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The Axe

(The Master of Hestviken #1)

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  643 ratings  ·  71 reviews
Set in thirteenth-century Norway, a land racked by political turmoil and bloody family vendettas, The Axe is the first volume in Sigrid Undset's epic tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken. In it we meet Olav Audunsson and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, who were betrothed as children and raised as brother and sister. Now, in the heedlessness of youth, they become lovers, unaware tha ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published November 29th 1994 by Vintage (first published 1925)
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Average rating 4.21  · 
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It's hard to write a review of The Axe without comparing this book - the first of a tetralogy - to Kristin Lavransdatter, which I read last year and really loved. Both series are historical fiction set in the Middle Ages in Norway, and were originally written in Norwegian by the Nobel Prize-winning author Sigrid Undset. The society and customs of medieval Norway may be foreign to us, but Undset's characters are so vivid and interesting that her books act as a window into another time. They feel ...more
Jan 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
I'd give this five stars if it was a better translation. Unlike Tina Nunnally's recent translation of Kristin Lavransdatter, this one by Charles Chater from 1928 was a bit archaic (words like "meseems" and "I trow" kind of bug me.) Nevertheless, it was still an intense and moving story--and it's only Part I.

It's set in the late 1200s in Norway, and is the story of Olav and Ingunn's struggle to validate their betrothal. Again I'm struck by the intriguing mix of pagan traditions, Christianity, and
This book is absolutely gorgeous! I could not put it down and it is but the first of four! I don't even know what to say about this book-- there is so much to say. I loved it-- it's one of the best I have ever read.

A favorite quote: "But a man's faith is put to the test on the day God's will is not his.”
Mar 01, 2012 rated it liked it
Sanctimonious men, denigrating women. Religion crammed down the throats of the people. Guilt, recrimination, no recourse to birth control. Then I turned off the TV and finished this book.
Oct 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I previously read Kristin Lavrandatter, a trilogy set in medieval Norway written between 1922 and 1924, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The Master of Hestviken is a tetrology (4 volumes) written between 1925 and 1927. Undset won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928.

MoH seems darker to me with more personal anguish, "psychologically and romantically nuanced." It meticulously recreates the Norwegian world split between pagan coldes of retribution and Christian piety. Law is a new invention. Heavy but
Jul 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is the first of a tetrology by Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset. I dove into it and quickly ordered all three of the other books. I expect to love them as much as I love Kristin Lavransdatter. This period of time is fascinating to me and her characters are alive. I care about them and enter their lives while I read about them. I think about them when I'm not reading! Can't recommend these too much! ...more
Tom Johnson
Jul 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
more to my liking than Kristen Lavransdatter - opening book is a great start - wish there was a decent English biography of Sigrid Undset - Inside the Gate: Sigrid Undset's Life at Bjerkebæk, translated by Tiina Nunnally, looks promising but as of yet I have been unable to locate a copy - ...more
May 18, 2017 rated it liked it
This is the first book in a multi-volume family saga set in 13th century Norway. This book focuses on the marriage of a young couple amid scandal.
Mar 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Be still my beating heart!
This is the first of four books that make up The Master of Hestviken, the story of Olav Andusson and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, set in medieval Norway.
I loved Kristen Lavransdatter. Sigrid Undset writes so much emotion into her stories that is intense and honest and complex:

"The boundless pain and distress in her poor eyes - it was that which drew his soul naked up into the light. Away went all that he had thought and determined - he knew right well that they were great a
Jul 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I love this writer! She writes wonderful historicAl fiction! The thing I like most about this book is that even though it's set in medieval Norway with if different cultural and religious mores, the story is ageless. The conflict between the two main characters, their families, the church and community could be retold anywhere and at any time. This makes the story timeless. At the same time, the historical setting makes the story unique. ...more
A.K. Frailey
Jun 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Like all of Undset's work, this is a story of human passion that goes wrong and must struggle to right itself. Her clear, compassionate insight into the human soul never ceases to amaze me. ...more
Diane Anderson
Apr 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Yes, yes, yes, and I have 3 more in this series to read!
Aug 07, 2009 added it
Shelves: novel
Hooray! More Norwegian epic stortelling by the illuminating Sigrid Undeset. I am so excited to start this.

Who is Sigrid Undset? Link:
Sep 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is probably the darkest book I have ever read. I loved it though. I think the author is one of the best.
Mar 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is a series I just completed. Amazing detail in the life of 13th century Scandinavia. The struggles of dominant religion and relationships. Hardships and simplistic beauty. Read all four books.
Apr 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful historical fiction
Tori Thompson
Jul 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
This might be a 5 for me upon further reflection and after I've read the other books in the series, but I'm giving it a 4 for now. It's so similar to K.L. (1920-22) and with echoes of G.D. (published 1909) that I'd probably need to read them all in a row and in publication order to give a fair evaluation. (Project for the rest of 2020?) The beautiful setting and depiction of the religious/moral struggles of the characters keep me coming back for more of Sigrid Undset, even if I'm not sure yet wh ...more
Madeleine Lesieutre
Jan 10, 2021 rated it really liked it
First forty pages are slow, but stick with it, my friends! Soon there will be convents and soon there will be kisses.

Into “The Snake Pit” I go!

PS. This is a feminist song!

Post-postscriptum. It’s the closest I’ve come to Kristen Laverensdatter. But it wasn’t quite.... as psychologically rich.

PPPS. Someone should write a compare-contrast essay psychoanalyzing the sibling-lover relationship in this book with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slapstick, or Lonesome no More!” Because that would be totally fun and
Mar 02, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think the story is worth another star, but the translation is a bit tedious.

#metoo in medieval Norway

As much as I love many things Viking, it was nice to read a story about the Old Norse that didn’t involve boats with dragon heads
Sigrid Undset is known for her brilliant, deeply subtle and intricate potrayals of life in medieval Norway, with characters who often find themselves caught between the old Norse codes of honor and shame, and the new piety and rigors of Christianity. Like her Nobel prize winning epic Kristin Lavransdatter, The Master of Hestviken tells a story of a struggle for love; this time it is treacherous kinsmen who intervene, rather than the will of the heoine's well-meaning father. Olav Audunsson and In ...more
Gina Rheault
Apr 06, 2013 rated it it was ok
Olav, the orphan, has an axe called Fintree. Ingunn is a daughter in the household that raises and houses young Olav. The two are joined first in a drunken betrothal as children, and then in a moment of passion as young adults. The deaths of each of their fathers curtail their options, especially the option of consumating their love in legitimate marriage.

Olav spends a great deal of time making mistakes, and being banished. Ingunn spends a great deal of time pining for Olav, making fewer mistake
Mark Werderitsch
Jan 15, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Deliberately paced, but still a good read

Sigrid Undset's first volume of "The Master of Hestviken" is a very interesting book to read. It is not as fast paced as are most modern novels, but neither is it as slow as some eighteenth century novels such as Richardson's "Clarrissa." It is more deliberately paced. Undset, who died in 1949, had a reputation very very thoroughly researching the background of her novels and the way people actually lived during, in this case, late thirteenth century Norw
Oct 27, 2014 rated it liked it
This book is not something I would normally read or a book anyone who knows me would think I would read. I was ready for an escape, however, having read a few nonfiction works before this. It does the job in that---it's set in Norway of old, or should I write "olde." The country is Catholic, but as the blurb says, it is emerging from and still influenced by its pre-Christian past. The story focuses on one main character and then the other, literally, since the book is divided into Parts One and ...more
Sep 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Who would have imagined that the first volume of the Sigrid Undset saga quartet, THE MASTER OF HESTVIKEN, would be so good. It made me move on to volume II, "The Snake Pit". I look forward to reading volume's III and IV. Set a pair of unlikely lovers, promised to each other as children by father's under the influence of strong drink, follow their unlikely romance through its innocent childhood, adolescent assignations, strong attempts by Ingun's family to ignore the betrothal and marry her off t ...more
May 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
I think I bought this set of books at a yard sale or maybe The Book Nook in Atlanta. I had no idea who the author was but liked the idea of historical fiction in both a century and a country that I knew nothing about. I was surprised at how much I liked this book, especially given the slower beginning when I wasn't sure I was going to finish it. The tone of this book is calm and simple, even with the violent and barbaric times of 13th century Norway. With that background tone, the author has the ...more
Apr 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
I'm liking this series as much as Kristin Lavransdatter. Like Kristin, it is the life story of a person in medieval Norway, a man this time, named Olav Audunsson. The book is separated into two parts, the first primarily concerning Olav and his experiences; the second primarily about his fiancee Ingunn. Olav's parents having died early in his childhood, he becomes the foster son of Ingunn's parents and the children grow up with the knowledge that they are betrothed to each other. Their betrothal ...more
Mar 07, 2015 rated it liked it
A slow burn, but ultimately satisfying. Set in 13th-century Norway, the story involves Olav and Ingunn, a couple betrothed since childhood. Family politics interferes with their love and threatens to void the engagement, but they consummate it illicitly. That unfortunate point of no return initiates a decade-long period of uncertainty and shame interspersed with murder, infidelity and exile.

In essence, this story is about how sin and its consequences seep into life, poisoning it in unexpected wa
Nov 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have heard of Sigrid Undset for many years, but just now got around to reading this after running across a very old copy at a book sale. She was a master of suspense, of setting, of characterizations. The love story could have been set in any time period, but Olav's fervent faith and his loyalty seem to be a product of the times. Morality in the thirteenth century didn't proscribe murder or other violence, and sexual mores were complicated. Children were often sent to live with a friend or rel ...more
Martin Kostian
Sep 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely phenomenal book that breathes life and colour into our view of the medieval world. Filled with all the suspense, action and intrigue of the best modern writing and tempered with morality and philosophical quagmires that only serve to add immense depth to a surprisingly fluid and lyrical story.
I was compelled to adapt the novel to a feature length screenplay. Have read the book dozens of times doing so. I was never bored.
This is really plot-driven, so it actually reads very quickly for the first 296 pages of a 1000 page novel. Just like Kristin Lavransdatter by the same author, this story is set in medieval Norway. It has such powerful insights into the human struggle with sin, and the setting is depicted so vividly that it feels like a completely familiar place. Such a well written, thought-provoking story.
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Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, but her family moved to Norway when she was two years old. In 1924, she converted to Catholicism and became a lay Dominican. She fled Norway in 1940 because of her opposition to Nazi Germany and the German occupation, but returned after the end of World War II in 1945.

Sigrid Undset received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Most of the praise was for h

Other books in the series

The Master of Hestviken (5 books)
  • The Snake Pit (The Master of Hestviken, #2)
  • In the Wilderness (The Master of Hestviken, #3)
  • The Son Avenger (The Master of Hestviken, #4)
  • Olav Audunszoon op Hestviken

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