Title: Narcissus and Goldmund
Author: Hermann Hesse
What I Think So Far: Narcissus and Goldmund is the epitome of a rich tale. Set in the medieval world of Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it is called at this point in history, it tells the tale of two men over a lifetime. Narcissus is the intellectual, precise, calculating, aware of himself. He knows who he is and what he will be, and as a result flourishes in his education at the Mariabronn monastery. Goldmund, however, is a precocious, innocent, sensual, unaware young man, who really has no set goal, and is only trying to become a monk to please his father. However, when Goldmund realises he is not meant to be a monk, he leaves Narcissus, and sets out on the life of a wanderer, leaving behind his friend at the monastery. He travels the world, in all its danger, glory, beauty, pleasure, death and pestilence, exploring the medieval world and all it can offer. Hesse’s writing is extremely rich in metaphor and imagery, almost like an artist would write. He almost literally paints a picture of the world and the characters that inhabit them – the eponymous protagonists, Viktor, a traveler, Lydia, a knight’s daughter and Robert, a pilgrim, are all especially well- written, in that they can be seen before you if you close your eyes when reading. The best way to describe it would be as an epic – an epic tale spanning a whole lifetime, watching Goldmund grow up, change and, fundamentally, look for meaning in the world, a vocation for himself as he wanders, and for the face of his mother that he sees every day.It has its roots in the harsh life facing the ordinary wanderer in medieval Europe, not in mysticism. While the story does begin with a monastery and the pious Narcissus, it quickly follows the one who breaks away from a life of solitude, Goldmund, and his journey through the world, where he quickly realises that one cannot follow God in such a harsh world. Indeed, it gets to a point where, after meeting a suicidal young woman during a plague epidemic, Goldmund goes to the nearest chapel and chastises God, imploring him to help and questioning his goodness. So it’s not a spiritual novel in that it does not explore religious spirit. Rather, it looks at the spirit of man, of awareness, of fulfillment, and calling in life. It’s almost pre-existential in terms of the philosophical ideas explored – “life is a swift blooming and an even swifter withering”, Goldmund notes, in typical fashion, noting the macabre nature of death and its bizarre beauty at the same time.
Would I Recommend It?: It’s certainly not a light read! As said earlier, it is an epic of the classical kind. But still, it is a gripping read. In contrast to some of Hesse’s other works, such as Steppenwolf or Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund is very ‘real’. It’s an unflinching portrayal of medieval life but is still a very worthwhile read. I would recommend it strongly.
By Gabriel Rutherford