Author: Pär Lagerkvist
First published: Pilgrimen, 1966: Ahasverus dod, 1960 (The Death of Ahasuerus, 1962); Pilgrim pa havet, 1962 (Pilgrim at Sea, 1964); Det heliga landet, 1964 (The Holy Land, 1966)
Locale: The Mediterranean and Aegean seas and coastlands
Time: The Middle Ages
Ahasuerus (ah-hah-sew-AY-ruhs), the legendary Wandering Jew, identified in the narrative only as “the stranger.” He meets Tobias and Diana in an inn for pilgrims to the Holy Land and accompanies them until Diana is killed and Tobias subsequently boards a ship falsely represented as bound for the Holy Land. Ahasuerus has been cursed with eternal meaningless life for having refused to let Jesus, bearing his cross to Golgotha, rest against his house. To Ahasuerus, the Holy Land is death, the object of his longing. He finds death, and peace, after realizing that Christ was his brother in suffering, not his savior, and that God is for humans a hindrance to the divine, not the agent of their access to it. Like Sophocles' Oedipus, he acquires his insight after becoming blind; like Saul of Tarsus, he gains his revelation in a burst of bright light.
Tobias, a bandit, former soldier, and reluctant pilgrim to the Holy Land. Having chanced upon the day-old corpse of a middle-aged woman, a pilgrim bearing the stigmata (nail-wound scars of the crucified Christ), he vows, perplexedly, to complete her pilgrimage for her. He is followed by her dog, as Tobias in the Book of Tobit is followed by a dog. Tobias is a tormented man with repressed memories, an indefinable longing, and a bent for cruelty.
Diana, a huntress living in the wilds who, after being raped by Tobias, attaches herself to him and remains devoted to him despite his despicable treatment of her. She places herself in the path of an arrow aimed directly at Tobias. As she dies, Tobias, at her request, once more calls her Diana, the name he had given her. Tobias and “the stranger” bury her beneath an evergreen oak, the tree sacred to the goddess Diana.
Tobias, a pilgrim to the Holy Land aboard a pirate ship that is not bound there. When the opportunity to transfer to a veritable pilgrim ship is offered to him, he chooses to remain with the pirates and continue his pilgrimage on the “holy” but meaningless sea (emblematic of existence). Aboard the pirate ship, he listens to the story of Giovanni.
Giovanni, a priest who was defrocked and excommunicated after having been discovered in a love affair with a noble-woman whose confessor he had been. The woman, married, had confessed to him a true love, whose picture she carried in her locket. Giovanni stole the locket and found it empty: Her true love did not exist. He kept the locket and wore it constantly as his most valued possession. Giovanni notes also that the noblewoman had undertaken a pilgrimage of penitence to the Holy Land but failed to reach it. Tobias concludes that true love and the Holy Land exist, but only as illusive human goals.
Tobias, a pilgrim to the Holy Land who has become a member of a pirate crew. He chooses to remain with Gio-vanni when the pirates maroon the disabled former priest. Living with Giovanni in the ruins of a temple on a bleak coastland, he experiences strange vestiges of the Olympian and Judeo-Christian religions: a nativity attended by herdsmen, an unearthed icon of the temple god, augury, and sacrificial rites. Wearing the empty locket after Giovanni's death, he ascends the hills into Aftonland, a world of perpetual twilight. Resting in an area of diminished darkness, he converses with the blue-clad Virgin Mary, who is transformed into the blue-clad girl whom he had impregnated when he and she were barely pubescent and whose life and death he had obliterated from his memory. With her return to him in Aftonland and her avowal of constant love for him, he realizes that his pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been in fact a pilgrimage to the true love that always lay within him. As his true love removes his locket and places it upon herself, he is witness to her bright effulgence and dies in great peace.
Giovanni, the defrocked priest, whose pirate life is ended by old age and blindness. Cared for by Tobias, he remains bitter and cynical until Death, in the form of a lady who carries a venomous snake in a basket, removes his locket and, as Giovanni dies in peace, places it on Tobias' neck. His blindness and death recall the end of Ahasuerus. The removal of the locket defines the end of quests for true love, Giovanni's quest marred by the bitterness of unrequited love, and Tobias' culminating in humanistically salvific love from the Blue Lady.