Two weeks into his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Ansiau is attacked by wolves in a forest buried in snow. While he is able to escape, his comrade is not. Shortly after, Ansiau, 50-years old, loses his eyesight. In one of Oldenbourg’s more touching scenes, the reader too experiences Ansiau’s loss and eternal longing for one last sunset. But it’s not to be, for here there are no corrective surgeries or hospices for the elderly.
Rather, The Cornerstone is a historical tale set in a real yet distant time, a time without modern conveniences. Though Oldenbourg wrote The Cornerstone in 1953, to a modern reader, the medieval narrative reveals humanity’s fragility. After all, I’m writing this in an air conditioned room on a magical device called a “PC” while drinking my Starbucks mochachino. In our time, it’s all too easy to forget that we are not the masters of our universe.
The Cornerstone is not, however, nihilistic in either tone or outlook. Though it wrestles with questions of serving God and arbitrary suffering, it is a novel that also probes the depths of both human connection and morality. We see this in the way that the hedonist Herbert deals with his impending excommunication or Haugenier, Herbert’s son, endlessly searches for ways to best honor his father, though he refuses to respect him.
Yes, these are contextual problems. But Oldenbourg writes with such honesty and transparency that what is true for the medieval transcends both time and space. The medieval mind is not portrayed as either cute or quaint, but rather as filled with questions of both gravity and magnitude. In the end, The Cornerstone is the best kind of fictional history: it instructs, inspires, and imparts a renewed sense of historical context.