The legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller seems to

have risen in the Middle Ages, and is today considered entirely

folklore. Possibly inspired by the story of Oedipus, it tells of a young

man of noble family cursed to commit an appalling, shameful crime. As

with Oedipus, his very efforts to make the crime impossible actually

bring it about, but Christians added the element of redemption, a

demonstration that no crime is beyond the mercy of God.

Author and clergyman Walter Wangerin Jr. has written Saint

Julian, a version of the legend (published 2003) in his own

dreamy, poetic style. It's not his best work, but it's worth reading for

those with eyes to see.

Medieval Christians believed that Julian lived at the beginning of

the Christian era, but Wangerin places it in the epoch that produced

it—somewhere in the Middle Ages, apparently during the Crusades. His

book combines the classic style of the hagiographical tale with the

allegory of Pilgrim's Progress. Julian is a sort of Everyman, or

Everychristian. Born to many advantages, blessed with physical beauty

and rich natural gifts, he falls—almost innocently, one might say—into

the sin of pride, seeing no need to curb his desires. His immoderation

leads to a great sin, which brings upon him the curse of the tale. And

when he commits his crime, it is again because of his intemperance. What

follows is a long journey to discover the miracle of grace, a journey

in which God is always guiding, generally unseen, along hard and painful

roads.

Saint Julian lacks the emotional peaks and valleys that broke

so many of our hearts in Wangerin's greatest novel, the delightful The

Book of the Dun Cow. In his attempt to mimic the style of

medieval chroniclers, the author starts the book slowly, and probably

loses a lot of readers along the way. The very universality of his

themes tends to make the characters one-dimensional, like figures in a

Gothic church painting.

Fans of Wangerin will enjoy Saint Julian, but not consider it

his finest work. Those new to him would do best to start with The

Book of the Dun Cow.

Lars Walker is a Minnesota fantasy author. His latest novel is West Oversea.