(c) HS & HHP 12/4/98 GG
Summary of Hermann Hesse's book

Narcissus and Goldmund

First published 1930. The story is set in the Middle Ages.


In the old monastery of Mariabronn lives the abbot Daniel, "who might be a saint, but he was not a scholarly man. His was the simplicity, which is indeed wisdom." In the same monastery, we find the novice Narcissus, the youngest teacher. "They couldn't get close to one another", although they have a mutual sympathy. Already by this time, Narcissus believes that he will stay in the monastery forever and make his career there, as he has "a feeling for the character and destination of men, not only for his own, but also for others'." In these days, the abbot has to settle a dispute between Narcissus and an older jealous colleague. The abbot reprimands Narcissus, because he did not obey to the older and consequently superior colleague, but at the same time utters the wish, that "you may ever have a superior, who is more stupid than you are: there is no better cure against arrogance."

Goldmund, a novice, enters the monastery. Like Narcissus, Goldmund is very beautiful. Goldmund's horse stays in the monastery. His only relative now is his father, who chased away his mother, as she ("a gypsy") led a life of sin.

Goldmund's entry into the monastery is more or less a penance for his mother's sinful lifestyle. He hardly knows anything about her and his relationship with his father is not really close. Goldmund would wish "to stay in the monastery forever and dedicate his life to God."

Goldmund and Narcissus like each other, but as Goldmund is a pupil and Narcissus is a teacher, they don't become friends. Both feel an affection for one another, understanding that one is a danger to the other. This makes Goldmund ill and disobedient. One night, Goldmund joins his fellow pupil Adolf to the village, where he has a first taste of love with girls in a farmhouse. But after coming back, Goldmund feels guilty. Narcissus takes care of Goldmund. The polarity between the two gets clearer and clearer. Narcissus is the ascetic, the thinker, who does not tolerate love to come into his life, even though he loves Goldmund deeply. Goldmund sees his love unrequited. Goldmund is a man of love, Narcissus is a man of the mind. They are totally unequal and this inequality is (as Narcissus sees it) the meaning of their friendship. Narcissus says to his disappointed friend: "It is not our aim to merge into one another, but to understand one another, to see and appreciate the other as he is: the other's contradiction and complement." 

As a thinker, Narcissus does not take Goldmund seriously. "You are not a scholar, nor a monk. In my view, you are not enough yourself." On the other hand, Narcissus sees himself as "awake", totally conscious of himself, whereas Goldmund is only "half-awake". To Goldmund he says: "You forgot your childhood, it seeks for you from the depths of your soul." This confuses Goldmund, who understands that Narcissus hits the demon which possessed him. He flees to the most lonely part of the monastery to loose his mind and die there.

The abbot calls Narcissus to account and remembers the words of Goldmund's father: the father had tried to repress in the little boy the memory of his mother. And this is, as Narcissus sees it, Goldmund's problem. The helpless Goldmund sees his mother in his dreams. She says to him: "You forgot your childhood." Then Goldmund wakes up and remembers his mother consciously. "How could it have happened that he forgot her!" Yes, Narcissus was right: "He had found the way to himself, and he owed it to Narcissus." But Narcissus stays at a distance, feeling that his influence over Goldmund fades. Goldmund only thinks of his mother. The paths of the two young men reach a parting point. Narcissus: "We don't have to quarrel anymore: you are awake, you recognized the difference between you and me, between the motherly and the fatherly origins, between soul and mind."

Narcissus advises Goldmund: "Ask your mother, ask her image, listen to her." In Narcissus' view, their ways are now separated. He retreats from the social life of the monastery for meditation. Goldmund has to rely on himself. Often, he thinks of his mother's voice, of her eyes. Then one day, Goldmund is ordered to collect herbs for Father Anselm, the doctor of the monastery. In the forest, he meets a woman, Lise. She initiates him into love. Goldmund thinks, he will always stay with her and says farewell to Narcissus, but Lise sends him away, as her husband has missed her during the night.

And so Goldmund travels through the world, loving, working, being lazy, until he arrives at the castle of a count, who, after a turbulent life on crusade, writes down his autobiography, and looks for someone who writes Latin, the scholarly language of the time. As the season is autumn, Goldmund takes the job. He becomes friends with the count's two daughters. First, he tries to get a romance with the older one, Lydia, which is not easy, as she calls him shameless. But Goldmund pretends that he courts another woman, which makes Lydia jealous and she gives in. Some time later he even has sexual contact with her sister Julie - until Lydia tells everything to her father and Goldmund is dismissed. He leaves the castle, goes tramping around and meets another vagabond, named Victor. Victor is older than Goldmund, a cheerful fellow who tries to sell all sorts of things. But Victor wants to know where the count's castle is, and looks for Goldmund's money: in short, there is a problem. One night, Victor tries to steal Goldmund's gold coin, a parting gift from Lydia. Goldmund first pretends to sleep, then fights with Victor and kills him. 

Goldmund, lonely as he is now, goes tramping again, goes from girlfriend to girlfriend, until he can't stand it anymore and finds a place to stay in a cloister. Here he confesses all he did to a father confessor. This helps him to find calmness and rest and he is impressed by a wooden carved image of Mater Dolorosa. He finds out that it was done by Master Niklaus. Goldmund makes a test piece for him (an image of Narcissus) and is accepted as an apprentice. Goldmund reveres Master Niklaus as a craftsman, not as a human being: Master Niklaus is nothing more than a moderate, orderly and decent citizen. After one year of learning Goldmund has learned everything. He now works on an image that depicts the apostle John, for which he takes Narcissus as a model. He dedicatedly works at it and feels: "It was Narcissus, who served himself of his craftsmanship, to step out of the transitoriness of life and to depict the true image of his character." However, Goldmund regards this work as a preparation for his image of Mater Dolorosa. An artist should make "images of the soul", and not (as Master Niklaus does) untrue images for the sake of greed and ambition. Goldmund stays more than three years with Master Niklaus, until his masterpiece, the image of John, is ready. Standing in front of the image, he feels the everlastingness of art and the transitoriness of his own life. Master Niklaus is very enthusiastic about the work and offers Goldmund to be his successor and marry his lovely daughter Lisbeth. But Goldmund thinks that he can't make a piece of art like this another time and also criticizes Master Niklaus' bourgeois lifestyle.

One day, on the market, Goldmund looks at the fish being offered for sale. Why are people so numb and crude, so insensitive? "Why didn't they see the mouths of these fish in pain, their deathly frightened eyes? "These people saw nothing, knew nothing, nothing touched them." He thinks of the transitoriness of his own life, of the face of the universal mother who is looking at birth and death, flowers and decay, sad and pensive. "It is mystery I love and pursue the figure of the universal mother, for example In it, the greatest contradictions of the world, which normally cannot be combined, have made peace only in this figure: birth and death, tenderness and cruelty, life and destruction She is alive in me, time and again I witnessed her." From this time on, he does not want to follow art, but solely the Mother. He gives up a worldly love and travels on.

On his journey, joined by a new friend called Robert, he is refused entry into a village: the plague had broken out here. Spellbound, Goldmund looks at the dead corpses in a farm: "They had a fascination for him, it was all full of greatness and fate, so true, so direct." But Robert fears the plague and wants to flee. However, the abandoned farms are full of food, so they stay and have a life of luxury. They are joined by a new friend, Helene. Robert fears that she is infected with the plague, but Goldmund falls in love with her. They live together in the forest, and when Helene asks Goldmund, what's going to happen in future, he answers that he will leave her then: "There is no happiness that lasts long." One day, Helene, who is already pregnant, is raped by a man, who bites her. Goldmund conquers the man. Helene looks at the fighting men "with a bewildered expression on her face, full of lust and admiration." Goldmund thinks: "One should draw that!" At night, Goldmund sees the "Face of Eve, it looked dark and heavy, but suddenly it opened it's eyes widely, big eyes, full of lust and bloodthirst."

The rapist's bite has infected Helene with the plague, and Goldmund cares for her until she dies in his arms. Then he sets fire to the house and leaves.

Traveling, he witnesses the different reactions of people to the catastrophe. Some flee, others have orgies in these last days of their lives. The Jews are accused of the plague and in one town the complete ghetto is burned. In a monastery he sees a newly made painting: "Dance of death". He now takes a different approach to death. "Death was no longer a warrior, a hangman or a rigid father, death was now also like a mother or a beloved one, it's call was a call of love, it's touch a shudder of love." He falls in love with Rebekka, a Jewish girl, who denies him physical love, which he understands. In an empty church Goldmund prays: "My God, did you totally forget us and leave us?"

Goldmund goes back to Master Niklaus, but he died caring for his daughter Lisbeth, who thus survived the plague. During the daytime Goldmund draws, at night he finds a new girlfriend, Agnes, who unfortunately is loved by the commander of the town. Goldmund is caught and will be hung the next day. A priest will hear his confession in the early morning. The priest turns out to be Narcissus, who ransomed Goldmund. Narcissus is now the abbot of the Mariabronn monastery and has adapted a new name: John. Goldmund and Narcissus have a lengthy dialogue, how God can rule a plague-ridden world like this. Narcissus: "I always revered the Creator as perfect, but never the Creation." Goldmund found in art "the defeat of transitoriness". The original image (archetype) of a good work of art is not a living creature, although it may be the reason for it. It is spiritual. It is an image, which originates in the soul of the artist." Narcissus sees these images as "visions in the creative mind, which can be materialized and visualized." Such a vision is an "idea". Finally both agree. "Now, we can be friends again", Narcissus says.

Goldmund and Narcissus (now called John) return to the monastery, for which Goldmund will serve as an artist. In a discussion, Narcissus again tells the difference between both men. Goldmund always had "a dislike of the abstract", he always thought in images, but "thinking has nothing to do with images, but with concepts and formulas. Exactly there, where the images end, philosophy begins." If Goldmund would have become a thinker, he would have become a mystic, and mystics "are all unhappy people". Goldmund became an artist, which pleases Narcissus: "Be yourself, try to fulfill yourself." In this way, one can reach perfection. Narcissus admits: "I don't want to talk about the moral issue, but pure thinking (which to exercise and teach is my duty) practically requires a certain protection from the world." Goldmund never enjoyed this protection, which is why Narcissus admires him.

Goldmund starts working for the monastery. Narcissus hears his confession, by which Goldmund reaches some peace. Narcissus does not reprimand his friend for his sins, but for his neglect of praying, confessing and going to the Holy Communion. When Goldmund's work, a decoration for the lectern in the refectory, is ready, Narcissus admires it: "Now, I know who you are."

Gradually, Goldmund gets restless again. He longs for love, but "for the first time he felt that he appeared old to a young woman." When his apprentice Erich finishes his masterpiece, an image of Maria which resembles Lydia, whom Goldmund loved when he was the count's translator, Goldmund leaves the monastery again. Narcissus reflects on himself and his friend: "How poor he was, with all his knowledge, his monastic discipline, his dialectics!" When the summer is over, Goldmund returns: a broken man. Unwillingly, he confesses to Narcissus what happened: he had heard that Agnes, the city commander's girlfriend, was in the area again and wanted to visit her. "But she didn't want to know me anymore." Goldmund was so deeply disappointed that he gave up his trip and returned to the monastery, pretending that he had an accident. He is a broken man. Narcissus now tells him: "Let me now tell you, how deeply I love you, how much you always have been to me, how rich you made my life", and kisses him. Goldmund: "I have always loved you, Narcissus, half my life has been an attempt to attract you." Goldmund is now willing to die, "as it is still my belief and my dream, that I am traveling to my mother." He believes that he will not be taken away by death, but by his mother, "who takes me to her again, and leads me back into nonexistence and innocence." He dreams about his mother: "Now she is death, she has her fingers in my chest." He would have wished not to die until he would have made an image of her, but "instead of me shaping her, it is she shaping me. She does not want that I visualize her secret." On his deathbed, he feels sorry for Narcissus: "But how will you ever die one day, Narcissus, if you have no mother? You can't live without a mother. Without a mother you can't die."

Narcissus cares for his friend, until he dies. "Goldmund's last words burned in his heart like fire."


Summary by Hajo Smit. Email: hrsmit@casema.net