Tested to His Limit

Book cover
Saint Julianby By Walter Wangerin Jr.HarperSan Francisco. 240p $19.95

A quaintly phrased prologue seeks a “most gracious and deliberate” reader’s trust. The voice of “a minor cleric,” a preacher long at his post, reveals that he has committed “Davidic sins.” But now, in older age, he rests content in his work because of the study made of the life of St. Julian the Hospitaller.

Walter Wangerin Jr. takes advantage of a disparate and ambiguous medieval life of St. Julian to provide his own take on the saint’s life. The tale employs a characteristically faux-archaic style. Occasionally anachronistic in point of view and sensibility, the story has moments of high drama, mystery and genuinely medieval quaintness.

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Generalizing time and setting to a vaguely medieval Europe near its eastern border with the Saracens, this life of Julian follows the broad outlines of the legend. After a birth complete with miracle, Julian grows up the beloved son of a king and his wife. From his father Julian learns all the skills of the castle. From his mother he learns a love of music and a quiet demeanor. On his own he develops a passion for hunting: “So ravenous was Julian for the chase...that it seemed it must be a sinful thing, withal, and he kept it a secret, unconfessed.” The day before his knighting Julian sneaks out and slays all the animals in a nearby forest. When he shoots a stag, it speaks to him, saying he—Julian—will kill his father and his mother. In the next months Julian nearly kills his mother with a crossbow and his father with a mighty battle-ax. This latter incident elicits his impassioned cry: “O Christ, how thin is the glaze ’twixt love and brutality. A little heat only, and kissing is killing instantly.”

Julian leaves home and is not heard of again. But tales of a fierce, ascetic Red Knight begin to be told. One telling occurs in the hearing of Julian’s father’s faithful almoner. The Red Knight, it turns out, is Julian. After defeating the Caliph on the eastern borders, Julian settles down. But even with a loving wife at home, Julian is restless and unsatisfied. One day while he is plowing, an ox throws him down, and in his pent-up rage, Julian returns home to find what he believes to be his wife and another man in bed together.

His impulsive and violent response (you’ll have to read the book) sends Julian wandering abroad, a beggar, as his wife laments in terms that echo the Song of Songs. In time Julian becomes an itinerant scribe, but everywhere he goes he seems to see his mother and his father. In a scene redolent of something out of the Apocalypse, Julian determines to kill himself.

The story of Julian’s near suicide is powerful. Ragged and starving, Julian would have thrown himself from a precipice into a pool, except that he sees a man’s reflection in the water. Coming closer to the pool, with a large stone in each hand, thinking to have them drag him to the bottom, Julian mistakes his own haggard image in the water for that of his father. Julian cries “Peccavi,” and a voice responds. It is the almoner. They exchange verses of Psalm 51, and Julian weeps with contrition. The almoner disappears through a stone wall, which then opens to admit Julian to a newer, fresher season of life.

The novel’s climax comes years later. Julian has been a ferryman for travelers seeking to cross a river near his former home. He is called out on a stormy night by a leprous stranger seeking passage across the river. In this climactic event Julian is tested to his limit and in the end finds God.

A kind of epilogue to the novel asserts the story’s universality, and to an extent the claim rings true. The ideal of asceticism, the rejection of love and the devotion to service are themes that make this a typical saint’s life. But there are also elements that smack of a postmodern sensibility: like fascination with violence and an intense preoccupation with a child’s relation to its parents. Connected as they are with apparently private images, these latter themes seem almost autobiographical.

Mr. Wangerin earned an M.A. in English from Miami University of Ohio, and his work often contains idiosyncratic allusions. The chief character of both The Book of the Dun Cow and its sequel, TheBook of Sorrows, is a rooster called Chauntecleer, a name that recalls the famous tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And in Saint Julian, at the time of the young man’s knighting, we read the exclamation—apparently that of the cleric-narrator—“Ah my Chevalier,” a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover.”

As in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows, Wangerin in Saint Julian steers a course between a traditional realist and a fantastic style. The result may be unsettling for some readers. Take, for instance, the description of an event that follows Julian’s birth. After he is born and the mother seems to be bleeding to death, the child begins to cry. “And then, like a river conjoining, the tears gathered together and poured over her fallen womb, poured down her mons as down a grassy hill, finally flooding the fountainhead of his mother’s blood, the place of his own borning, to wash the wound and to heal it...as if it had never been torn.” Such a mixture of the fantastic and the clinical may be disconcerting for some.

Author of almost a dozen books, Wangerin is writer in residence and holder of the Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University. He has also published poetry, short stories and works on faith and spirituality. As even a brief comparison with his National Book Award-winning The Book of the Dun Cow will suggest, Wangerin’s is a mythic sensibility. The themes of self-sacrifice, forgiveness and penance run through both works. Even the notion of “[a] leader [who] lived to be sick of his life” (Dun Cow, p. 238), finds echoes not only in the character of Julian but also in the fictional narrator of his life.

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