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
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.