passion”, stubborn and disobedient, yet true and unchanging.  This reading is considered to be Lytle’s “most forceful defense of a passionate and incorruptible heart”.

So as not to spoil the saga or Lytle’s interpretation, I will simply reveal what grounds he’s working with and how his reading takes course from there—though I can hardly do it justice.  Kristin grew up in 14th century Norway where religious custom and the State were closely linked.  At this time, the world was not seen as it is today, as Lytle tells:  “Today we take the world as the end of all action, our reward or bane. To the Christians of Norway it was the ground for the drama of the soul, such means we hope to reach the perfectibility of man…”  In Kristin’s household, both the Christian customs and the Law were obeyed.  For Kristin and many people of the time, obedience was habitual.  The danger of obedience, Lytle explains, is that “it never occurred to authority that perpetual unthinking obedience for all would lead to an uninspired life and finally servility to power just or unjust, and in the end possible rebellion and damnation”.  The saga begins with Kristin’s childhood of habitual obedience but she never acquires the virtue on her own.  She is most always concerned with doing her own will, and this, once she “suffers love”,  is detrimental—though possibly sanctifying—to nearly everyone she encounters.  Lytle defends her “passionate and incorruptible heart” as well as that of Brother Edvin (the artist) and her husband Erlend (the Christian Chieftain).

Lytle’s book reads as if a student had recorded him speaking in class and transposed the audio into prose.  It is not a thorough argumentative analysis; it’s more of a meditation on life through the reality of the novel as art.  There are very few great teachers out there and even fewer who have taken the time to publish their profound insights.  Clearly, this publication is a treasure to us as students of life.

I’ll conclude this post as Carlson does his Forward to Kristin: A Reading by quoting a character in one of Lytle’s own novels, The Velvet Horn, who said: “Remember Jack Cropliegh who learned life by heart.  Learning is a surfeit. Let it spill.”

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One Response
  1. Buttercream says:

    That’s interesting that religion and the state were so connected in Sweden, I didn’t know that. It kind of reminds me of the utopia described at the very beginning of the “Brothers Karamazov” by Ivan, where wrongdoers are cut off both from the church and society. Personally I don’t think that’s the best arrangment, because virtue and a relationship with God are something that should be embraced freely, I think. You can certainly encourage those two things in society, but to punish their lack seems harsh on Dostoyevsky and Sweden’s part

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