Book Review

Narcissus and Goldmund

by Hermann Hesse

This isn’t really a book review, rather an excuse to include an excerpt from Herman Hesse’s superb novel in SCR. In order to introduce the excerpt, it will be necessary to say something about the characters. Narcissus and Goldmund are novices in a Catholic cloister in Germany in what seems to be the 13th century – the time of the plague. They are both in love, Goldmund, the younger, with Narcissus's beautiful soul, Narcissus with all of Goldmund – but he keeps his feelings within, like a good monk. He realizes that Goldmund is not made for the ascetic life because he is too much for this world, and loves girls. And he tells him so. The youth finally agrees and, at 18 years of age, he leaves the cloister to wander the world. Almost immediately he is seduced in the hay by a peasant farmer's wife. (He is a golden haired and tongued – as his name implies – beautiful, irresistible boy.) He likes being seduced so much that he turns into a seducer and becomes a champion of the peasant milieu. But the proverbial farmers' daughters are too well protected, so he must be content, for a time, with their wives.

But Hesse – or his readers – is a moralist at heart, so of course Goldmund changes abruptly by the end of the book and returns to the cloister, where he is warmly welcomed by Narcissus where he finally dies in his arms. This excerpt is from the middle of the book. Goldmund has wandered into a knight's castle, where his host admires his guest's learning and offers him room and board in exchange for being taught Greek. Goldmund agrees, also influenced by the knight having two young virgin daughters, Lydia and Julie, 16 and 14 respectively.

Frank Thomas Smith


As they ate their gruel for breakfast, everybody mentioned the first snow. Everyone –even the girls –had already been outside. Snow had come late this year, Christmas was not far off. The knight spoke about the lands to the south that were strangers to snow. But the event that made this first winter day unforgettable for Goldmund occurred long after nightfall.

The two sisters had quarreled during the day, but Goldmund knew nothing of it. At night, after the house had grown quiet and dark, Lydia came to his room in accord with her custom. Wordlessly she lay down beside him, leaned her head against his chest to hear his heartbeat and to console herself with his nearness. She was sad and full of apprehension; she feared that Julie might betray her; yet she could not make up her mind to speak to her lover about it and to cause him sorrow. She was lying quietly against his heart, listening to the tender words he whispered to her from time to time, feeling his hand in her hair.

But suddenly – she had not been lying there for very long – she had a terrible shock and sat up, her eyes growing wide. Goldmund was also greatly frightened when he saw the door of his room open and a figure enter. His shock kept him from recognizing immediately who it was. Only when the apparition stood close beside his bed and bent over it did he recognize with anguish in his heart that it was Julie. She slipped out of the coat she had thrown over her nightgown and let it drop to the floor. With a cry of pain, as though cut by a knife, Lydia sank back and clung to Goldmund.

In a mocking, triumphant, though shaking voice Julie said: “I don’t enjoy being in my room by myself all the time. Either you take me in with you, and we lie together all three of us, or I go and wake father.”

“Well, come in then,” said Goldmund, folding back the cover. “You’ll freeze your feet off there.” She climbed in and he had trouble making room for her in the narrow bed, because Lydia had buried her face in the pillow and was lying motionless. Finally, all three were in the bed, a girl on each side of Goldmund. For a second he could not resist the thought that not so long ago this situation corresponded to his most secret wishes. With strange anguish and secret delight, he felt Julie’s hip against his side.

“I just had to see,” she began again, “how it feels to lie in your bed, since my sister enjoys coming here so much.”

In order to calm her, Goldmund softly rubbed his cheek against her hair and caressed her hip and knee with a quiet hand, the way one caresses a cat. Silent and curious she surrendered to his probing hand, felt the magic with curious reverence, offered no resistance. But while he cast his spell, he also took pains to comfort Lydia, hummed soft, familiar love sounds into her ear and finally made her lift her face and turn it toward him. Soundlessly he kissed her mouth and eyes, while his hand kept her sister spellbound on the other side. He was aware how embarrassing and grotesque the whole situation was; it was becoming almost unbearable.

It was his left hand that taught him the truth: while it explored the beautiful, quietly waiting body of Julie, he felt for the first time not only the deep hopelessness of his love for Lydia, but how ridiculous it was. While his lips were with Lydia and his hand with Julie, he felt that he should either force Lydia to give in to him, or he should leave. To love her and yet renounce her had been wrong, had been nonsense.

“My heart,” he whispered into Lydia’s ear, “we are suffering unnecessarily. How happy all three of us could be now! Let us do what our blood demands!”

She drew back, shrinking, and his desire fled to the other girl. His hand was doing such pleasing things to Julie that she answered with a long quivering sigh of lust.

Lydia heard the sigh and her heart contracted with jealousy, as though poison had been dropped into it. She sat up abruptly, tore the cover off the bed, jumped to her feet and cried: “Julie, let’s leave!”

Julie was startled. The thoughtless violence of Lydia’s cry, which might betray them all, showed her the danger. Silently she got up.

But Goldmund, offended and betrayed in all his senses, quickly put his arms around Julie as she sat up, kissed her on each breast, and hotly whispered into her ear: “Tomorrow, Julie, tomorrow!”

Barefoot in her nightgown, Lydia stood on the stone floor, her feet blue with cold. She picked up Julie’s coat and hung it around her sister with a gesture of suffering and submission that did not escape Julie in spite of the darkness; it touched and reconciled her. Softly the sisters vanished from the room. With conflicting emotions, Goldmund listened intently and breathed with relief as the house remained deathly quiet.

The three young people were forced to meditate in solitude over their strange and unnatural association. The two sisters found nothing to say to each other, after they hurried back to their bedroom. They lay awake in their respective beds, each alone, silent, and stubborn. A spirit of grief, contradiction, nonsense, alienation, and innermost confusion seemed to have taken hold of the house. Goldmund did not fall asleep until after midnight; Julie not until the early hours of morning. Lydia lay torturously awake until the pale day rose over the snow. Then she got up, dressed, knelt for a long time in prayer before the small wooden Saviour in her room, and as soon as she heard her father’s step on the stairs went out and asked him to hear her. Without trying to distinguish between her fears for Julie’s virginity and her own jealousy, she had decided during the night to put an end to the matter. Goldmund and Julie were still asleep when the knight was informed of everything Lydia had decided to tell him. She did not mention Julie’s part in the adventure.

When Goldmund appeared in the writing room at the usual hour that morning, he found the knight in boots, vest, and girdled sword, instead of the slippers and housecoat he usually wore while they wrote. At once he knew the meaning of this.

“Put on your cap,” said the knight. “I have a walk to take with you.”

Goldmund took his cap from the nail and followed his master down the stairs, across the courtyard, and out the gate. Their soles made crunching noises on the slightly frozen snow; the sky was still red with dawn. The knight walked ahead in silence; the young man followed. Several times he looked back at the house, at the window of his room, at the steep, snow-covered roof, until all disappeared and there was nothing more to see. He would never see that roof, those windows again, never again the study, the bedroom, the two sisters. He had so often toyed with the thought of sudden departure. Now his heart contracted with pain, and it hurt bitterly to leave this way.

For an hour they walked in this fashion, the master going on ahead. Neither spoke, and Goldmund began to think about his fate. The knight was armed; perhaps he would kill him. But he did not believe that he would. The danger was small; he’d only have to run and the old man would stand there helpless with his sword. No, his life was not in danger. But this silent walking behind the offended, solemn man, this being led away wordlessly pained him more with every step. Finally the knight halted.

“From here on,” he said in a broken voice, “you will continue alone, always in the same direction, you’ll lead the wanderer’s life you did before. If you ever show your face again in the neighborhood of my house, you will be killed. I have no desire to take revenge on you; I should have been more intelligent than to allow so young a man to live intimately with my daughters. But if you have the audacity to come back, your life is lost. Go now, and may God forgive you!”

As he stood in the sallow light of the snowy morning, his gray-bearded face looked almost dead. Like a ghost he stood there, and did not move until Goldmund had disappeared over the next ridge. The reddish tint in the cloudy sky had faded, the sun did not come out, and snow began to fall in thin, hesitant flakes...

Hermann Karl Hesse (2 July 1877 9 August 1962) was a German-born Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. His best-known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual's search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In his time, Hesse was a popular and influential author in the German-speaking world; worldwide fame only came later. Hesse's first great novel, Peter Camenzind, was received enthusiastically by young Germans desiring a different and more "natural" way of life at the time of great economic and technological progress in the country. Demian had a strong and enduring influence on the generation of home-returners from the First World War. Similarly, The Glass Bead Game, with its disciplined intellectual world of Castalia and the powers of mediation and humanity, captivated Germans' longing for a new order amid the chaos of a broken nation following the loss in the Second World War.

By the time of Hesse's death in 1962, his works were still relatively little-read in the United States, despite his status as a Nobel laureate. A memorial published in the New York Times went so far as to claim that Hesse's works were largely "inaccessible" for American readers. The situation changed in the mid-1960s, when Hesse's works suddenly became bestsellers in the United States. The revival in popularity of Hesse's works has been credited to their association with some of the popular themes of the 1960s counterculture (or hippie) movement. In particular, the quest-for-enlightenment theme of Siddhartha, Journey to the East, and Narcissus and Goldmund resonated with those espousing counter-cultural ideals. The "magic theatre" sequences in Steppenwolf were interpreted by some as drug-induced psychedelia, although there is no evidence that Hesse ever took psychedelic drugs or recommended their use. From the United States, the Hesse renaissance spread to other parts of the world, and even back to Germany: more than 800,000 copies were sold in the German-speaking world in 19721973. In a space of just a few years, Hesse became the most widely read and translated European author of the 20th century. Hesse was especially popular among young readers, a tendency which continues today.