The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler

by Gustave Flaubert

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

In this tale, Gustave Flaubert chooses to re-create the vision of the world of medieval faith, and tells a venerable story as seen through the eyes of the twelfth century, even as such a story might be told in stained glass. The hero is followed through the twists of a plot where his predestined place as a saint is proven through the testings of life and sin, repentance and redemption. The world of Julian’s birth is a perfect realization of the ideal manor life. Julian himself is the answer to his mother’s prayers, and his christening is attended by the appearance of two divine messengers, each with a different prophecy. To Julian’s mother appears the shadow of a holy hermit, predicting that her son will be a saint; to his father comes a Bohemian mendicant who predicts military glory, much blood, and an emperor’s family. Both parents keep their visions secret and Julian grows surrounded by every fond hope. His underlying fault, an unconquerable lust for killing, is unleashed by his trapping of a white mouse that has disturbed him at Mass. From this point, at first encouraged by his parents in the medieval art of venery, Julian pursues a path that reduces him to the most savage of beasts, killing for the sake of killing, returning home matted with gore. One day, after a hallucinatory sequence of killings, Julian mortally wounds a great stag that turns and curses him in a human voice, predicting that he will kill his own parents. Again, the prophecy is kept as a secret, but Julian’s fears make life at home impossible and he must forsake the world of his childhood. Thus ends the first segment.

The second part of the tale sees Julian as a mercenary soldier, killing in battle rather than in the hunt, as he gathers an army and reputation about him, finally saving the emperor of Occitania from the caliph of Cordova. The emperor rewards this fairy-tale hero and slayer of dragons with the hand of his daughter in marriage. A true Arabian Nights princess, she brings a handsome dowry and castle with her. Julian attempts to adopt domestic happiness, but his blood lust and his fear of killing his parents torment him, and one night he runs out of the palace to hunt, pursuing a host of animals that he cannot wound, until they surround him and through the pressure of their bodies force him to return to his castle. In his absence, his wife welcomes a pair of aged pilgrims who prove to be Julian’s parents. She gives them her own bed, and Julian, returning in the dark, supposes them to be his wife and a lover and slaughters them, thus fulfilling the second of the prophecies. There remains only the third, of sainthood, to be realized as this second part of the tale ends.

Julian, having forsaken his wife and lands, becomes a wandering mendicant, forced by guilt to recount his sin of patricide and cast out by all men. He fears scenes of domestic happiness, the crowds in towns frighten him, and at the end of many wanderings he settles as a ferryman on the bank of a wide river. Profoundly repentant, he accepts the poor treatment accorded him by his passengers, lives on the most meager fare in a small hut, and attempts to atone for his sin by service to humanity. One stormy night, he ferries a hideous leper across the river. The leper demands shelter, food, Julian’s bed, and eventually the very warmth of his body. When Julian has given all these things, without shrinking, the leper is transformed into the radiant Lord, Jesus, and rises to Paradise, bearing the transfigured saint with him. This, the author tells the reader, is more or less the story of Saint Julian, Hospitaler, as it was told in the stained glass windows of a church in his home region.

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