Book Excerpts

Hermann Hesse and the Young Saint Francis

‘He was one of those hypersensitive children,’ Hermann Hesse wrote of his fictional Francesco Bernardone, the child that grew into St Francis of Assisi, ‘who in these earliest stirrings of the soul experience a sorrowful foreboding, a saddening intimation that all human joys are transient.’ This extract from his short story, The Childhood of St Francis of Assisi, portrays a boy trying to weigh the hopeful ideals of chivalry against the disappointing reality of his own young desires. 

Yes, one must have courage. If only to ride through a strange wilderness at night when the air was full of spooks and hostile magic and the path was bordered with caves full of dead men’s bones. Would he, Francesco Bernardone, have courage enough? And suppose one were taken prisoner and led before an infuriated Moorish prince or shut up in a bewitched castle! It wasn’t easy. It was almost unthinkable. It was terribly, terribly hard, and surely very few men were up to it. Had his father been up to it? Perhaps—who knows? But since there had been men capable of doing such things, since Orlando and Lancelot and all the rest had been capable of their exploits, what else could a young man do but try to become like them? Could he go on playing games for beans or planting pumpkin seeds, could he become an artisan or a merchant, or a priest or some such thing? 

Deep creases formed in his white forehead; his eyes disappeared under his knitted brows. Lord, it was hard to decide. How many must have tried and perished at the very start—young squires and knights, whom no princess ever heard of, whom no songs were sung of, whom no stable boy told stories about in the evening. They were gone, struck down, poisoned, drowned, hurled from cliffs, devoured by dragons, immured in caves. They had ridden forth for nothing; in vain they had suffered hardships and torment! 

Francesco shuddered. He looked down at his lean sunburned hands. One day perhaps they would be chopped off by Saracens, or nailed to a cross or eaten by vultures. Horrible. To think how many good things there were on earth, how much that was beautiful, pleasant, sweet to the taste. Oh, what good things! A hearth fire in the fall, with chestnuts roasting in it, or a flower carnival in the spring, with the daughters of the nobility all in white. Or a docile pony such as his father had promised him when he should be fourteen. But there were other things as well, much simpler things, hundreds and thousands of them, that were beautiful and precious. Such as sitting like this in the half-shade, with the sun on his toes and his back to the cool wall. Or lying abed in the evening, feeling nothing but the soft, gentle warmth and the mild twilight of his tiredness. Or to hear his mother’s voice and feel her hand in his hair. And there were thousands of such things, waking and sleeping, evening and morning, so much fragrance and so many sweet sounds, so many colors, so much that was lovely and caressing. 

Was it then necessary to make light of all that, to sacrifice and risk it? Just to slay a dragon (or to be torn to pieces by a dragon) or to be ennobled by a king? Did it have to be? Was it right? 

It never entered the boy’s head that no one in all the world, neither his father nor mother, demanded any such deeds of him, that only his own heart spoke of such things, dreamed of them and longed for them. He felt that such things were demanded of him. An ideal had taken form in his mind. A call had gone out to him, a flame had been kindled in him. But why was what seemed most beautiful, why was heroism so hard, so very hard? Why was it necessary to choose, to make sacrifices, to decide? Couldn’t you simply do the things you liked? Yes, but what did he like? Everything and nothing, everything for a moment, nothing for always. Ah, the thirst! The consuming desire! And there was so much torment and secret fear in it! 

 

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)
From: Stories of Five Decades

 

 

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