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Walter Wangerin's Saint Julian defies easy categorization. Neither novel nor traditional saint's tale nor romance, it combines elements of all three. Whatever else we call the story, it is, in one reader's words, "an act of literary sorcery—white magic, to be sure"—which suggests something of its poetry, intensity, and depth of insight.
The tale is that of Saint Julian the Hospitaler, of whose historical existence, according to The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, there is no record. The legend has intrigued readers and been retold many times since its first appearance in Varagine's 13th-century Golden Legend. A great hunter and warrior, Julian sins exceedingly in his bloodlust for both animals and men. He hears a prophecy that he will kill his parents and, like Oedipus, in trying to avoid it, brings it about. Like Oedipus he spends the rest of his life fleeing from his furies, in his last years offering aid and shelter to pilgrims as a simple hospitaler and ferryman.
In Wangerin's hands the medieval saint's tale is marvelously transformed to speak to a contemporary audience while it takes a deep and steady look at the mystery of Julian's iniquity. Extremes of goodness and sinfulness dwell side by side in the soul of this reluctant saint. Without diminishing the final, miraculous grace, the author fixes most of our attention on the depth and breadth of evil. When the teenaged Julian stands horrified after nearly killing his father, the narrator comments,
Like smoke are the laws of God!—unable to bind the heart, and blown apart by mere human breathing! …
How thin is the glaze 'twixt love and brutality. A little heat only, and kissing is killing instantly.
Perhaps the most notable version of the tale before Wangerin's is Flaubert's "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaler," in which the author of Madame Bovary briefly abandoned his beloved realism. Wangerin's treatment contains even more color and detail than the French master's. It is filled with solid colors and sharp lines ...