|St Julian the Hospitaller window |
in Rouen Cathedral.
The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier (La légende de Saint-Julien l'hospitalier) is a short story by Gustave Flaubert from Three Tales (1877) about the saint Julian the Hospitaller, inspired by a stained glass window that Flaubert saw in Rouen Cathedral in Normandy, France (the window was created in around 1220-30).
The story begins:
"Julian's father and mother lived in a castle in the middle of as forest, on the slope of a hill.
The four towers at its corners had pointed roofs covered with lead scales, and the base of the walls rested on blocks of solid rock which fell steeply to the bottom of the moat."
Julian's mother, Flaubert describes, saw a vision of a hermit in a moonbeam; he said, "Rejoice, mother, for your son shall be a saint!". She gives birth and her son grows up to be a keen hunter: too keen, in my mind, and he kills everything he sees. One day he sees an awful lot, slays it all, until a stag appears. He shoots that too, and -
"The great stag did not seem to feel it. Striding over the dead bodies, it came steadily nearer, apparently bent on attacking and disembowelling him. Julian fell back in unspeakable terror. Thee huge beast stopped; and with blazing eyes, solemn as a patriarch or a judge, and to the accompaniment of a bell tolling in the distance, it said three times:
'Accursed, accursed, accursed! One day, cruel heart, you will kill your father and mother!'
Immediately Oedipus springs to mind: as Sophocles wrote, Oedipus was told by Tiresias, "You are yourself the murderer you seek". The analogies don't end there: Julian believes, after two unfortunate accidents, that he has indeed killed his parents and he goes into self-imposed exile as Oedipus had done in Colonus, in Julian's case joining the army. He becomes famous for his strength and victories, and later marries the daughter of the Emperor of Occitania (which now encompasses southern France, Monaco, and parts of Italy). One day whilst he was out hunting, an old man and woman appear arrive at his castle and reveal themselves to be Julian's parents. Julian's wife provides them with food and drink and they question her about Julian before going to bed. When Julian returns he finds the man and woman in bed and assumes the woman is his wife and she is being unfaithful:
"In a burst of uncontrollable rage he lunged his dagger into their bodies, stamping his feet, foaming at the mouth, and roaring like a wild beast. Then he stopped. The two victims, pierced through the heart, had not even moved. He listened closely to the rattle of their dying breath, which came almost in unison, and as it grew fainter another in the distance took it up. Vague at first, this plaintive, long-drawn voice came nearer, grew louder, took on a cruel note; and to his horror he recognised the belling of the great black stag."
Julian realises that, as the stag predicted, he has in fact murdered his parents. He buries them, and then leaves to live the life of a beggar. One day he comes across a leper, and Julian feeds him, gives him drink, and then, extraordinarily, warmth by allowing the leper to lie naked with him, and:
"Then the Leper clasped him in his arms. All at once his eyes took on the brightness of the stars, his hair spread out like rays of the sun, and the breath of his nostrils had the sweetness of roses. A cloud of incense rose from the hearth and the waves outside began to sing.
Meanwhile an abundance of delight, a superhuman joy swept like a flood into Julian's soul as he lay there in a swoon. And the one whose arms still held him grew and grew, until his head and feet touched the walls of the hut. The roof flew off, the heavens unfolded - and Julian rose towards the blue, face to face with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who bore him up to Heaven."
The story then ends with the words,
"And that is the story of St Julian Hosptiator, more or less as it is depicted on a stained-glass window in a church in my part of the world."
It is a strange tale, and it's a very unpleasant one. This is a good example of a piece of fiction that I know is very good in terms of writing, but there was little I enjoyed about the story, aside from the Oedipus similarities. It's the second of the Three Tales, the first being A Simple Heart and the third, the one I'm most looking forward to, Herodias.
And that was my 28th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde.