Briefly, the story is this. Fleeing a prophecy that he will kill both his parents (laid on him as punishment by a hart he was hunting), he moves away, marries and conveniently gets set up as a lord in a nicely feudal castle, as happens to so many unconnected vagabonds. When his parents find his castle, his wife invites them in, realises who they are, lavishes hospitality on them and gives up her bed to them, going to sleep elsewhere for the night. Returning home, he sees a man and a woman in his wife’s bed and kills them both in a fit of jealousy. As he emerges from the bloody chamber he meets his wife emerging, pointedly, from the chapel, and is slightly chagrined to hear her explanation. Realising that “whan I wende to eschewe this sorifull dede I most cursed haue fulfelled it” (144), he flees his castle and society and goes hermit – with his wife, who refuses to desert him. “And thanne they went togedre besides a grete flode where many men perisched, and there besides in that desert thei made a litell hospitall for to do there penaunce and for to bere ouer all tho that wolde passe” (ibid), until one day a horrible slimy smelly old leper turns up and says HELP ME ACROSS THE RIVER. Well, given the Greek-myth heritage of this story which has already been so obvious I didn’t even bother to use the word Oedipus anywhere, we know how this bit goes. He helps the leper, takes him in and feeds him and, because he's dying of cold, “toke hym in his armes and bare hym to his bedde and hilled hym diligently” (ibidetc). And lo and behold, the leper is secretly an angel sent by God to receive his penance and promise him that he will be taken to God soon. Incidentally, that “hilled” is probably “healed” but could also mean “cover, wrap” and possibly “embrace”. So perhaps it’s not surprising that if he was cuddling a leper (who probably had flu, and also fleas) in his bed, it was only “a litell after” that he and his wife both “slepten in oure Lorde Ihesu Crist”.
Just like Sir Gawain, this story invites diagrams. So:
There are other pleasing little contrast-dualities happening in the structure:
- Most obviously, Julian’s attitude to his guests changes from the initial monstrous misunderstanding of his duties as host (and son) to his parents, to the self-sacrificing devotion he shows to an unfamiliar leper (who stands in for his spiritual father). There are shades of a similar guest in the hart, not recognised by Julian even as human until it speaks, and thereby foreshadowing his slaughter of his parents.
- Wilderness vs. culture, where the first (initial forest, final flood) bracket the second and seem to be places of truth and self-knowing, while the second causes obscurity of the soul and blinds with frivolous things.
- More specifically, the bedroom vs. the church. Note that, while Julian was in his bedroom being murderous, lustful, prideful, greedy et al, his wife was in the church, dutifully at her morning prayer after being beautifully hospitable and giving up her bed to the guests. Both emerge from their respective spaces of darkness and light at the same moment, and it is the sight of her that initiates the revelation of Julian’s error (“and whanne he seigh her he hadde mervaile”, 144), removing his blindness.
- His wife has a pleasing sense of symmetry also, promising to stay with him in good time and in bad, “for sethe I haue parted with you in ioye I shall be partener of your sorw”. Their impending departure (and de-part in Middle English could also mean divide) “parts” the story into two, and there is a sense that her presence and her “part” in his fate will be a decisive factor in making this a clean break, providing a sort of rebirth.
- The initial promise of the hart is echoed and laid to rest in the promise of the angel, the first predicting dire acts and bloody division from his parents, the second imminent peace and reunion with his heavenly father.