Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Wandering Jew

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From the first written version of the tale – in a Latin chronicle set down in Bologna in 1223 – the WJ appears more frequently in the literatures of Europe than almost any other single figure. He is the central Accursed Wanderer of Europe, and, though the pattern of his story has profound archetypal roots (the Legend of the Wild Hunt – with its hints of Christianity's victory over the worship of Odin – is a close cousin), he is so potent a figure that he exists independently of any source.

The basic Story is straightforward. At some point on the road to Calvary, weary from carrying the cross on which he will be crucified, Christ rests at a door for an instant; in some versions he asks the owner of the house – most commonly a cobbler from Jerusalem named Ahasuerus – for some water. But Ahasuerus rebuffs Christ angrily, saying "Get off! Away with you!" or "Go where you belong!" Christ responds either "Truly I go away, but tarry thou until I come again" or "I sure will reste, but thou shalte walke" (in the version quoted in Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry [anth 1765]). In either wording the message is clear. Ahasuerus – or Cartaphilus, or Buttadeus, or Isaac Laquedem – is condemned to wander the Earth without surcease until the Second Coming. Sometimes his Immortality takes the form of eternal middle age; sometimes he ages from early manhood to senescence, then falls into a stupor only to reawaken as a young man. In early recountings, Ahasuerus is seen as haunted, haggard, irreproachably and constantly remorseful; in later versions he remains haunted but is more and more frequently depicted as a man made wise by experience. He is occasionally allowed to die – like his less resonant seafaring latecomer analogue, the Flying Dutchman.

There is no real mystery behind the widespread appeal of the WJ. Immortality itself – though for the most part conscientiously disparaged in all but the most recent versions of the legend – is of course an intriguing subject, and much longed for, at least in the imagination of readers. But immortality needs a story; the initiating scene that begins the tale of Ahasuerus is dramatic and detailed, and his consequent fate is to remain embedded in history. This interminable Bondage to the world gives Ahasuerus unlimited access to experience, bestowing upon him a far more relevant worldly wisdom than is granted to Cain. Moreover, not only does Ahasuerus, by remaining eternally alive, sanction Christian belief in the Second Coming – an event he validates simply by continuing to await it – but, even more resonantly and romantically, the subtext of his tale is that of the triumph of Christianity over the elder faiths: his long durance is a parading of the defeated foe.

The main reason for the popularity of the tale may be the simplest explanation of all. Unlike that of Faust, Don Juan, Herne the Hunter or the Knight of the Doleful Countenance (or any other iconic figure from European cultures), the tale of the WJ is one of dramatic irony, a parade which passes in secret (though the reader is often given that secret, or guesses it, long before the rest of the cast is allowed to know). Because he is immortal, and because he is cursed, Ahasuerus never lives in the open; in almost any rendition of the tale, his identity must always be discovered, or confessed. Almost every narrative in which he appears – putting to one side the relatively late category of the first-person reminiscence – plays on secrecy, and gains suspense through delaying the moment of revelation. The WJ is an engine of story.

After the 13th-century manuscripts – the most notable being the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris (circa 1200-1259) – the first significant appearance of the legend in print comes in a 1602 pamphlet which purports to recount various sightings of the WJ during the previous century. This pamphlet was variously expanded, modified, and translated into various languages, ultimately inspiring texts like The Wandering Jew Telling Fortunes to Englishmen (1640); and by the middle of the 18th century the basic story was profoundly familiar. By around 1770 in Germany, the Sturm und Drang ["Storm and Stress"] Movement had begun violently to promulgate images of unmitigable passion and openness, of rebellious vitality as embodied in great men; and the story of the WJ – sometimes recounted through imagery perhaps more appropriate to the story of Prometheus – provided an extremely useful Template. Der ewige Jude (1783) by Christian Schubart (1739-1791) was the first text fully to exploit the image of the WJ as a larger-than-life wanderer; its translation into English in 1801 was influential upon Percy Bysshe Shelley and others. Other German Romantics who composed versions include Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) and Adalbert von Chamisso (1781-1838). In England, the WJ appears in Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796), in St Leon (1799) by William Godwin (1756-1836), in George Croly's Salathiel (1828), in The Undying One (1830) by Caroline Norton (1808-1877), in George MacDonald's Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876) and in Philip Norton's Sub Sole (1890). In France, Ahasuerus features in Jan Potocki's Manuscrit Trouvé à Saragosse (1804 and later), in Edgar Quinet's Ahasvérus (1833) – an extremely complex narrative poem in which the WJ, accompanied by a fallen Angel who loves him, passes down the centuries as the central figure of a Pariah Elite – most famously in Eugène Sue's The Wandering Jew (1844-1845) and in Alexandre Dumas's Isaak Lakadam (1853), which remained unfinished. Other 19th-century versions of the story include Hans Christian Andersen's Ahasverus (1844), an epic poem which remains untranslated.

Only a few of the innumerable 20th-century versions need mentioning. The figure is mocked by Guillaume Apollinaire in L'Heresiarch et cie (coll 1910; trans as The Heresiarch and Co 1965 US). In Gustav Meyrink's Das grune Gesicht (1916; trans as The Green Face 1992 UK) the WJ is the eponymous Mask-like visage which prefigures the end of the world. An extremely popular play, The Wandering Jew (1920) by E Temple Thurston, carries the WJ through world history until the 16th century, at which point he is allowed a redemptive death; it was filmed as The Wandering Jew (1933), with Thurston's own The Wandering Jew * (1934) novelizing the play. In Robert Nichols's "Golgotha & Co", which appears in Fantastica (coll 1923), the WJ is a defiant industrialist who successfully disparages the point of any Second Coming. George Viereck and Paul Eldridge presented the story in My First Two Thousand Years: The Autobiography of the Wandering Jew (1928; cut 1956) as a revisionist mockery in which the WJ searches happily for unending pleasure. Evelyn Waugh provides a walk-on part in Helena (1950). In Pär Lagerkvist's Sibyllan (1956; trans as The Sybil 1958 UK) and Ahasverus' död (1960; trans as The Death of Ahasuerus 1962 UK), Ahasuerus is dourly defiant to the end. There are further appearances in Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Liebowitz (1960), John Boyd's The Last Starship from Earth (1968), Herbert Rosendorfer's Der Ruinenbaumeister (1969; trans as The Architect of Ruins 1992 UK), The Wandering Jew (1981; trans 1984 US) by Stefan Heym (1913-2001), Raymond E Feist's Riftwar sequence – where he is recorded as the father of MerlinSnail (1984) by Richard Miller (1925-2006), David Langford's and John Grant's Earthdoom (1987), centrally in The Wandering Jew (1987 chap) by Michelene Wandor, in Deborah Grabien's Plainsong (1990), where he fathers a replacement Christ, and in Wolf Mankowitz's A Night with Casanova (1991). He is linked to the Fisher King in Susan Shwartz's The Grail of Hearts (1992).

Studies include The Wandering Jew (1881) by Moncure Daniel Conway (1832-1907), George Y Anderson's The Legend of the Wandering Jew (1965), and Brian Stableford's introduction to his anthology of stories, Tales of the Wandering Jew (anth 1991). [JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.