Tarry Thou till I Come or Salathiel, the Wandering Jew – George Croly
Funk and Wagnalls – 1902 (Originally Published in 1828)
A long time ago, I read Paul Murray’s article on the greatest Gothic novels ever written. At that stage I had already read most of the books on the list*, and out of the ones I had not yet read, there was only one that I had never heard of: Salathiel The Immortal by George Croly. Murray’s description of the book reads:
“Now almost forgotten, the Reverend George Croly was a friend of the Stoker family. In Salathiel the Immortal (1829), there are similarities of predicament between Salathiel and Dracula (as well as with that of Melmoth the Wanderer). Salathiel led the mob which promoted the death of Jesus, in return for which he was condemned to the misery of the undead state. A reshaping of the Wandering Jew legend which underlies so much of the gothic genre, including Melmoth the Wanderer. Like Maturin, Croly was a Church of Ireland clergyman.”
I have emboldened all the parts of this description that convinced me that I would have to read this book. I looked it up to research further, but could not find a single review. Ohhh, the alluring mystique! I quickly ordered a copy online, and when it arrived, I was thouroughly impressed with the physical book. It was printed in 1901, includes several full page colour illustrations, and ends with a bunch of notes and critical essays. It’s about 700 pages of small text though, so it sat on the shelf for four years before I found the time to read it.
So, the Wandering Jew is a legendary character who was supposedly doomed to immortality after insulting Christ during the events leading up to his death. In this version of the tale, he is Salathiel, a priest of the Temple who had been gravely insulted by Christ’s heresy against traditional Judaism. Salathiel is the man who led the crowd demanding the blood of Christ. The book begins right at the moment of his exultation. As Jesus is lead to the cross, Salathiel hears a voice whisper “Tarry thou till I come” and understands that this is the voice of God telling him that he is going to have to wait around on Earth until Jesus returns on judgement day.
Ok, so we’re off to a good start: a cursed priest doomed to walk the earth until the end of time. Now this tale was originally published in 1828, so you would imagine that its 500+ pages cover a time period of almost two millennia. However, the protagonist’s most striking feature, his ability to survive for thousands of years, barely comes into play in the events of the story. The book ends with the destruction of the Second Temple, roughly 35 years after Jesus was crucified. Yes, Salathiel shows impressive endurance and manages to escape from some very tricky situations, but aside from the book’s title, first chapter and final chapter, there is very little in here that suggests anything preternatural about the title character; by the end of the book, he might be as young as 60.
Salathiel meets a sorceror and spirit (That’s him in the back.)
This book includes virginal maidens, gloomy dungeons, heros, tyrants, curses, bandits, miraculous survivals, clergy, secret passageways, night journeys, and strange spectres: in short all the things that one might expect to find in a Gothic novel. But these elements are strewn (rather sparsely I will add) amoungst 500 pages of historical fiction about the siege of Jerusalem. Realistically, this is a fairly dry adventure novel about a warrior who has little fear of death. The main character has to rescue his family from captivity about 5 times, he escapes from captivity himself about 10 times, and finds himself doing battle (both physical and mental) with countless foes. He becomes stranded on a desert island, he briefly takes command of a pirate ship, he plans devastating attacks against the Roman forces, and he does it all for the love of his wife and children. There are a few spooky parts; he meets a ghost, a magician and some strange spirits, but these events only make up a few paragraphs in this tome. Referring to this book as a Gothic novel is a bit of a stretch.
Just some of the adventures on which our hero finds himself
So maybe it’s not Gothic, but is it any good? Well, it took me well over a month to finish it. I found the first 300 pages or so to be very, very boring. In fact, when I was reading it, I started wondering if this was not a precursor to the modernist novel. I wondered if Croly had deliberately avoided mentioning the legend of the wandering Jew and instead focused on extremely boring details. The horrendously wordy prose inflicts a sense of brutal tedium on his reader, and this technique gives that reader a sense of what life would be like for an individual who was doomed to live forever. Is this a stroke of absolute genius, or is it just poor writing? It’s hard to say.
The characterization is quite awful. Aside from their names, Salathiel’s associates are mostly interchangeable; they’re either completely good or completely bad. Also, some characters reappear after hundreds of pages of absence, and the reader is expected to remember exactly who they are. The biggest problem is with the title character though. Aside from a few hasty moments when he is contemplating his daughters being courted by a goy, Salathiel, the hero of this novel, is a very sensible, rational, empathetic individual. The idea that he was the man that led the mob against Christ (the proverbial ‘Jew that broke the camel’s back’) is very strange indeed. I would not be surprised to find out that Croly had written the novel and tacked on the few Wandering Jew parts afterwards because he realized that nobody would be interested if he didn’t lure them in with a familiar legend.
LOL, keep walking, lil bitch!
Of course, the legend of the Wandering Jew is in itself quite bizarre. The idea is that Jesus put a curse on the lad for being mean to him. Let’s just recall that the fundamental belief of Christianity is that Jesus Christ died so that the sins of man could be forgiven. Isn’t it a bit odd then that he would personally inflict immense suffering on any individual for wronging him? Also, the nature of Salathiel’s trangression isn’t even that severe when you consider the context in which it occurred. He, a holy man, genuinely believed that Christ was a heretic trying to pervert his religion. Sure, it was a shitty thing to do to try to get him killed, but Salathiel seems genuinely remorseful afterwards. If Jesus had only cursed him with a bad dose of verrucas, Salathiel probably would have had to sit down for a while to contemplate his bad behaviour, and I reckon he’d quickly realize that he had been a bit harsh. He would have asked God for forgiveness, and if God had truly meant all the stuff that he had just had Jesus tell everyone, he’d have to forgive Salathiel immediately. As things currently stand, Salathiel is doomed to suffer regardless of how remorseful he is. Jesus is a hypocrite.
To today’s socially conscious reader, the title of this book might set off alarm bells. After all, the Nazis once made a propaganda film titled Der Ewige Jude (the German name for the Eternal/Wandering Jew). The legend of the Wandering Jew is doubtlessly anti-Semitic in its origins, but in fairness to Croly, I think it is safe to say that this book was not anti-Semitic by the standards of the time in which it was written; he’s definitely not attempting to demonize the Jews. He is however, more than happy to malign black people at every given opportunity. At one point he refers to Ethiopians as “Barbarians, with a tongue and physiognomy worthy only of their kindred baboons”.
In fairness, this book does pick up quite a bit towards the end, but overall, it’s really not that great. Tarry Thou till I Come will be a real treat for anyone with an interest in historical, religious fiction, but it’s likely to bore the pants off everyone else. If you want to go ahead and check it out, the text is available online at archive.org. Make sure that you read this version though, as some of the other versions online only contain the first two out of its three volumes.
Melmoth the Wanderer – Charles Maturin
Penguin – 2012 (Originally published in 1820)
Like I said earlier on, I bought my copy of Salathiel quite a while ago. I had originally planned to make this a comparative post weighing Croly’s book against Charles Stuart Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a book that I had read long before hearing of Croly’s. Unfortunately, so much time has passed since reading Melmoth that I can’t remember it terribly well. I do recall it being similar to Salathiel in the following ways:
- It is also excessively long.
- It is also about a cursed immortal.
- It was also written by a protestant clergyman from Dublin.
Unlike Salathiel however, Melmoth the Wanderer is very definitely a Gothic novel. Its title character is immortal due to his dealings with Satan, not Jesus Christ. I know that I enjoyed Melmoth, but I recall it getting a bit boring in places. Regardless, all book-goths are obliged to read this one. The cover of the edition of this book that I own is one of the reasons that I try not to buy modern reprints of old books. Luminous pink, turquoise and orange for the cover of one of the classics of Gothic literature? No fucking thank you Mr. Penguin!
*The following is the list of Paul Murray’s 10 favourite Gothic novels from the article that set me on the track of Salathiel.
- The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
- History of the Caliph Vathek by William Beckford
- The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
- The Monk by Matthew Lewis
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
- Salathiel the Immortal by George Croly
- Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Pecket Prest
- The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
Now that this post has been published, I have managed to review all of these books except Frankenstein. I’ll have to reread it and get it up here soon!