The Juggler of Notre Dame

Readers, I’ve done it. I successfully defended my dissertation, and I’m just cleaning up the last little edits (and a few more substantive edits, because there will always be one!) before submitting it and graduating. But the brunt of the work is done and defended and I can take a deep breath and look backwards and forwards.

I feel happy. I feel sad. I feel a twinge of regret at saying goodbye to such a big piece of work. I also feel a certain pride in laying it down and saying, “I did my best. Here’s my story.”

And while I feel a certain sorrow in leaving the academic world which has been my world for my entire life, to a certain degree, I also feel excitement for the next adventure.

At this juncture, as I come to a close in one part of my life, I want to talk about a triptych of books which I’ve been hoarding. They feel very personal to me on two levels:

a) I’m a medievalist, and will always be a medievalist, even if I’m not an academic, and these are modern retellings of a medieval story;

b) I find the notion of laying your own personal talent at the feet of some higher power resonates with me very deeply.

To understand this point, I first need to talk about the story that is told in these three retellings of the same story: The Juggler of Notre Dame (that links you to all of the books, as well as to a glorious colouring book, at the HUP). In it, a juggler (jongleur, or minstrel) ends up joining a monastery, where the monks are kind to him but he feels out of place. How can he, a juggler, serve the Blessed Virgin? He cannot write her books or pray properly or sculpt her image as the other monks do! What can he do? The answer is simple and poignant: he lays his own skills at her feet, quietly slipping into the chapel to juggle and perform all the tricks he knows for her. In the original story, Jan Ziolkowski tells us in the Introduction to the edition illustrated by Maurice Lalau, the juggler dies of exhaustion as he works, but his soul is saved by intercession of the Virgin. In the editions presented here, the juggler lives. Instead, the monks, spying on him, are initially shocked by his boldness at juggling in the chapel, until they see the Virgin descend to wipe the sweat of his exertions from his brow, and they realize his gift is accepted.

I have been speaking as though all three editions here are of the same text; they are not. The Barbara Cooney story is a little simpler and honed for modern children. It’s a beautiful Christmas story, talking about the real meaning of gift-giving. The other two versions are told by Anatole France, gracefully and straightforwardly translated by Jan Ziolkowski. They’re at a slightly higher level, both in terms of language and of concept, and are both illustrated in a style very consciously drawing on Medieval manuscripts. All three are beautiful. (I initially bought only one, thinking that would satisfy me. It did not. I went back and got the other two and now I’m happy. You really need all three. Sorry about that, but there’s no help for it.)

So much for the straightforward story. Why, though, do I love it so, and why have I been hoarding it delightedly, waiting for this day to come when I finished my big work and could share this with you? First of all, simply put, these are some of the most beautiful books I own– and in my urging to you to buy all of them, I’m not being stupid. These are as lovely as Folio Society editions, and are wildly, crazily under-priced– no more than any ordinary hardcover picture book (i.e. $12-20)! It’s insane that they’re priced like this, and you should take advantage of the insanity. The art is extraordinary, the front-matter and explanations are both enlightening and heart-warming.

In his wonderful Introduction to the Lalau illustrated edition, Jan Ziolkowski discusses the history and the reach of this story– and its analogues, including the Chassidic story of the shepherd boy who opens the gates of prayer with his earnest pipe song on Yom Kippur. I single that out as it was particularly meaningful to me, being a story I heard growing up (and may talk about here one day!) through Barbara Cohen’s tender and gentle story, Yussel’s Prayer. The research, in short, is impeccable, wide-reaching, and unfailingly meaningful. You will learn a whole new world just by reading the Introduction, but you will grow even broader by reading and thinking about the stories, and your eyes and brain will be refreshed and inspired by the art.

Jan Ziolkowski in assembling this collection has achieved two things simultaneously: he has educated everyone at every level, from child to adult, about a truly worthwhile story; and he has, I firmly believe, taught every reader a little more about humanity in the process. This is, of course, the ultimate goal of academic work in the humanities; to teach humans how to be the best humans we can be. (Or so I believe!) My dissertation, for example, I hope teaches a little more about the beauty of poetry, and that poetry renders us bigger, tenderer, more human– that was my intention. Jan’s collection here teaches about the beauty and generosity of the human soul.

I waited until now to write up the Juggler stories because I loved them too much to share them until I had full, unrestricted brain space to think them through. Even now I worry that I’m not getting across the full beauty of the books. And yet, how can I, without storytime and the chance to project images on a full screen for you? These are books to experience in person, not just through a review.