Study Guide

The Tobias Trilogy

by Pär Lagerkvist

The Tobias Trilogy Summary

The Novels (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Tobias trilogy, to which Pär Lagerkvist gave the title Pilgrimen (the pilgrim), is a continuation of two earlier novels, Barabbas (1950; English translation, 1951) and Sibyllan (1956; The Sibyl, 1958). In those two novels, Barabbas and Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew in The Sibyl, both wander away from the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion in quest of spiritual peace. Each, in his own way, is seeking death; more precisely, each is seeking to have truly lived, so that he can truly die. Their quest is continued in the persons of Giovanni and Tobias in the Tobias trilogy. Variously and at different personal levels, Barabbas, Ahasuerus, and Giovanni succeed in the quest. Tobias alone succeeds transcendently and seemingly in full. Together, the five novels constitute a pentalogy or, since the pentalogy begins and ends in the context of the three crosses on Calvary, a crucifixion cycle.

Ahasuerus in both The Sibyl and The Death of Ahasuerus is, apart from the second title, not named; he is called simply “the stranger” or is referred to only as a man. Like Barabbas, he has been caught in an association with Christ, which has propelled him into a lifeless existence of wandering. For each man, the wandering ends in a death implicit with having lived, a death that proves to have been the object of a troubled quest.

In The Sibyl, Ahasuerus moves westward from Palestine to Greece. At Delphi, he meets the Sibyl, a priestess whose parents committed her life to the service of the temple god, a composite of Dionysus, whose spirit is manifest in goats, and Apollo, whose spirit is manifest in snakes. She relates to Ahasuerus her infidelity to the god in her attempt to love a mortal man. The man was consequently destroyed after the Sibyl was impregnated not by her human lover, as she had at first thought, but by the god. The child to which she gave birth, in isolation and attended only by goats, is an idiot (in the original Greek sense, a private person), a solipsistic son of God. This son, changelessly smiling and still having the face of a child, although now gray-haired, sits in the presence of his mother and Ahasuerus but disappears unnoticed by them while his mother tells her story and, like the Palestinian Son of God, ascends to his Father. Ahasuerus then continues his wandering.

The Tobias trilogy begins with Ahasuerus’ meeting Tobias in an inn that accommodates pilgrims who travel to the Holy Land. Ahasuerus appears to have moved physically farther west from Greece to, presumably, Italy and temporally further from the age of primitive Christianity to the era of cathedrals and conventional pilgrimages to the Holy Land (that is, from the latter half of the first century to no earlier than the fourth century).

Tobias is an unusual and very individualistic pilgrim. His individualism is stressed in Pilgrim at Sea, the second novel of the trilogy, as Giovanni tells him, “You are making a pilgrimage to suit yourself and in your own way” and as he himself decides that it is best “to choose oneself, just as one is, to dare to be just as one is without disapproving of oneself.” Tobias was once a scholar, soldier, and criminal. His determination to become a pilgrim was forged by his chancing upon a recently deceased pilgrim, an old woman who bore the stigmata. When Ahasuerus meets him, Tobias is accompanied by the old woman’s dog. Also in Tobias’ company is a young woman whom he has raped and made his consort and to whom he has given the name “Diana” because of her hunting prowess and her affinity with nature. Diana, herself proficient with a bow and arrow, steps in the path of an arrow that is aimed at Tobias and saves his life at the cost of her own. The arrow was shot by unseen hands, possibly those of bandits. Ahasuerus, a witness to Diana’s sacrifice, suggests to Tobias that the arrow was actually intended for Diana and was aimed at Tobias so that Diana could find a happy death in sacrifice.

Ahasuerus, having spent two days and two nights with Tobias and Diana (during which Tobias, in a moment of great anger, kicked his dog to death, and Diana later took the arrow into her heart) continues to accompany Tobias for an indefinite number of days until they...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)