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Robert Siegel


A murderous saint's life

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 like those medieval miniatures painted by Froissart, Van Eyck, and others. There is a surreal clarity to it; everything is itself but more so:

Pavilions filled the the eastern reaches of the field, heraldic colors, banners displaying dragons, wyverns, lions, fishes, harps. Bristles of weapons sprouted under their canopies … great trees embordering the field itself in a pageantry of yellows, oranges, and fire-burst vermilions.

Here is the color and composition of a tapestry, the light and line of stained glass, yet the real, physical world is caught simply and solidly.

The miraculous is a seamless part of this world. The tale is narrated by an aging priest who lives two centuries or so after Julian, preserving a medieval flavor in the prose, a magical, timeless quality. The sheer poetry of it often stuns:

"He flies in a ruby silence. … His head is a flame of fire," sang the songs, in an inhuman adoration, "for as he rides his black Arabian wings to the attack his great red beard and his cardinal hair stream backward like flames from a torch."

The sharp heraldic colors—the sensuous surface of this medieval world—contrast with Julian's interior abyss of anguish. Indeed, he lives both on the surface and in the abyss. For most of his life he is a profound sinner while regarded as a saint by the world. The reader can easily identify with him, unlike the usual heroes of hagiography, ancient or modern, whose vaunted perfection we suspect even as we admire it.

Born to nobility and with every advantage at birth, not to mention signs and prophecies of his eventual sainthood, Julian succumbs early to a secret bloodlust unleashed in the slaughter of animals. At the age of five he kills a mouse he catches eating crumbs from the altar. In its detail the mouse's death suggests the beginnings of the workings of guilt on Julian, in many ways a sensitive, high-minded child who is his parent's pride and joy:

His right hand acted with deft accuracy, flipping the bolt, its blunt end downward, and knocking the wee mouse lightly on the top of its head. The creature drew a tiny paw within his white pelt, paused thoughtfully, then lay down on his side and shivered and was still. The moist bead of an eye gazed universally upward; a single drop of red blood emerged from the nostrils; and the white mouse died.

Despite his initial shame at killing the mouse, the event kindles Julian's bloodlust. As a young man he develops into a preternaturally gifted hunter:

The hunter was as silent as starlight. The arrow alone made noise. Its feathers hissed a warning, but too softly. The lovely thunk of its bite in flesh brought Julian to life so brightly, so abruptly, he seemed to wake from some primeval slumber—already flying toward his prey, full of the knowledge of death. Yes! Christ, yes!

After one such daylong bloodbath in the forest, a dying stag prophesies that Julian will murder his parents. Horrified, he runs away from home to prevent it. He eschews hunting and for years serves king, emperor, and pope as an ascetic, selfless warrior, slaughtering hosts of the enemy (mostly the "infidel" Saracens) with a nearly supernatural skill and fury. For this, and for refusing the honors and wealth that others would shower upon him, he is considered the perfect saintly knight: " 'Holiness,' announced the Cardinal. 'Twas holiness broke the spirits of the infidel! … The Red Knight knows no mercy for the despisers of the Christ!' " Throughout, Wangerin's satire turns the world's perception of sainthood and holiness on its head.

Finally, as prophesied, in a fit of jealous rage Julian mistakenly kills his parents and becomes a horror to himself. And here Saint Julian spellbinds the reader with the anatomizing of guilt and its consequences. Wangerin never attempts to psychologize Julian's murderous impulses, which therefore seem the more monstrous and unaccountable—like Iago's plot against Othello, which Coleridge says springs from "motiveless malignity." We learn that Julian had several bloodthirsty ancestors, suggesting the legacy of original sin, but his parents are paragons of love and virtue. His sins occur almost casually, like those of the Ancient Mariner or Raskolnikov. The subsequent psychology of guilt and redemption, however, is scrutinized to a degree worthy of Dostoyevsky or Coleridge.

In his guilt, Julian presents a painfully thorough picture of masochistic self-loathing and revulsion that endures for years. Even mercy and beauty hurt him, as they do Satan in Paradise Lost. His wife's love torments him because of his self-hatred, and God's love because he believes himself beyond forgiveness. He longs to kill himself but realizes that in self-murder "he would kill his father for the second time." He recognizes that insofar as he has murdered one person, he has murdered all, and this understanding ultimately extends to the animals he slaughtered. Toward the end, Julian blesses the rats "with individual blessings." Again like the Ancient Mariner he has learned to love "All things both great and small."

The priest-narrator urges us to share Julian's experience, assuring us that Julian "is the Saint of every ordinary mortal," and to "take up residence in the tale of this saint—at the end of which … lies hope for us all." I agree that the story ought not merely to be read but somehow enacted on the inner stage of the soul. Indeed, the reader may feel vicariously lightened and purged by Julian's suffering and ultimate redemption as by an act of worship or by viewing great tragedy. Experiencing it may at the very least help us to remember with the confessed and absolved Julian that " 'Heavenly mercy never left thee … waiting, waiting for thee so to fail thyself that nothing is left but mercy' " (italics mine).

Saint Julian stands with Wangerin's best work, The Book of The Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows, The Crying for a Vision, and Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace. In their disturbing but mesmerizing stare into the abyss of human guilt and suffering, these books invite comparison to works like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Scarlet Letter, Crime and Punishment, and The Heart of Darkness.

In The Book of The Dun Cow the evil is largely external, incarnate in the form of Wyrm—a serpent like that in Norse mythology who holds the world in its coils. Imprisoned in the earth by God, it is barely restrained by the other animals:

They were the last protection against an almighty evil which, should it pass them, would burst bloody into the universe and smash into chaos and sorrow everything that had been both orderly and good.

In Saint Julian this evil is internal, the mystery of iniquity within human beings. Julian is an example writ large of one who does battle with the wyrm within. Years after receiving forgiveness and finding a modicum of peace in his life as a poor ferryman, the dying Julian experiences overwhelming grace. In ecstasy, he "knows in an instant of mortal relief: all his life's laboring was only wrestling. He burned out his little time in wrestling—first with God, and second with himself."

This theme of sin and redemption, of wrestling with God and the self, is central to Wangerin's work, and in Saint Julian he has given us an illuminated manuscript of a tale that reflects a brilliant light upon it and upon all of our lives.

Robert Siegel is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. His books include In a Pig's Eye and the Whalesong trilogy.

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