In Diana Wynne Jones’s 1981 children’s fantasy The Homeward Bounders, the 12 year old main character Jamie meets the Wandering Jew. A homeless man with filthy clothes and hair, he appears sprawled out in a city park. “His watery black eyes gleamed with a mad light,” we read, “and his nose stuck out from below them, sharp and long and starved.” He rants to Jamie about a cabal of powerful beings who control the world.
The Wandering Jew is a rather more grim and, shall we say, culturally loaded figure than one expects to encounter in a late twentieth-century children’s fantasy, though the scholar Farah Mendlesohn notes that The Homeward Bounders is “one of Jones’s most frightening books.” Jones, moreover, is considered one of the great writers of children’s fantasy partly because she so often defied the expectations of the genre. Mendlesohn calls her career “a sustained metafictional critical response” to fantasy literature.
Jamie’s story begins in his English home town in the late nineteenth-century, when he inadvertently witnesses Them. They—the italics are used to designate Them throughout—are sinister beings who run Jamie’s world and hundreds of other worlds besides. The Wandering Jew was telling the truth. It turns out that each of these worlds is one of the games They play.
And not just any games, but ones that resemble the newly popular Dungeons & Dragons and table-top wargames of the early 1980s. They even play these games with the assistance of machines that sound a lot like personal computers, circa 1981.
Jamie sees Them at play when he peeks through a window in Their nondescript headquarters. Their secret discovered, They turn Jamie into a “discard,” doomed to wander from one gameworld to the next until he can find his way home.
Luckily, he makes some allies on his quest, including similarly accursed figures from legend: Prometheus, chained to his rock by Them, and the crew of the Flying Dutchman also consigned by Them to endless punishment. When Jamie arrives in a world much like Jones’s own contemporary one he meets another one of Their victims: Ahaseurus, the Wandering Jew, who tells Jamie and his fellow “homeward bounders” how to free themselves from Them.
Jones offers a twist on a figure that has long fascinated writers and readers. A Christian legend, the Wandering Jew story emerges in the thirteenth century: a Jew, later named Ahasverus or a variant thereon, who refuses to let Jesus rest on the way to the crucifixion is punished with endless wandering until the Second Coming. The popularity of the tale dates from sixteenth-century Germany where it was used as a viciously anti-Jewish motif connected with end-of-the-world speculation. In the seventeenth-century it spread throughout Europe and has never lost its allure—or its ability to take on new meanings.
Hundreds of stories, novels, poems, and works of art and music feature the Wandering Jew. By virtue of “the intelligence of his beggardom and long life,” writes Edgar Rosenberg, “each age recreates the Wandering Jew in its own image.”
In the eighteenth century, the character’s longevity let him give voice to the Enlightenment’s historical and cultural relativism. The romantics, on the other hand, loved cursed immortals, and so the Wandering Jew, a defiant revolutionary in Shelley’s poem Queen Mab, for instance, found affinity with other early nineteenth-century figures such as Charles Maturin’s creepy Melmoth the Wanderer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ageless occultist Zanoni, and the most famous of the romantics’ undying outcasts, Mary Shelley’s monster.
Lionel Trilling observed that in the nineteenth century the Wandering Jew becomes more heroic but less Jewish, though in George Croly’s historical novel Salathiel (1827) he is a Jewish freedom fighter in the time of Jesus. In David Copperfield, published a few years after Eugene Sue’s widely read Le Juif errant (1844, The Wandering Jew), Charles Dickens never directly mentions the legend yet makes the motif of eternal wandering a mark of devotion and goodness, suggesting the figure is much on his mind. In a French chronicle published around 1830, the Wandering Jew reaches the North Pole, while in an 1846 German vignette he is condemned to endless bouncing after devising a rubber suit.
The character makes his first literary appearance in English in Matthew Lewis’s lurid gothic novel The Monk (1796). In a novel that juxtaposes the Protestant light of reason with Catholic obscurantism, the Wandering Jew is an in-between figure, a kind of occult detective who assists the party of light with his knowledge of darkness. He uses the relics of the past—a crucifix, saints’ bones, and possibly the blood of Christ—to exorcise a ghost of the Catholic past. As noted in a previous post, this combination of the magical and the demystifying marks other gothic novels and their Jews.
The character’s relativism was pushed to its nineteenth-century extreme by Paul Féval, a French writer whose recent recovery in English we owe to the translations and literary-historical excavations of Brian Stableford. In The Wandering Jew’s Daughter (1867), Féval responds to the Wandering Jew vogue of his time not by ironing out the contradictory iterations of the legend, but by assembling a Doctor Who-style convention of Wandering Jews. One of them sounds the jaunty eclecticism that shades into total skepticism:
I’m an orthodox disciple of Voltaire, but fundamentally, you understand, I know too much not to be a good Catholic. As far as philosophies go, in 1,800 years I’ve seen those of every shade. Here’s the general formula: at the bottom of every schism, as at the bottom of every revolution, there’s some bold fellow who has done something silly and is biting his fingers about it, or an imbecile who’s nobody and wants to be somebody.
Gustav Meyrink, an enthusiast of the occult, brought the modern occult and Wandering Jew together in his 1916 novel Das grüne Gesicht (The Green Face). Set in Amsterdam in the apocalyptic atmosphere of the World War, the novel’s characters experience visions of the Wandering Jew, a green-faced “ancient wanderer who will not taste death,” and who represents the destruction and uncertain transfiguration of humanity in the modern world.
Searching for the source of these visions, the characters attend a meeting of a heterodox mystical society whose members have all taken on “spiritual names” in the manner of occult groups such as those of Arthur Waite and Aleister Crowley. These include a caftaned Russian Jew who goes by “Simon the Cross-bearer,” a Salvation Army worker dubbed “Magdalena,” and a butterfly collector named “King Solomon.” They debate kabbalah, psychology, and war.
Meyrink is particularly interested in the upheavals of modernity as they are experienced by the novel’s Jewish characters (that is, apart from the Wandering Jew). Such experience is particularly awful in the case of “Simon the Cross-bearer,” whose wife and children were murdered, and eldest daughter raped and burned alive in front of him, in a pogrom. In the novel he is wrongly charged with a murder. (An echo of the 1913 Beilis affair in Russia?) Yet because he has studied kabbalah with the Wandering Jew, who he associates with the prophet Elijah, Simon attains a state of dispassion beyond grief and despair.
A second Jewish character in the novel, Dr. Ishmael Sephardi, is told by the Wandering Jew to create a Zionist state in Brazil, where the language will be “an international language that would gradually come to be used by all peoples,” a reference to Esperanto (itself the creation of a Jew).
George K. Anderson concludes his 1965 survey of the legend by observing that “the outlines of Ahasuerus are steadily becoming fainter,” and that “the godlessness of the twentieth century . . . bids fair to annihilate him.” The figure is, he reflects, surely inadequate to the reality of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. Yet Anderson does not expect the figure to disappear permanently: “He has died before and come back to life.”
Indeed, the same year that Jones published The Homeward Bounders, the East German writer Stefan Heym published Ahasver (English translation The Wandering Jew, 1983), in which Ahasverus is one of the rebel angels who, as in Jewish midrash, protests God’s decision to create man. His former comrade Lucifer seeks to prove humanity’s worthlessness and is expelled to Hell, though he shows up in the novel’s present day as a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ahasverus thinks mankind can be reformed through earthly means—a commentary on the socialist project—and is exiled to earth as the Wandering Jew.
A few years ago I reviewed two highly praised novels featuring female Wandering Jews, both published in 2018. In Sarah Perry’s Melmoth (the name is borrowed from Maturin), the figure is an eternal witness to human cruelty with none of the consolations of religious belief. The subjects of her visitations are bystanders, and sometimes worse, to genocides, religious persecution, misogyny, and the deportation of illegal immigrants. A kind of progressive gothic novel, Melmoth asks: Why go on when humanity is so ugly? Why go on when each of us is so implicated in the injustices of the world?
Dara Horn’s Eternal Life also asks: why go on? By which Horn, a Jewish writer of considerable erudition, means: why continue the Jewish story through our children and children’s children? More than any other Wandering Jew novel, Horn’s wrenches the myth out of its Christian context, turning it into a story of Jewish compassion. Unable to die, Horn’s protagonist struggles with the pain of seeing her loved ones grow old and die, knowing she will forever outlive them. Yet she always decides to remarry, start a new family, and raise more children—she has mothered hundreds—before inevitably moving on, phoenix-like, to a new body and another life.
Prior to The Homeward Bounders, modern fantasy literature had not made much of the Wandering Jew. There have been a number of cursed immortals, like Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, and a prominent Wandering Jew or two in science fiction. The rather Jewish Shmendrick the Magician of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) is punished with immortality, though there isn’t much connection to the legend otherwise. Avram Davidson and Ward Moore’s Joyleg (1962) features a Tennessee backwoodsman whose immortality allows satire of contemporary American pieties, as the Democratic and Republican politicians who try to claim him as a party spokesman discover. Though both Davidson and Moore were Jewish, their character is not, and he gains his immortality from bathing in whiskey.
When the Wandering Jew has been taken up in fantasy it has brought with it the question of what to do with the legend’s anti-Jewish background. One approach is seen in James Blaylock’s The Last Coin (1988), which gleefully plunders the props of Christian legend while avoiding literal fidelity to the creed.
Blaylock’s novel is built around the thirty silver coins for which Judas betrayed Jesus, yet it departs wildly from the biblical narrative. We learn that the infamous pieces of silver are prehistoric talismans (“old when the Cities of the Plain had burned”) and that the episode of Jesus and the moneychangers was really an attempt to thwart the coins’ evil influence, since anyone who comes into possession of all thirty gains immense magic power. Judas, having once possessed all thirty, became immortal but is contrite, transformed into “the Wandering Jew whose penance for the sin of betrayal was the two-thousand-year task of keeping the coins apart.”
Charles Williams’s occult thrillers are clearly an influence on Blaylock’s alternately madcap and frightening tale, part of a series of occult fantasies Blaylock built around Christian artifacts. But in keeping with the southern Californian setting, the moral framework of these books is less Christian than Californian. The Last Coin’s goofball hero Andrew is motivated not by faith but by his own charming and genial idiocy. The villain is a temperamental cousin of Williams’s nefarious Persimmons, and also a fan of corporate waterfront development.
And while the Jesus of the gospels chose fishermen as his apostles for the fishing up of souls, Blaylock uses the motif as an expression of the fundamental weirdness of the universe. Andrew recalls how the prehistoric coelacanth, thought to have been extinct for millions of years, had been netted by fishermen on the African coast beginning in the 1930s. “That’s how Andrew felt,” writes Blaylock, “as if nothing at all would surprise him: aliens landing in saucers . . . the discovery that the Wandering Jew was at work tinkering with the earth as if it were a clockwork mechanism.”
In contrast with Blaylock’s footloose approach to Christian myth, Susan Shwartz’s somewhat turgid 1992 fantasy romance The Grail of Hearts is literal in its Christianity. It adheres closely to the gospel narrative, which it retells from the standpoint of the Wandering Jew, and to Christianity’s claims for Jesus as messiah and son of God. Blaylock, by loosening the connection to Christian myth, allows the Wandering Jew and even his Judas some freedom from, or at least indifference to, the tradition of Christian antisemitism. Shwartz’s book reinforces it.
Shwartz has said that the novel grew out of her fascination with Wagner’s opera Parsifal. Her protagonist is the opera’s Kundry, a Jewish woman from the time of Jesus who is cursed to live forever because she mocked the crucifixion. Shwartz enlarges this role by giving us the familiar Christian narrative of the Jewish woman, oppressed by the cruel legalism of Judaism, liberated through Christian love—and the love of a Christian man. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is the best-known example of this plot.
Anti-Jewish stereotypes abound. While Jesus and his Jewish followers are kindly, the other Jews of the novel are obsequious and greasy, representations of Old Testament brutality or Pharasaic hypocrisy as per the Christian polemical tradition. As in Wagner, the villain of the story is a sorcerer who, while not identified as Jewish, is bound up with enough anti-Jewish motifs to make the association felt. In Shwartz’s most significant departure from the gospel narrative, the Jews are not directly responsible for the execution of Jesus—this is the sorcerer’s doing—but they are still accursed and only to be redeemed through Christ, as Kundry is at the novel’s conclusion.
Shwartz has Kundry travel through time between the antiquity of Roman Palestine and the novel’s “present” of legendary Broceliande, an enchanted Christian realm of knights who serve the Holy Grail. This Arthurian-Wagnerian setting liberates the Jew from the dead law of Judaism into the living myth of Christianity. For Shwartz, Arthurian fantasy is where the Jew can finally shed her accursedness, find her Christian lover, and be saved.
Let us return, after much wandering, to Jones’s Homeward Bounders. Departing from both Blaylock’s and Shwartz’s approaches, Jones moves in a more political direction. Her book reveals that the Wandering Jew legend is a deception created by Them to cover up their cruel torment of Ahasuerus and keep him from spilling Their secret. They will not allow Ahasuerus to express himself clearly, but here is what he manages to tell Jamie:
They put a lie in my mouth, so that I may not tell the worlds about Them, but must say that I sinned against God. But this is a lie […] I saw the gaming-board of Them and I saw the game They played with the nations. And I went out to preach and warn my people of Their coming ploy. And, for that reason, They took me, Ahasuerus, and hung chains upon me, and sent me forth with lies in my mouth, and I am called the Wandering Jew.
The Wandering Jew is not a sinner against God, but someone who, like Jamie, has caught a glimpse of the puppet-masters pulling the strings of our world. The legend itself and its antisemitic content, Jones implies, is an intentional distraction from real power arrangements.
“They gave me to hope,” Ahasuerus said. “They hung me in hope as one in chains, and put a goal before me and set me on my way. But that goal always retreats from me, as mirage in the wilderness or star from star. I am weary now, and hope is a heavy burden.
As Jamie comes to understand, Ahasuerus is telling him that, to defeat Them, one must give up hope, the “heavy burden.” In the context of the novel, this means that while They present Jamie and his fellow “homeward bounders” with a set of rules that promise a chance at a future victory and homecoming, he needs to realize that the game is rigged. No victory is possible as long as he plays by Their rules.
Though Jones is not Jewish and it is doubtful she had this in mind, I am reminded here of the words of Gershom Scholem about the messianic idea in Judaism. “There is something grand about living in hope,” writes Scholem, “but at the same time there is something profoundly unreal about it.” Scholem cautions that hope “diminishes the singular worth of the individual, and he can never fulfill himself” since his is necessarily “a life lived in deferment” (Scholem’s emphasis), waiting for the game to be won. Scholem saw the Zionist project, a political, thisworldly homecoming for the Jews, as a salutary alternative to messianic hope.
Jones’ political critique of hope as an opiate, however, points more towards 1980s Cold War concerns. “What worries me,” says a boy Jamie befriends in the contemporary world in which he finds Ahasuerus, “is that this world—my world—has to be a game […] And when They start playing Their next war, it’s going to be a nuclear one.” Moreover, Ahasverus’s remark that “there is power in numbers,” and the novel’s conclusion, suggest a politics in which the dispossessed, no longer distracted by false hope, unite to overthrow the powerful who game with their lives.
The most unsettling aspect of Jones’s novel, though, is that victory over Them comes with a price. Because of the nature of the gameworld universe, one discard must remain forever homeless, must see all realities as both potential and imaginary, in order that everyone else can live in them as real worlds.
Jamie takes on this burden. “As long as I don’t stay anywhere long,” he explains, “as long as I keep moving and don’t think of anywhere as Home, I shall act as an anchor to keep all the worlds real. And that will keep Them out.” As a discard, Jamie is unable to die, and we learn at the end that although he looks twelve years old, he is really over a century old because of his travels among the worlds.
In other words, Jones turns her book’s boy-hero into a Wandering Jew. His friends will grow old and die, and he will keep circling around the various worlds, a sacrifice for our well-being. “You can get on and play your own lives as you like, while I just keep moving,” Jamie tells us, and concludes the novel: “But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get.”
This chilling ending suggests that, in addition to the 1981 ambience of gaming and computers, and of nuclear disarmament politics, there may be another period aspect: the academic vogue for René Girard and the French sociological tradition concerning the centrality of sacrifice. Girard saw all human societies as based on a scapegoat mechanism, the need for a sacrificial figure whose elimination allows the society to cohere. Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred was translated into English in 1977 and was reaching the peak of its influence at the time Jones published her rather Girardian children’s book.
If this seems especially bleak for a fantasy novel, we should remember Jones’s own love for Tolkien, whose lectures she attended at Oxford. In her 1983 essay on narrative structures in Lord of the Rings, Jones notes that Tolkien’s hero Frodo cannot remain part of the happy ending he has enabled for others. He has “widowed himself from history, just like the Elves”—and, we may note, like Jones’s Wandering Jamie—“and must now go off upon the Sea like the rest.”
She continues: “This kind of equivocal ending where winning and failing amount to the same . . . is exactly what should have been expected. You Were Warned. For good measure, you knew that life never comes round to a happy ending and stops there.” The searing gloss to Tolkien’s sad wisdom added by Jones’s improbable children’s fantasy is to remind us how lonely it gets.
Anderson, George K. The Legend of the Wandering Jew. Providence: Brown University Press, 1965.
Blaylock, James. The Last Coin. e-book, Jabberwocky Literary Agency, 2012.
Feval, Paul. The Wandering Jew’s Daughter. Trans., ed., and intro. Brian Stableford. Black Coat Press, 2005.
Jones, Diana Wynne. The Homeward Bounders. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2010.
–. Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. Intro. Neil Gaiman. e-book, HarperCollins, 2012.
Mendlesohn, Farah. Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition. New York and London: Routledge, 2005. e-book, ProQuest Ebook Central.
Meyrink, Gustav. The Green Face. Trans. Mike Mitchell. Dedalus, 2004.
Roberts, Marie. Gothic Immortals: The Fiction of the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
Rosenberg, Edgar. From Shylock to Svegali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Scholem, Gershom. “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism.” Trans. Michael A. Meyer. In The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken Books, 1971. 1-36.
Shwartz, Susan. The Grail of Hearts. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1992.
Trilling, Lionel. “The Changing Myth of the Jew.” Commentary 66: 2 (August 1978), 24-34.
Weingrad, Michael. “The 2,000-Year-Old Women.” Jewish Review of Books, 8 March 2019.
 Jones 2010, 166.
 Mendlesohn 2005, 50, xiii.
 For the history of the Wandering Jew I rely on George K. Anderson’s indispensible 1965 study.
 Rosenberg 1960, 188.
 On the relativistic Wandering Jew see Anderson 1965. For connections with other romantic immortals see Roberts 1989.
 Trilling 1978. See also Anderson 1965, 188.
 Anderson 1965 mentions “references to the Wandering Jew” (190) by Dickens, though not specifically in David Copperfield, and also discusses Sue (231-39). The North Pole and rubber suit examples are from Anderson 1965.
 Feval 2005, 85.
 Meyrink 2004, 49.
 Ibid., 205.
 Anderson 1965, 394-95.
 These remarks on Perry and Horn condense my review (Weingrad 2019).
 Blaylock 2012.
 Shwartz 1992.
 See Shwartz’s “Author’s Note” in Schwartz 1992.
 Jones 2010, 169.
 Scholem 1971, 35.
 Jones 2010, 183.
 Op. cit., 266.
 Op. cit., 267.
 Jones 2012.
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