Narcissus and Goldmund is a novel by Hermann Hesse set in Medieval Germany. It’s about a Christian monk, Goldmund, who one day wanders in the fields a bit too far while gathering herbs and encounters a gypsy woman who asks him to make love.
At this point Goldmund realizes he has an eye for the ladies and was never meant to be a monk. He departs from monastic life, saying goodbye to his close friend and teacher Narcissus, to discover truth through lived experience. In his travels he has several romantic affairs, trains to be a master carver and encounters the horror of the Black Death.
Narcissus represents a stereotypical – or in the Jungian sense archetypal – clergyman bound by rules and regulations whereas Goldmund is a free-thinking, creative seeker.
At the end of the novel the two characters, although estranged throughout most of the narrative, meet up and are reconciled. They reflect on their different paths, the spiritual artist and the theological thinker, and discuss philosophy and science in a way that has been criticized as “too modern” for a historical novel.
I personally didn’t mind this, probably because I read the book as a teenager. Had I read it today, I might have found the lack of historical accuracy a detriment. But as a youth, I wasn’t overly concerned with historicity.
Hesse was a friend of the depth psychiatrist C. G. Jung, the former once saying that they belonged within a secret circle of mystics.¹ Hesse has always been a psychological, philosophical and spiritual author, so to try to make him into something like Umberto Eco² is misguided. It’s like comparing Drake to Frank Sinatra, saying one should have been more like the other.
On the Web:
To this GradstudentCCC adds:
Hajo Smit’s summary contains an error about the ending. He says:
“Goldmund was so deeply disappointed that he gave up his trip and returned to the monastery, pretending that he had an accident.”
This isn’t the case at all. In the end of the book Goldmund *did* have an accident, in which he broke his ribs. He didn’t return to the monastery until much later (even after staying in a hospital for a while). He was very ill from the accident and returned to the monastery in time to die.
¹ (a) See footnote 2, p. 288 in my doctoral thesis (search “Hesse”): http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq21958.pdf
(b) At that time I was just embarking on the inner life – hardly realizing it at first – and thinkers and novelists like Jung and Hesse provided some kind of road map, however imperfect, to help make sense of my experience.
² I talk a little bit about Eco at earthpages.ca < https://earthpages.wordpress.com/?s=Umberto+Eco+ > but the best place to get a feel for him is from one of his more knowledgeable admirers >> https://stuffjeffreads.wordpress.com/?s=Eco